AT UCLA, SHIFTING RACIAL TERRAIN
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Los Angeles Times
12:02 PM PDT, September 30, 2008
CA

A professor recently quit the admissions board out of suspicion that
black students were being disproportionately favored. But on campus,
a search for reaction quickly becomes a lesson in itself.

It's kind of hard to talk about affirmative action in college
admissions when you have a black man from the Ivy League leading in
the home stretch of the race for the nation's presidency.

How much more proof of equal opportunity do we need?

But I was alarmed last month by the stance of a UCLA political science
professor who resigned from the school's admissions committee because
he suspects that "cheating" on the admissions process accounts for
the recent jump in blacks. He quit in protest after UCLA officials,
citing privacy concerns, declined to give him access to student
applications to test his suspicions.

The number of black freshmen jumped from 96 students in 2006 to 235
students this fall. That's in a freshman class of almost 5,000.

Dwindling black admission at UCLA has been a source of hand-wringing
for years, since the state voted to outlaw the use of race as a factor
in admissions decisions. Now numbers are beginning to climb, thanks
to outreach efforts and a switch to a holistic admissions process that
considers students' life circumstances, not just GPA and SAT scores.

I worried about the message the professor's protest would send to
UCLA's black students. So I visited the campus Monday to find out
how they were faring during this first week of classes.

Did they feel isolated, unwelcome, invisible?

I worried about not finding enough black students to talk to. What
I didn't count on was my own confusion:

I couldn't tell who the black students were.

The first girl I approached looked at me blankly when I began my
interview. Turns out she's not black, but Indian. The daughter of a
convenience store owner, the first in her family to attend college.

The brown-skinned guy with big sunglasses and bushy hair? Not black,
but Armenian.

The young man on the skateboard, wearing a polo shirt and an Afro pik
in his hair, was black, but waved me off. He was late to political
science class.

Most of the black students I spoke with didn't want me to use their
names. "It's counterproductive to complain," one freshman from Long
Beach said. "I'm here, I'm grateful for the opportunity. I'm not
going to get caught up in what people think."

And I found myself pondering my own awkward position. How long do I
hover, waiting to approach a black girl who is deep in conversation
with a white classmate, to talk about racism and isolation?

It made my mission seem like an irony. And I felt like a dinosaur,
trying to use my circa-1970s orientation to interpret today's shifting
racial terrain.

I was looking for someone to "represent," to give voice to my own
concerns and frustrations over black access to higher education.

They were worried about finding Haines Hall, cramming for the
semester's first test, making it to biology class.

Then I spotted Steven Williams seated alone at a patio table on the
commons near the School of Law. I figured he wasn't a freshman; not
just by the gray in his beard but the look of detached bemusement on
his face as he surveyed the bustling yard.

At 43, he's not your typical UCLA student. He's a Fairfax High graduate
with a checkered history: a series of dead-end jobs, a 10-month prison
term for passing bad checks, unrelenting family drama.

Four years ago, he got serious about education, enrolled in Los Angeles
City College and resurrected his high school dream of becoming a
Bruin. With a 3.75 GPA and a resume loaded with community service
commitments, he transferred from City College to UCLA as a junior
this fall -- one of 100 black students admitted as transfers.

Does the controversy over black admissions bother him? Yes, but he's
a generation older than most new students -- closer in age to me than
to them. "My first thought was 'Here it is 2008 and we're still caught
up in this '40s mindset, people trying to hold us back,' " he said.

But like me, he got a quick reality check.

On his first day of class, he had a set-to with a professor over
a scheduling error. He was fuming, until he encountered a black
administrator who noticed his distress. She talked him down and shared
another perspective.

"She told me it was just a difficult day for everybody. They were
busy, frustrated . . . Not to take it personally. Because it wasn't
about me at all.

"I was ready to believe it was racism, but she kind of took me behind
the scenes to look at it from another way."

Chalk that up as the first lesson of the new semester, for the new
student and the dinosaur.