The California Legislature put this proposition on the ballot, via a bill by San Diego Assemblymember Dr. Shirley Weber (D-79). If passed, this constitutional amendment would allow schools and public agencies to take race and other immutable characteristics into account when making admission, hiring or contracting decisions.
In 1996, California voters passed Proposition 209, a constitutional amendment banning affirmative action at state agencies and institutions. The result was an immediate drop in Black and Latino enrollment at the California’s elite public universities. Some civil rights organizations have been trying to repeal Prop. 209 ever since, but each of those attempts has been stymied.
“California has suffered for the last 24 years trying to create equality and justice and equal opportunity without an affirmative effort to do that. And we see a decline with regards to not only the achievement gap, but also the economic gap between people of color and women and White men in the state of California,” said Weber, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus.
Proposition 16 asks voters to reinstate affirmative action, which would allow state agencies and institutions to once again consider race in employment, contracting and college admissions.
“The reinstatement of affirmative action is a concrete way to dismantle systemic racism,” said Eva Paterson, President of the Equal Justice Society and co-chair of the “Yes on Proposition 16” campaign. “You have heard that businesses owned by women and people of color have lost $1.1 billion a year. Imagine what that money would have done in the pockets of our community.”
It’s been estimated that because they were not allowed to compete for state contracts, minority-owned businesses lost more than $1 billion per year since the passage of 209. Many businesses moved out of the state.
Weber said opportunity should be shared by all people across California, particularly because it is a state that is majority ethnic and has a majority of women.
In California, 37 percent of state residents are White. Combined, ethnic groups account for 63 percent of the population of nearly 40 million people. It is estimated that Hispanics make up 39 percent of that number; Asians, 15 percent, and African-Americans, 6 percent.
White Californians make up nearly 60 percent of the people whose earnings rise to the top 10 percent of annual incomes in the state, according to the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). Hispanics account for nearly 15 percent of those top earners and the number of African-Americans among the people with the highest incomes in the California falls below 5 percent.
“We should be looking at policy through the lense of balance,” said Rene Regard, an investment manager who participated in a recent Town Hall meeting coordinated by the LA Urban League Young Professionals and the Equal Justice Now organization. “We’re currently off balance. Our ancestors did not have the right to get paid for their work. That has created a huge imbalance in our system.”
In addition to African-Americans, women, Latinx communities, Asian-Americans and other minorities will be considered for state contracts and college admissions should 16 pass. Currently, UC schools admit Black students at a rate 16 percentage points lower than the overall rate, according to proponents.
“We’re missing those bright stars that never got the chance,” said supporter Ed Sanders.
“It’s an educational crisis and an economic crisis as well,” said Gene Hale, chairman of the Greater Los Angeles African American Chamber of Commerce, who added that billions of dollars are lost annually by businesses unable to get government contracts because of 209’s ban on affirmative action. “This is something you need to do. This is why it is necessary to vote.”
Prop 16 is endorsed by Sen. Kamala Harris; Gov. Gavin Newsom; the California NAACP; founders of Black Lives Matter; Dr. Bernice King; the ACLU; the California Teachers Association; nurses; firefighters; and over 400 leaders and organizations.
“Black people, especially Black women, have long faced disproportionate health, wealth, and education gaps compared to their White counterparts,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-43) said. “These gaps persist due to longstanding, discriminatory laws designed to entrench and sustain White supremacy, including California’s ban on affirmative action. It’s now up to us to continue the work of so many activists and supporters who’ve fought hard to get Prop 16 on the ballot this year. We must harness the power of our vote to pass Prop 16 — a monumental next step toward building a more fair and just California.”
Opponents of affirmative action have challenged race-based preferences in the Supreme Court. They argue that the the change would make race more important than merit in college admissions and employment processes, a form of reverse discrimination.
“This proposition will allow California’s public universities to keep students out because of their race, in order to help students of another race get in,” wrote Tom Campbell, former dean of the Haas School of Business at the UC Berkeley in the state voter information guide.
Other opponents include Ward Connerly, president of Californians for Equal Rights and Betty Tom Chu, former California Constitution Revision Commissioner.