Prop. 16: Back to the Future?

Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman      October 2, 2020

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Prop. 16: Back to the Future?
Prop. 16, a constitutional amendment on this year’s ballot, is one of the most timely and tangible efforts to directly address the blatant discrimination of Proposition 209, passed in 1996 by California voters that ended affirmative action in the state.
In 1996, 55% of California voters approved Proposition 209, ending the state’s longstanding affirmative action program, which was intended to give special consideration in education and hiring to historically under-represented groups—those discriminated against based on their race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin. Prop. 16 is a legislative constitutional amendment on the November 3 ballot that would repeal it, and once again allow state and local governments and the higher education system to consider these factors in designing admissions and eligibility programs in public education, public employment, and public contracting. Affirmative action, despite the popular (and deliberately promoted) misconception, does not rely on arbitrary quotas, which have long been illegal—but on the recognition that these individuals have been systematically denied the opportunity to compete fairly against others, and that fresh opportunities must therefore be affirmatively, not passively, extended to them. Prior to Prop. 209, after much effort over some 30 years, diversity had won a measure of popular acceptance as a good thing, a desirable value. People understood that the reason we had less diversity than we should was not due to the inherent inferiority or inability of those underrepresented, but to their lack of access to the system. They weren’t as competitive, in other words, because they weren’t allowed to compete. It was understood that social progress and political stability depended on a society that earned its legitimacy as welcoming and inclusive—not hostile and exclusionary. But then, along came Pete Wilson. A moderate Republican as mayor of San Diego, and as a U.S. Senator, Wilson unaccountably began a hard swerve to the right as governor. In 1994, he championed and successfully passed Prop. 187, a blatantly racist measure intended to deny all non-emergency public services to undocumented immigrants. Ultimately, it was a Pyrrhic victory. When the courts permanently enjoined Prop. 187’s enforcement and its hateful intentions, it seems to have permanently alienated California’s growing Latino population from today’s steadily shrinking Republican minority, which now numbers less even than “no-party-preference” registrations. In 1995, gearing up for a presidential run in 1996, Wilson again played the race card and doubled down when he took up the disingenuously named “California Civil Rights Initiative” (which would become Prop. 209 on the November 1996 ballot), and drafted UC Regent and businessman Ward Connerly to lead the campaign, putting a Black face on a purely white-grievance initiative. Wilson’s presidential campaign crashed and burned after only a month, but Prop. 209 is still with us—at least for another few weeks. The summer surge of popular support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and its efforts to elevate the issue of systemic racism after the killing of George Floyd, has not translated into support for Prop. 16, one of the most timely and tangible efforts to directly address the consequences of such discrimination. In our ostensibly progressive Golden State, a recent Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll found only 31% of the respondents in favor of Prop. 16, with 47% opposed and 22% undecided. PPIC director Mark Baldessare commented to the Los Angeles Times, “People are hearing about this for the first time, not knowing where it came from, what it does, who is for it, who is against it.” One hypothesis is that the measure is just worded too confusingly: It’s essentially a repeal of a repeal, which permits state and local government to re-establish, if they wish, the affirmative action programs that existed before Prop. 209 wiped them out in 1996. But I actually suspect it might be something else: to the extent that voters know anything at all about affirmative action—and they may not, since it’s essentially disappeared from public discussion since 1997—they probably think it either doesn’t help much, or that it props up undeserving minorities at the expense of more qualified white people. Hence the surprisingly strong opposition to a measure that has gotten little news coverage and generated relatively no advertising to date. How has Prop. 209 really worked out? A new study from UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy for the University of California—which largely ended its affirmative action admissions in 1995, prior to Prop. 209’s passage—documents its impact on a generation of students. It’s not a pretty picture. In fact, it can fairly be termed a disaster. The study, “Affirmative Action, Mismatch, and Economic Mobility After California’s Proposition 209,” found that: Ending affirmative action caused UC’s 10,000 annual under-represented minority (URM) freshman applicants to cascade into lower-quality public and private universities. Fewer URM applicants successfully graduated from college and graduate school, particularly in the better paying STEM fields (science, engineering, technology and math). As a result, the average URM UC applicant’s wages declined by five percent annually between ages 24 and 34, almost entirely due to the fall-off among Hispanic applicants. By the mid-2010s, Prop 209 had reduced by at least three percent the number of early-career URM Californians earning over $100,000. Prop 209 deterred thousands of qualified URM students from applying to any UC campus. Enrolling at less-selective UC campuses did not improve URM students’ performance or persistence in STEM course sequences. Affirmative action’s net wage benefits for URM applicants more than offset its minor impact on marginal white and Asian applicants. There’s a reason why all three governing bodies of the state’s higher education system—the UC Board of Regents, the California State University Board of Trustees, and the California Community College Board of Governors—have endorsed Prop. 16, which repeals Prop. 209’s affirmative action ban and allows the program to be reinstated. Affirmative action helped those under-represented minority applicants, and its repeal has harmed them. Moreover, its benefits to minority students did not come at the expense of white and Asian students, who were barely affected by affirmative action’s repeal. If we’re really interested in ending systemic racism and creating opportunities for underserved and underrepresented minority members, supporting Prop. 16 on the November ballot is a good place to start.
Joel Bellman
      October 2, 2020

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