On November 3, citizens across California voted on Proposition 16, which would have reinstated affirmative action if passed. After the votes were counted, Proposition 16 was defeated 57% to 43%, with a margin of more than 2 million votes on November 3
Proposition 16, also known as the Repeal Proposition 209 Affirmative Action Amendment, aimed to repeal a law passed in 1996 that prevented the state from discriminating or granting preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in public employment, education, and contracting. The passing of Proposition 16 would have restored affirmative action in CA, allowing public employment offices and colleges to consider these factors in hiring, spending, and college admissions decisions.
Legislators introduced the proposition in the context of minorities facing disadvantages in both public CA universities and businesses. Black, Latinx, and Native American students’ UC admission rates have decreased more than those of white and Asian American students. In 2019, Black and Latinx students composed only 28% of UC freshman admissions despite being 60% of CA’s high school enrollment. Meanwhile, Asian American and white students only made up 32% of CA’s high school enrollment but took up 56% of UC freshman admissions. According to KQED News, white and Asian American women are paid 80 cents in CA for every dollar a man makes, and Latina, Black, or Native American women make only 40 to 60 cents for every dollar a man makes.
Coupled with the recent racial tensions that followed the death of George Floyd, these factors compelled the CA government to revisit the issues of diversity in businesses and education and resurfaced the concept of affirmative action. On June 10 and June 24, the CA state legislature voted 60-14 in the Assembly and 30-10 in the Senate in favor of putting Proposition 16 on the ballot, respectively.
Passing Proposition 16 would have enabled public schools and businesses to implement affirmative action to increase the diversity of their communities. Despite certain rumors, it would not have allowed the implementation of racial or gender quotas, which have been deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). Proposition 16 still would not allow the use of negative discriminatory practices against particular people based on race or gender. Instead, it only allowed for “preferential treatment”, which is defined as “a giving of priority or advantage to one person … over others” in the CA Supreme Court Case Hi-Voltage Wire Works v. San Jose (2000) .
The voter decision to reject Proposition 16 keeps the status of affirmative action unchanged. Public universities and agencies will still be prohibited from taking race, gender, and ethnicity into account when making decisions on contracting, hiring, and college admissions.
The Smoke Signal ’s Perspective
Though Proposition 16 was placed on the November ballot with rightful intentions towards reducing long standing social injustices against minority populations, the policy’s approach towards this prevalent issue is flawed. Instead, policy makers should employ socioeconomic preferences to increase diversity.
With Latinx students underrepresented at eight of the nine undergraduate UC campuses and Black students underrepresented at all nine UC campuses, it is clear that increasing minority representation on college campuses is imperative. Diversity results in an exposure to a variety of viewpoints and backgrounds, which enhances people’s point of view. However, when universities use affirmative action to remedy racial injustice, “mismatch” is a harmful side effect. If minority students with comparatively lower GPA and standardized test scores are admitted to a selective university by affirmative action, the pacing and rigor expectations can overwhelm these students, inhibiting their ability to thrive and perpetuating harmful stereotypes.
When Proposition 209 was first passed, banning affirmative action in CA, the policy led to a decrease in African American freshman enrollment by half and a decline in Hispanic freshman enrollment by a quarter at UCLA. Some would argue that those numbers alone are startling enough to call for reinstatement of affirmative action. However, the number of African American and Hispanic students graduating with bachelor’s degrees in the five graduating classes before Proposition 209 was the same as the five graduating classes after Proposition 209 was implemented, meaning that there was no net decrease in graduation rates as a result of the ban on affirmative action. In fact, the four-year graduation rate of African Americans at UCLA increased by twofold in the years subsequent to the passing of Proposition 209. Additionally, at UCSD, the failure rate of American Indians and African Americans fell to only 6%. Underrepresented minority populations were more likely to succeed without affirmative action in play.
Affirmative action is not the proper solution to severe minority underrepresentation, but it’s clear that alternative policies are needed to increase diversity while preventing mismatch. Instead of affirmative action, colleges should work towards placing a greater emphasis on the social context that each student comes from: parents’ education level, household income, quality of K-12 education, and the crime levels in the neighborhood that the student resides in.
A primary emphasis on social-economic considerations in admissions can lead to greater increases in minority representation than systems based on racial preferences. Based on a study conducted at the University of Colorado in 2008 and 2010 where researchers used overall acceptance rates, socioeconomic and racial diversity, and academic quality as parameters to evaluate a class-based preference approach, minority applicants are more likely to benefit from class-based considerations rather than race-based affirmative action. Comparing the acceptance rates of underrepresented minority students, researchers found that class-based admissions resulted in a 65% acceptance rate while race-based affirmative action resulted in only a 56% acceptance rate.
Most importantly, socioeconomic preferences ensure that admitted minorities are able to reach their academic potential in an environment that fits them well to prevent mismatch and foster their learning. When UCLA Law School deployed a socioeconomic preference program as an experiment in 1997, taking “wealth,” “education,” and “neighborhood” into account in its applications, the law school’s CA Bar Examination passing rate skyrocketed to a record high level. Additionally, Professor Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University and Dr. Stephen Rose of George Washington University conducted a simulation using data from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, which showed that the graduation rate of students at elite universities would remain unchanged when the share of students from the lower half of the socioeconomic ladder nearly increased by fourfold. Thus, an emphasis on socioeconomic considerations won’t harm the academic quality of the incoming freshman class as a whole.
While this article focuses heavily on the effects of affirmative action in higher education, Proposition 16’s intended impact on public employment is equally important. Supporters of affirmative action argue that Proposition 209’s repealment of racial preferences harmed minority representation in the workforce. However, studies from UC Berkeley analyzing the effect of Proposition 209 on diversity in public employment with data gathered by the CA State Personnel Board from 1990 through 2007 showed that African Americans maintained a 11% of the public labor force while Hispanic representation increased from 18% to 21%. Since the repealment of affirmative action either had no impact or improved minority representation, it further demonstrates that racial preferences fail to benefit minority populations. The proportions, nonetheless, also underscore the urgency to improve minority representation. Washington University Law Review’s research supports that class-based preferences in employment would benefit disadvantaged minorities and provide “genuine equality of opportunity, where natural talents may flourish to their full potential.” As racial and ethnic minorities constitute 58% of the 10.6 million low-income families in the US, a primary emphasis on social-economic considerations will increase diversity while supporting low-income individuals who need employment support.
Proposition 16 is a step in the right direction towards pushing for increased minority representation. However, its inability to increase opportunities for minorities’ success in education and employment makes it an ineffectual option. It’s crucial to work towards emphasizing socioeconomic considerations, which will promote inclusion while ensuring that students are placed in an appropriate environment where they can reach their full academic potential. Californians can contact their legislators to urge them to support the implementation of socioeconomic preferences. Find out who to contact and check out these tips on how to write an effective letter to state legislators.
Proposition 16, which would remove the ban on affirmative action involving race-based or sex-based preferences from the California Constitution, was recently rejected. How do you feel about this?
“I agree with the ban on affirmative action, and I understand why people voted no on Proposition 16. I believe that, strictly business-speaking, the person who can produce the best results (given that they have a reasonable personality) should get the job, regardless of their race … Some may say that people did not have equal opportunities and affirmative actions would make up for the gap in resources, but I think that generalizing a race or gender and offering a job based on that is not wise..” — Alison Bai , 11
“I kind of feel sad … because I feel like Prop 16 would’ve let a lot of employers and educational institutions … consider race, sex color, ethnicity more equally, [which would] allow for more diversity.” — Annie Xu, 9
How important do you think diversity is in employment and education? Have you had any particular experiences with this?
“I believe that diversity is a very important part of any workplace or any public space, because it’s important for people to understand and look at different perspectives. But in terms of Prop 16, I believe that diversity, for the sake of diversity, comes off as disingenuous and artificial.”— Vibhav Athreya, 12
“I believe diversity is more important in education, but it’s also important in employment. So, for example in education, it’s important to learn about different cultures and different people, so you can learn more about the world. In employment, you can work with people from different cultures in different places and there’ll be new experiences. However, if a company just chooses people based on their race or based on their sex and not their ability, then I would not want to work at that company because it’s not likely to succeed … My personal experience is that MSJ is about 90% Asian, and there is not too much interaction between people of other races. I feel like it’d be better if there were more people [like] Caucasians, African Americans, and Latinos in MSJ, so we can learn more about their culture.” — Leonard Chiu, 10
Cover graphic by Opinion Editor Aria Lakhmani