In another time, it wouldn’t have been too hard to guess where Frances Harris would have ended up going to college. She has managed to do very well in very difficult circumstances, and she is African-American. Her high school, in the Oak Park neighborhood of Sacramento, was shut down as an irremediable failure the spring before her freshman year, then reopened months later as a charter school. Midway through high school, her father developed heart problems and became an irritable fixture around the home. She also discovered that he was not actually her biological father. That was a man named Leroy who, when her mother took Harris to see him, simply said his name was George and waited for her to leave. In Harris’s senior year, her mother lost her job at a nursing home and the family filed for bankruptcy.
Harris somehow stayed focused on teenage life. She earned an A-minus average and she distinguished herself as a debater. Her basketball teammates sometimes teased her for using big words, but they also elected her co-captain. As she led me on a tour of her school and her neighborhood one day this summer, she introduced me around with an assured ease that most adults can’t manage, even if her sentences are peppered with “like,” “you know” and “Oh, my God.” Her bedroom in the bungalow she shares with her parents is a masterpiece of teenage energy, the walls covered with her prom-queen tiara, her purple-and-white basketball jersey (No. 3) and photos of her friends. “The hardest part of high school,” she says, “was to be smart and cool at the same time.” She decided her dream college was the University of California, Los Angeles.
Ten or 20 years ago, Frances Harris almost certainly would have been admitted. Her excellent grades might not have even been necessary, because Berkeley and U.C.L.A. — the jewels in the U.C. system — accepted almost all of the African-Americans who met the basic application requirements. To an admissions officer, Harris would have seemed like gold: diversity and achievement, wrapped up in a single kid.
But in the early 1990s, the elite campuses began to pull back from their aggressive affirmative-action policies, and in 1996, California voters passed the California Civil Rights Initiative, also known as Proposition 209. After that, race could no longer be a factor in government hiring or public-university admissions. The number of black students at both Berkeley and U.C.L.A. plummeted, and at U.C.L.A. the declines continued throughout the next decade. The reasons weren’t entirely clear, but they seemed to include some combination of the admissions office taking Proposition 209 to heart and black students falling further behind in the academic arms race. (Harris, for instance, scored a 22 on the ACT test — slightly above the national average and well below the U.C.L.A. average.) The changes on U.C.L.A.’s campus were hard to miss. In 1997, the freshman class included 221 black students; last fall it had only 100. In the region with easily the largest black population west of the Mississippi River, the top public university had a freshman class in which barely 1 in 50 students was black.
A U.C.L.A. graduate named Peter Taylor, a 49-year-old managing director at Lehman Brothers in Los Angeles, remembers picking up The Los Angeles Times outside his house on a Saturday morning in June of last year and reading that piece of news. Taylor, who is black, is a third-generation native of the city and one of U.C.L.A.’s most active alumni. Within days of reading about the latest decline in the number of black students, he began a campaign to reverse it. At a reception to honor U.C.L.A.’s new acting chancellor, a law professor named Norm Abrams, he greeted Abrams with a big smile and said, “Well, Norm, you’re stepping right into it, and you’ve got to deal with it.” Abrams soon named Taylor to lead a task force of students, faculty, alumni and outsiders from places like the Urban League and the First A.M.E. Church. It spent the next year trying to get more black students to apply, more black applicants to be admitted and more black admits to enroll. In essence, Taylor’s group was trying to figure out how to bring a student like Frances Harris to U.C.L.A. without breaking the law — or at least without getting caught. What they have achieved may well show us the future of affirmative action.