California is voting on whether to allow racial discrimination in public hiring, contracting and college admissions — nearly a quarter century after voters outlawed programs that give preference based on race and gender.
If approved, Proposition 16 would repeal a 1996 initiative that made it unlawful for California’s state and local governments to discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to people based on race, ethnicity, national origin or sex.
The repeal might not have made the ballot if not for the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat and chairwoman of the California Legislative Black Caucus, is the lead author of the legislation that put the question to voters, which required two-thirds support in both houses of the state Legislature.
“I think the death of George Floyd made racism very real for people; they could see it,” Weber said. “Now the question becomes, what are you going to do about it?”
Early voting begins Monday for the Nov. 3 election.
The U.S. Supreme Court has long outlawed racial quotas but has ruled that universities may make admissions decisions based on race.
Last year, a federal judge in Boston rejected claims that Harvard’s admissions policies discriminated against Asian-American applicants to keep their numbers artificially low. The plaintiff, the Students for Fair Admissions group, is appealing.
Supporters of Proposition 16 include U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, the Democratic nominee for vice president, Black Lives Matter movement co-founders, professional sports teams and politically liberal groups of all types.
They argue that some programs are needed to help level what they view as a systemically racist playing field. The campaign has raised $14 million.
Opponents of the measure include Ward Connerly, an African-American businessman and former University of California regent who pushed for the 1996 ban.
They say government should never discriminate by race or gender and the only way to stop discrimination is to end it.
Joining Connerly are recent Chinese immigrants who say the United States shouldn’t play favorites based on skin color.
Kali Fontanilla teaches English as a second language in Salinas, California, and before that tutored African-American students. She is black and said students of color don’t need their standards lowered.
“That’s insulting to me to say that there’s certain groups that because of the color of your skin you’re not meeting the standard, you can’t meet the standard [so] we’re going to help you, we’re going to give you this crutch to get in,” she said.
Higher education has long been a talking point in the debate, and both sides point to admissions statistics at the University of California and its nine undergraduate campuses to make their case.
Opponents of affirmative action say Latinos have made significant progress without preferential treatment, making up 25 percent of undergraduates last year, double their share two decades ago.
Supporters of affirmative action note that Latinos make up more than half of California’s high school seniors, with a graduation rate above 80 percent.
“That’s a disparity that needs to be aggressively addressed and Proposition 16 would allow us to do that,” according to Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The demographics of California have changed dramatically since 1996.
Democrats still make up nearly half of registered voters, but the percentage of Republicans in the state has dropped from 36 percent to 24 percent.
But recent polls by the Public Policy Institute of California and the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley showed the measure trailing.
Last year, voters in Washington narrowly upheld that state’s affirmative action ban.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.