By Jamal Mazyck
In 1996, California voters enacted Proposition 209, which effectively gutted statewide affirmative action programs in three pivotal areas of government: education, contracting and public employment. What was considered “preferential treatment” treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin was banned. Since then, public colleges and universities have struggled to maintain racial and ethnic diversity. Black and Latino student admissions to the increasingly competitive University of California system declined by 30 and 26 points respectively, compared to a decline of 21 points for white students over the past 20 years.
While opponents of affirmative action claim that a repeal would further discrimination against Californians, the evidence stands against them. A repeal of Prop 209 would ensure that all people, particularly women and people of color, have an equitable opportunity to access public education and employment at public universities.
Although a few institutions have made marginal progress, the vast majority of the nation’s most selective public colleges and universities are inaccessible to Black and Latino students. Nationwide, Black and Latino people are still underrepresented in the state universities and overrepresented among the unemployed and in the prison system. California is no exception. (California is one of only nine states that bans affirmative action.)
On November 3rd, Californians have the opportunity to right the wrong that is Proposition 209. By voting “yes” on Prop 16, Californians can take a stand against the inequities that have plagued education and public workplaces for decades. By repealing Prop 209, voters can end a public policy that has driven decades of stagnation, one that has stalled equitable opportunities in education and marginalized Californians who have been adversely impacted for far too long.
Opponents of affirmative action point to so-called “reverse discrimination” as if, somehow, Black, Latino and other people of color benefit at the expense of white people in gaining access to public education and employment. Looking at the available evidence, this is a preposterous argument. Consider, for example, the significant increase in the California Latino population in the past two decades compared to how many Latino people have been able to access higher education. The University of California-Berkeley’s 4.3 percentage point increase in Latino undergraduates since 2000 (10.4% to 14.8%) may seem like progress, until one notes that the California Latino population increased at more than 3 times that rate during the same period.
While affirmative action advocates have won some battles at the federal level, the future is uncertain. Even the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg did not push affirmative action issues as far as she could have. This is all the more concerning because the Amy Coney Barret’s confirmation hearings signal a huge rightward shift for the Court, which means a huge shift against affirmative action.
In recent years, the Court has upheld that universities may consider race as a factor in admissions. Conservatives have argued that such Supreme Court-vindicated programs can hurt white applicants. But what opponents of Prop 16 fail to understand is that, while affirmative action allows race to be a factor in college admissions and public employment, it does not allow it to be the sole criteria. A statewide win for racial equity would signify a much needed pushback on the anti-affirmative action directives likely to come from the highest court in the nation.
Presidents have entered the fray too. While the Obama administration established some guidelines encouraging racial equity at the federal level, many of these guidelines have not withstood a pointed assault from the current administration, which has been waging a war on affirmative action.
That’s why we need a statewide win to stop the stagnation. If passed, Prop 16 would allow public universities and government agencies to consider race, ethnicity and sex along with many other factors and would align California with 42 other states and the federal government. California needs to pass Prop 16 to provide more opportunities to remedy the generations of privilege benefiting white men, dating back to the 1860s, and combat systemic racism that denies equitable access to public higher education and employment. Let’s restore our position with the majority of the country and vote ‘yes’ on Prop 16.
Jamal Mazyck, Ed.D, is an inclusion program manager, a former Title IX Investigator at San Francisco State University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.