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California affirmative action initiative presents a test for allies

Proposition 16 would overturn the ban on considering race and gender in hiring and college admissions.
Carolyn Copeland October 23rd, 2020
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After a summer filled with passionate racial justice demonstrations, people and institutions around the country have been forced to reckon with their involvement in institutionalized racism. A recent survey found a dramatic shift in race relations in California, with an increasing number of white people acknowledging that people of color face frequent discrimination that consequently holds them back from jobs, promotions, and educational opportunities. This election cycle, those same people will have the opportunity to vote on an initiative that would do something about it.

If approved, Proposition 16 would overturn 1996’s Proposition 209, which placed a statewide ban on considerations for race and gender in hiring and the college admissions process. California is one of only a handful of states that bans the practice.

Over recent months, many institutions have professed their commitment to creating a more inclusive, diverse space, with mixed results on their follow-through. Even with California’s deep blue progressive reputation, however, there are still reasons to doubt whether voters will vote in favor of making inclusivity a legal requirement.

The opposition

A recent study by the Center for Equal Opportunity titled “If California Restores Race Discrimination” argued that passing Prop. 16 would legalize hiring discrimination, rather than promote diverse hiring. Opponents also argue that reviving affirmative action would lead to “racial preferences” and “quotas” in both hiring and education.

“Race in California would not act as the tie-breaker when admissions committees compare two equally qualified applicants,” researchers wrote in the study. “It would again become a major factor in discriminating against some applicants while favoring other often less qualified candidates.”

The No on Prop. 16 campaign has received backlash from law enforcement, who recently mailed a voter information guide urging people to vote against Prop. 16  “for racial equality.” Other opponents have oversimplified or ignored the reasons racial disparities exist in education and the workforce while simultaneously repeating racist assumptions about “uneducated” Black and Latinx people and wielding the model minority myth about Asians as a way to urge people to vote against the initiative.

"Bringing back racial discrimination isn’t the way to end racial discrimination. We need to spend more money improving the education of African-Americans and Latinos so that they can compete with Asian and white students,” the campaign tweeted.

To the dismay of many Yes on Prop. 16 supporters, it appears the discrimination narrative has caught on. A September poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that voters are expected to reject Prop. 16, with only one-third of California voters supporting reinstating affirmative action.

Affirmative action in education

Since affirmative action was banned 24 years ago, the number of Black and Latinx students admitted to the University of California system has quadrupled. However, even with the increase in representation, it still doesn’t adequately reflect the state’s demographics. Currently, Black and Latinx students make up 60% of high school enrollment in California, but only 28% of the incoming freshmen in the University of California system.

“It’s unacceptable that only 12% of Latinos have bachelor’s degrees, but we’re 39% of the population in California,” said Christian Arana, policy director at the Latino Community Foundation. “Education has always been the pathway for socio economic mobility for our community. And that's why we're firmly standing behind Proposition 16.”

Supporters insist passing the initiative would give communities of color a leg up, especially for groups that have historically faced barriers to accessing educational and employment opportunities, but opponents argue that bringing back affirmative action will encourage colleges and employers to grant preferential treatment to certain people of color. The latter evokes attempts to stoke divisions that exist among communities of color, particularly between Asian Americans, and Black and Latinx people.

But even though the dialogue surrounding affirmative action typically highlights the advantages for Black and Latinx people, they’re not the only ones who benefit. Opponents of affirmative action have argued for years that it disproportionately sidelines Asian Americans in the college admissions process—even though the University of California system admits more Asian American students than any other group and universities that practice affirmative action see greater gains in Asian American enrollment than schools that don’t.

To counteract the narrative that affirmative action creates more discrimination and disproportionatley hurts Asian Americans, Prop. 16 has the backing of prominent Asian-led groups like the California API Legislative Caucus and Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s 2020 Voter Survey even found that 70% of Asian Americans support affirmative action. There have also been several student-run campaigns led by Asian students to get the message out about Prop. 16 and gain more support from the community.

“Asian Americans want more representation and diversity in positions such as teachers, school principals, and university presidents. We want first responders, firefighters, and bilingual police officers who come from and understand our community. Prop 209 currently prevents that,” said California Assemblymember David Chiu in a statement. Chiu stated that passing Prop. 16 would only lift the ban on affirmative action, and that more work would still need to be done to address racial disparities.

“Local and state governments would then have to engage with the public to consider new programs to address these disparities--such as STEM camps for girls, programs to increase doctors in underrepresented communities, or assistance to Asian-owned businesses decimated by COVID-19 racism,” Chiu said in the statement.

Getting the word out

Prop. 16 was spearheaded by a group of Black students at UC Berkeley. One of the students was an intern for Assemblymember Shirley Weber, and convinced her to hold a meeting about campus climate at the university—that’s when overturning Prop. 209 was first discussed. Since then, prominent politicians, celebrities, and racial justice advocates have jumped to support the cause. In September, more than 70 civil rights and educational organizations issued a joint statement in support of Prop. 16.

“Higher education still remains the surest path to social and economic mobility, which is why it is critically important for communities that have historically been excluded from these opportunities to be fully and affirmatively included. Without full inclusion in higher education opportunities, people of color are being locked out from fully participating in the economy,” the group wrote.

In the California primaries, 100,000 mail-in ballots were tossed because they were submitted too late or lacked the required signature. With this in mind, voter education that provides basic guidance on how to vote properly has been a major strategy for advocates pushing for certain initiatives.

In September, The Latino Community Foundation released a poll that showed that 76% of Latinx voters planned to vote in favor of Prop. 16.

“Once—and I say this for everybody, not just Latinos—once people understand what exactly [Prop. 16] does, there's overwhelming support for it,” Arana said. “Part of the reason why we are so invested in supporting Prop. 16, is that at the end of the day, what our community needs is systems changed. We need policy change,.”

Young people are statistically more likely to be in favor of Prop. 16 and have been active in gathering support. To engage young voters, students across the California State University and University of California systems have been organizing in-person rallies and digital events around the state. Students at the University of California, Los Angeles, have organized virtual text banking events to help influence undecided voters. Other supporters have been holding socially distanced rallies at the capitol building led by community leaders. Several POC-led organizations have held Yes on Prop. 16 rallies that also promote the movement for Black lives.

“Trump has attacked Latinos & POC, and throughout his presidency has sought to pass policies hurting those same communities. While there’s no way of reversing time, there's a way to rebuke him & his policies: voting #YesOnProp16!” the campaign tweeted.

After months of demonstrations, Prop. 16 will give California voters the chance to be honest with themselves about how they prioritize diversity and whether they’re serious about leveling the playing field. It’s not enough to voice frustration about the mistreatment of Black and brown people. To truly make a difference, people must vote for the changes that would make diversity possible.

Carolyn Copeland is a copy editor and staff reporter for Prism. She covers racial justice and culture. Follow her on Twitter @Carolyn_Copes.

Prism is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet that centers the people, places and issues currently underreported by our national media. Through our original reporting, analysis, and commentary, we challenge dominant, toxic narratives perpetuated by the mainstream press and work to build a full and accurate record of what’s happening in our democracy. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.


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