For Minorities, UCLA Can Still Fulfill Dreams, Open Worlds
When I was in high school in the late 1930s, my counselor advised me not to go to college. I was urged instead to pursue a career with the post office; this was presumed to be the most promising future to which black youth could aspire. Don’t settle for being a janitor, I was told--aim high: Become a postal carrier. However misguided, this advice was in fact quite commonly dispensed to even the brightest black students then.
I took no offense; I’d already made up my mind that I was going to college. Almost every day, my mother told me how important it was for me to get an education in order to succeed. It’s even more true today than it was then. Education is the best and most direct road to success in our society. Education has historically been one of the only paths along which minorities and the disadvantaged could make the transition into mainstream American life.
Although we were poor when I was growing up in South-Central Los Angeles, I really did not realize it because I was so nurtured and sheltered with the love, support and motivation that my mother, my family and the community gave to us all. From the seventh grade on, UCLA was my goal, and no one could convince me to accept anything less.
UCLA was a young university then, but already it was among the finest. It cost $54 a year to attend UCLA in those days, a small fortune for the son of a single mother who worked as a domestic to support her five children. But I was fortunate to be a very good athlete and a good student. Although most universities in America were not then giving scholarships to black athletes, UCLA offered me financial assistance to come to Westwood to study and compete in track and football.
There were about 7,500 students at UCLA when I arrived; only 33 were black. But we were like a family. We took care of one another. UCLA provided a first-class education that opened new worlds for me.
After UCLA, I entered the Los Angeles Police Department. I reached the rank of lieutenant and was told by my superiors that I had gone as far as an African American could go. I attended law school at night. Shortly after passing the bar, I was approached by a group of community leaders urging me to run for elected office. I served 10 years on the City Council and then 20 years as mayor of Los Angeles. This was a career very different from the one my high school counselor envisioned for me.
I share these reminiscences at a time when some young men and women of color feel betrayed by UCLA. Under the constraints of Proposition 209, UCLA admitted to its fall 1998 freshman class only 299 African Americans and only 1,007 Latino students. This is a dramatic and disturbing drop--43% for African Americans and 33% for Latinos--from the previous year. While today at UCLA there are more than 1,900 African American students and nearly 5,000 Latinos enrolled in undergraduate, graduate and professional school programs, the drop in admissions of both African Americans and Latinos is catastrophic.
Nevertheless, UCLA has a proud record of reaching out to minority students. The university that trained Ralph Bunche, Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe and Tom Bradley has always provided a world-class education to students of color. Some see in the new admissions figures evidence that UCLA is retreating from its long-standing resolve to ensure access to members from every segment of the community. This is not true. UCLA has demonstrated its deep commitment to diversity time and again over many years. Proposition 209 places the university’s admissions process in a straitjacket, but I believe it will prove to be a temporary setback.
I have for decades maintained a close relationship with the university and I am convinced that UCLA remains committed to welcoming African Americans and other minorities. If I were a high school senior today, UCLA would still be my first choice.