November 4, 2020; San Francisco Chronicle
What’s up with affirmative action in a liberal state like California? With nearly two-thirds of California voters saying they backed the Black Lives Matter movement after a summer of protests over racial justice and George Floyd’s murder, Proposition 16, which would have stricken the state’s constitutional ban on affirmative action, lost by a hefty 12 percentage points on November 3rd. Nearly 65 percent of voters, however, backed Joe Biden.
This is the second time in 25 years that Californians decisively rejected affirmative action. Proposition 16 would have repealed Proposition 209, which banned so-called “preferential treatment” in public education, employment, and contracting due to race, sex, ethnicity, or national origin.
That framing is, of course, a big part of the problem. Baked into our system is the preferential treatment for whites, a reality that is excruciatingly well documented and persistent, that affirmative action is designed to address. That ballot initiative passed in 1996 with 54.5 percent of the vote. Last week’s decision to maintain the status quo was approved with 56.2 percent of the vote. California remains one of only nine states that don’t allow race or gender to play a role in hiring, awarding contracts, or accepting students into its higher education system.
Proponents for the reinstatement of affirmative action included everyone from Governor Gavin Newsom to unions, university leaders, sports teams, and the conservative California Chamber of Commerce.
How has eliminating affirmative action affected California? A 2015 paper published by the nonprofit Educational Testing Service observed that, “the UC [University of California] has never recovered the same level of diversity that it had before the loss of affirmative action nearly 20 years ago—a level that at the time was widely considered to be inadequate to meet the needs of the state and its young people. It has never come close to a student body representing the state’s population. The university’s efforts over two decades have clearly fallen short, not only in undergraduate programs but in key professional schools, particularly at the most competitive UC campuses.”
Fighting for the Asian American vote was a key part of the “No” campaign. While there were prominent Asian American backers, many believe that affirmative action legalizes discrimination against them and fear for their continuing success in gaining entry to the most prestigious public college campuses. At UC-Berkeley this year, 42 percent of first-year students are Asian, though their share of the state’s public high school senior population is only 13 percent.
California’s affirmative action ban has clearly had an impact on the public university system, as seen in the share of Black and Native American students in its ranks, compared to their share of the public high school population.
- For the 23 campuses of the California State University (CSU) system, Black students’ representation in the freshman class has dropped from eight percent in 1997 to four percent today, though the number of Black high school graduates has grown. The share of Native Americans entering CSU campuses fell to 0.2 percent for the 2018 freshman class, down from 1.23 percent a quarter century earlier.
- The numbers are most stark at the University of California’s two elite campuses. There, the data show that even all these years later, and despite many robust efforts, at UC Berkeley and UCLA the proportion of African Americans given first year offers of admission in 2011 was still 46 percent lower than 1995 levels.
- Latinxs constitute about 54 percent of public high school seniors in the state but are only 15 percent of Berkeley’s freshman class.
Why this clear defeat to reinstate affirmative action in California? The California of 2020 is nothing like the California of 1996. It is a far more Democratic state, and far more racially diverse—whites now only comprise 36 percent of the population, compared to 52 percent in 1996. Latinxs are now the biggest ethnic group with 39 percent of the share.
- Was it money? The supporters of the repeal of the state’s ban on affirmative action raised $20 million, compared to $1.5 million for the opposition. But perhaps $20 million wasn’t enough. Lyft and Uber raised more than $100 million for their successful Proposition 22 campaign.
- Was it a newly politicized Asian-American community? Certainly, some Asian Americans campaigned vigorously against overturning the prohibition against affirmative action in the public sector—but not all. Among the most vocal opponents of affirmative action are recent Chinese immigrants. Although 70 percent of all Asian Americans favor affirmative action in higher education, only 56 percent of Chinese Americans do, according to the 2020 Asian American Voter Survey.
- Was it big city vs. rural? The largest share of “yes” votes—more than two million—came from Los Angeles County, four Bay Area counties, and Santa Cruz County. Voters in all of the state’s remaining counties rejected Prop 16.
- Was it language? Insufficient time to educate voters? A flood of other ballot measures?
Some analysts lament there wasn’t enough time for voters to understand what the proposition sought to do, put on the ballot in June as it was by state lawmakers in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. Others noted that Proposition 16 competed for voters’ attention with 10 other measures on the November 3rd ballot.
The issue of language has been of particular importance with the Latinx population, which stood to benefit. A poll by the Latino Community Foundation found that a slim plurality of the Latinx population agreed with the proposal (50 percent to 48 percent). However, the poll also asked the voters what they perceived Proposition 16 to do. Thirty-two percent believed that voting “yes” would preserve the status quo and block the consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions.
Perhaps the answer to measure’s clear defeat in California is “all of the above.” Nevertheless, what is certain is that affirmative action remains deeply controversial across the nation. Debby Warren