The fight over affirmative action

After 25 years since the ban on the practice, Proposition 16 seeks to reinstate affirmative action in California public institutions.

Affirmative action is on the California ballot this November, as Proposition 16 seeks to overturn a ban on the practice that has been in place for nearly 25 years.

The measure appears on the ballot because the California legislature approved ACA 5, authored by Assemblymember Shirley Weber, earlier this year. It hopes to strike the amendment added to the California constitution after the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996.

Proposition 209 passed with 54.5% voting to ban any form of discrimination or preferential treatment based on race, sex, ethnicity and more. As a result, public universities and government institutions could no longer practice affirmative action when accepting candidates. However, since its passage, controversy arose over Proposition 209′s impact.

According to a 2016 study referenced in the text of ACA 5, women and people of color lost over $1 billion annually in public contracts awards since the passage of Proposition 209. During the same time, underrepresented groups' enrollments at the Los Angeles and Berkeley campuses of the University of California fell by more than 60%.

While diversity slowly increased in the University of California system after the initial fall from the passage of Proposition 209, its effects continue nearly 25 years later.

A 2020 study conducted by economist Zachary Bleemer at the University of California, Berkeley found that the total enrollment of Black and Hispanic students in the University of California system declined by about 800 students a year since the passage of Proposition 209. The study also found that underrepresented minority applicants were less likely to earn STEM degrees and graduate degrees.

"These poorer educational outcomes in turn contributed to a 5% average annual

decline in applicants' wages throughout their 20s and early 30s," the study said.

Meanwhile, those students who benefited from affirmative action prior to the passage of Proposition 209 experienced higher wages after enrolling in more-selective universities, according to the study.

Given these effects, supporters of Proposition 16 hope it will rectify some of the inequalities the studies attributed to Proposition 209′s ban on affirmative action. Proposition 16 garnered the support of the Black Lives Matter founders, the ACLU, vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris and California Governor Gavin Newsom.

“By passing Proposition 16, we can take a step toward dismantling structural racism and sexism,” the Yes on Prop 16 campaign said on its website.

Professor Tatiana Melguize of the USC Rossier School of Education said she also supports the measure, believing it can further the fight for racial justice after the George Floyd protests. She pointed to the differences in financial resources and how segregated schools are in California as some reasons why California should reinstate affirmative action.

“There’s not an even playing field,” Melguize said. “A lot of inequality is being perpetuated.”

Melissa Tungare, the co-president for the Student Coalition for Asian Pacific Empowerment, also supports the measure, but recognizes that more must be done even if affirmative action is reinstated.

“Elementary schools, middle schools and high schools should be better funded.” Tungare said.

She also highlighted the common perception that Asians are against affirmative action.

“I think that stems from the anti-Blackness in our community and the fear we can be replaced, but it’s a misguided fear,” Tungare said. “It’s more important to change the institution to create equity rather than pit minorities against each other.”

While Melguize and Tungare support the measure, they are in the minority according to recent polls.

A poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 31% of those surveyed were in favor of the measure while another 47% opposed overturning the ban. In another poll conducted by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, 33% of those surveyed supported the measure and overturning the ban on affirmative action while 41% opposed.

The Californians for Equal Rights opposes Proposition 16, arguing that universities and government institutions should solely look at the merits of an applicant."Proposition 16 is divisive and discriminatory," the group’s website said. “Its actual implementation will put a political band-aid over deeper socioeconomic challenges at best.”

Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, agrees that the passage of proposition 16 could lead to the exclusion of socioeconomic diversity within public universities.

“UC will no longer need to recruit economically disadvantaged students in order to indirectly create racial diversity, so the overall student population is likely to become richer than it is today,” Kahlengerg said.

He went on to argue that in maintaining the current ban on affirmative action allows universities to find indirect methods to promote diversity and help students who come from more vulnerable communities.

“Universities find new, and better, ways to promote diversity by providing a leg up to economically disadvantaged students of all races,” Kahlenberg said.