Think of California, and it is hard not to think of the Beach Boys, Beverly Hills and Baywatch. Add to the mix a tradition of San Franciscan flower-child permissiveness and civil rights activism and the result is a stereotype of the Golden State to which few of its inhabitants would strongly object. But beyond the sun and surf and the powerful pop culture images, California is also a state where people live. Not just Bel-Air celebrities, but ordinary folk who share the same daily tribulations as any number of Americans. California is also the biggest state, with a gross domestic product bigger than most nations and a political clout making it a vital component of national politics. Any pressing California problem, such as illegal immigration, is certain to become a national issue. So it is with perhaps one of the biggest dilemmas facing America's courts and politicians today: whether to preserve or scrap the system of affirmative action (or racial preferences, or reverse discrimination - call it any euphemism you will) is one of the most controversial, and socially divisive, issues of the day. Not surprisingly, it was the California of the 1960s in which many of the foundations of affirmative action were laid. After racial segregation was outlawed in the early part of the decade, the next step was deciding how to provide blacks with not only the right to walk into any restaurant or go to any school, but also the tools to take advantage of those rights. That meant providing African-Americans (and later, Hispanics) with preferential treatment for a certain proportion of public sector jobs, government contracts and college places. The pace was set by universities at the centre of the civil rights movement, notably the University of California at Berkeley, where a healthy racial preferences system permeated throughout the University of California (UC) network, to a point where until 1996, about 40 per cent of places were allotted using considerations other than academic ability - most usually, race. That year, 1996, marked a historic turning point - the point at which the UC began to unravel the affirmative action programme it helped craft for the rest of America. Under increasing pressure from conservative forces - including the state's Republican governor, Pete Wilson, who argued whites were being subjected to unfair discrimination - the UC system's governing body voted to end all affirmative action in granting college places. America had begun to feel uneasy with the concept of affirmative action a few years earlier. Many pundits and politicians, while recognising the positive role it had played in integrating minorities into the mainstream economy, began to worry whether there was not something 'un-American' about a concept which put race above pure merit in granting society's favours. However, the UC decision took those concerns and acted upon them. Once the ball began to roll, the movement took on a life of its own. Federal courts - including the Supreme Court - began issuing rulings ominously challenging the constitutionality of affirmative action. In a landmark case, the University of Texas Law School had to abandon racial preferences following the court victory of a white student who had been denied a place. President Bill Clinton, who grew up witnessing the successes of affirmative action in the South, tried to plug the dike. But despite a speech in which he urged the country to 'mend affirmative action, not end it', Californians built upon what the UC's governors started. Though non-Hispanic whites are expected to become a minority in the state within five years, they still wield the most registered voters, and in 1996 voted for Proposition 209 - a mini-referendum which abolished affirmative action in education, employment and public contracts. A couple of weeks ago, evidence of the change emerged, and was dramatic - not to mention troubling. UC colleges released admissions statistics for the first year without affirmative action, showing a massive drop in offers to blacks and Hispanics. At Berkeley, where both minorities make up 23 per cent of the total student body, they accounted for only 10 per cent of 1998 admissions. At University of California Los Angeles, the corresponding figures saw a slump from 20 per cent to 12.7 per cent. The final numbers will be worse, because a large number of those blacks and Hispanics who have been offered places at UC colleges have turned them down in protest. Inevitably, many critics have said the figures constitute an early warning sign that, should the trend continue, America's education system could return to the old, segregated days of separate black and white colleges. Certainly, there appear to be some who have little qualms about that possibility. Though there are some prominent minority figures belonging to the anti-affirmative action camp, hardline conservative groups are pushing the issue for political purposes. Take another lawsuit pending against the University of Michigan, where a white male and female student are suing the college for losing their places to lesser-qualified minority applicants. They did not initiate the case, but were chosen to bring it by the right-wing Centre for Individual Rights, which had also been behind the Texas law school ruling. Ironically, the ethnic group likely to benefit most from UC's shift will not be Caucasians, but Asian-Americans. Without ever having been included in affirmative action quotas, they already make up 40 to 50 per cent of some UC colleges' student bodies, and because of their superior high school performance are expected to snap up many of the places now denied the other minorities. If the country follows where California has led, the ramifications may be huge, not just in education but across the social spectrum. Everyone agree affirmative action has performed an important task, but in deciding that its time is up, it is not at all clear whether its critics have bothered to question quite what America will become without it.