Sometimes in her classes at the University of California’s Boalt Hall law school, Jennifer Madden would find herself catching the eye of a fellow black student.
“We could just look at each other and we’d have the same look,” said Madden, one of 31 blacks who enrolled at Boalt in 1994.
She can’t imagine what it’s going to be like this fall, when only one black student is expected in the incoming class of 270 - the first group admitted since the University of California ended affirmative action.
“Being one of 31, I still felt that I had support and I had guidance. One - there’s definitely a lot of implications,” said Madden, who graduated this spring.
The vanishing black law student was a phenomenon at two other major law schools that dropped affirmative action this year - the University of Texas and the University of California at Los Angeles. As of July, Texas was expecting four black students compared with last year’s 31; UCLA was expecting 10, down from 19. Last year, 20 blacks joined Boalt’s incoming class.
Hispanic enrollment dropped from 28 to 14 at Boalt, 42 to 21 at Texas and 45 to 41 at UCLA.
In addition to the higher admissions standards, officials blamed the decrease on better offers from private universities, student concerns that they weren’t welcome at the affirmative action-free campuses and fear of being stranded in a sea of white.
For a while, it appeared Texas would have just one black student this fall. But then Malcolm LaVergne withdrew his deposit and decided to go to Cornell University. Other blacks have since decided to enroll at Texas.
LaVergne, a Houston-area native who is graduating with honors from Stephen F. Austin State University, said the media scrutiny at Texas would have been too much to endure during the typically hellish first year of law school.
“The situation I was going to be coming into was going to be cameras in my face, probably. Reporters all around asking all these questions, ‘What’s it like being the only black?”’ he said. “It’s not a situation I wanted.”
Race-based admissions at the Texas law school were banned by a federal appeals court ruling, while the University of California system voted in 1995 to eliminate racial preferences. The policy first took effect with graduate students entering in 1997. It won’t apply to undergraduates until 1998.
With race disallowed as a consideration in admissions, Texas and the University of California are free to take into account such factors as a student’s socioeconomic background or any individual hardships.
Nationally, law school applications from all races dropped about 9 percent. But the drop-off was steeper for blacks and Hispanics.
At Boalt, 27 percent fewer blacks applied, 304 vs. 414, and 24 percent fewer Hispanics, 355 vs. 467. Of those, 14 blacks were admitted, down 81 percent from 1996, and 39 Hispanics, down 50 percent.
This fall, 38 percent fewer blacks applied to UT’s law school, 225 vs. 361, and 14 percent fewer Hispanics, 306 vs. 354. Of those, 11 blacks and 34 Hispanics were admitted, down from 65 blacks and 70 Hispanics last year, drops of 83 percent and 51 percent.
Enrollment is not complete, so the makeup of the classes could change.
At Boalt, all 14 of the black students admitted declined to attend. The one black student who is coming had deferred enrollment from the year before.
Texas and the University of California would not release the names of any of the blacks admitted.
Behind the statistics is the question: How will this play out in the classroom?
Boalt third-year law student Marvin Peguese said he believes everyone loses. He recalled one class discussion about the family of a domestic violence victim that had tried to sue the city for not providing adequate police protection but was stymied by a court ruling that the city was not liable.
“That would have been the end of that discussion had not some of us been there to say, ‘No, we’ve lived in these communities and sometimes the police don’t show up,”’ said Peguese, who along with two other blacks in the class argued that the ruling could be challenged, perhaps under equal protection laws.
Those against affirmative action say the figures bolster their argument that racial preferences papered over a flawed educational system.
“That really is the story - that we have been giving such huge preferences based on skin color that it kind of masked the fact that we have such a long way to go in the K-12 system to get black kids prepared for the competition,” said Ward Connerly, a black businessman and member of the UC board of regents who led the effort to repeal racial preferences.
Those in favor of race-based admissions say scrapping affirmative action knocks out the most effective remedy to decades of discrimination - and blocks the pipeline of future black and Hispanic lawyers and law professors.
“It’s scandalous. It’s scary,” Eva Paterson said. A civil rights lawyer in Northern California, Paterson, who was admitted to Boalt under affirmative action in 1972, is getting a distinguished alumni award next month. “Pretty ironic, isn’t it?” she said.
“It’s hard to believe that the Class of 2000 would have one or no African-American students,” Peguese said. Referring to the tumultuous 1957 desegregation of a Little Rock, Ark., high school, he said: “Even Little Rock had nine.”