Politics and Social Issues

Why Did California Reject Affirmative Action?

By Jackson K. ’21

Election season can be pretty boring for a Californian. Unlike our countrymen in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, or New Hampshire, we always know where our generous fifty-five electoral votes are going and what party our two senators will belong to. This past year, while Nevada kept us on the edge of our seats for days, we were called for Biden by CNN a whopping one second after polls closed. This past November, however, California voters did manage to surprise political scientists in a different category of the ballot: the propositions. In particular, voters unexpectedly rejected Prop. 16, which aimed to reinstate California’s public agencies, universities and community colleges with the ability to consider race, gender and ethnicity when making decisions on contracting, hiring and student admissions. Despite backing from significant figures in California politics, the strong progressive voting base in the state, and the fact that the campaign in support of the proposition raised twenty times as much money as the opposition, California voters shot it down in decisive fashion: Prop. 16 lost by twelve points. So, what happened? 

Californians have grappled with the legality of race-based decision making for decades. The state’s first major encounter with the controversial issue occured in the 1970s, when UC Davis began reserving spots in their medical school exclusively for minority applicants. Allan Bakke, a white student who was repeatedly rejected from the institution’s medical school despite having a GPA and test scores higher than the average student at UC Davis, sued the school for this system. He made the case that because he was academically above the average accepted student, the only reason he was rejected was because of his race, which violated his Constitutional rights, as defined by the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. This case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that strict racial quotas, such as the system of reserving spots for non-white applicants, was unconstitutional. However, the Court also left the door open for affirmative action in less aggressive terms, stating that an application selection system that considered race as one of many factors, rather than as the sole factor or in a binding quota, was acceptable. The precedent set by this case defined the way California approached the issue of affirmative action and race-conscious application processes for fifteen years, with race being considered as one of several factors for applicants seeking employment or acceptance into public jobs and universities. Soon enough, however, the state would again reconsider its stance.

In 1995, a UC regent named Ward Connerly became chairman of the California Civil Rights Initiative. His goal was to add the following to the California Consititution: “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” Born in 1930s segregationist Kentucky, Connerly had spent much of his life slashing down race-centered rules and regulations, not unlike those which had forced his family to flee to California in the 1940s. As regent, Connerly had been critical of the UC system’s race-conscious system of application consideration, convinced that Black and Latino/a/x students were being given unfair preferential treatment over white and Asian applicants. As such, despite criticism from the Black political community, which antagonized Connerly as being an “oreo” — Black on the outside, but white within — Connerly spearheaded the campaign to constitutionally outlaw affirmative action of any kind. Connerly’s effort went onto the 1996 ballot as Prop. 209. The Daily Californian, the student newspaper at UC Berkeley, supported the proposition. “Race-based affirmative action is wrong because it discriminates on the basis of race,” it decried. “The goal of affirmative action, to redress centuries of shameful discrimination against Blacks, Latinos, other minorities, and women is praiseworthy and urgent. But the ends of social policies do not justify the means.” Prop. 209 was opposed by California Senators Box and Feinstein, progressive Democrat Jesse Jackson, Rosa Parks, the ACLU, and the California Teachers Association, along with much of the Latino/a/x and Black community in the state. On election day, though, 54.5 percent of California voters supported Prop. 209, and it became official state law. Connerly regarded it as another significant victory in the long fight for Civil Rights, comparing his triumph to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Declaration of Independence. 

Ever since affirmative action was officially banned, progressives have been trying to reinstate the policy. In the aftermath of 1996, many supporters of affirmative action blamed widespread misinformation and confusion around what race-conscious application processes actually looked like in a modern context, which likely scared voters into voting to ban the practice. As time has gone on, and California has become more diverse and moved further to the political left, opponents of the ban have become increasingly numerous and outspoken. In 2011, the state legislature even passed a bill aimed at weakening the affirmative action ban, but it was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. 

In 2020, the political climate seemed to shift decisively in favor of California progressives. In the wake of the George Floyd killing and a summer full of protests against racial injustice, the California state legislature managed to put affirmative action on the ballot once again. Prop. 16 essentially aimed to repeal the 1996 decision, allowing for affirmative action once more, and progressives in the state were very optimistic. After all, since 1996, California has undergone tremendous cultural, political, demographic, and socioeconomic changes. In 1996, California had a moderate Republican as its Governor and the white population was still a comfortable majority. Today, the progressive Democrat Gavin Newsom sits in the Governor’s Mansion and the Latino/a/x community is the largest racial group. Plus, millennials and members of Generation Z, two age groups which tend to lean left, would be voting in mass. A world away from its stance against affirmative action in 1996, student writers from Berkeley’s The Daily Californian declared the following: “The Daily Cal’s editorial board once endorsed Prop. 209 to ban affirmative action… We seek to rectify that harm… Californians must right a long-standing wrong by opening employment and state educational opportunities to women and BIPOC… Let’s work toward a more equitable society through race- and sex-conscious legislation.” The proposition was also endorsed by Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein, roughly 30 Democratic members of the House of Representatives, Governor Gavin Newsom, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, and hundreds of other local officials. Several newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, The Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle, La Opinión, the East Bay Times, The Sacramento Bee, and The Fresno Bee also endorsed the proposition. The “Yes on Prop. 16” campaign also raised twenty times as much as the campaign against it, allowing its supporters to dominate the airwaves. On the eve of Election Day, many progressive activists prepared for the ban to finally come to an end after 24 years. Yet, as we’ve seen, these hopes were quickly dashed by a twelve point romping. Interestingly, Prop. 16 received a higher percentage of “no” votes than the 1996 Prop. 209 received “yes” votes, meaning affirmative action is apparently seen more negatively by California voters now than it was in 1996. As soon as data began to emerge around the surprising result, experts on both sides began to diagnose what had happened.

Gail Heriot, a professor at UCSD, commended California voters for “looking past race and sex,” saying that this vote was a rejection of “indentity politics.” On a similar note, Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic called the decision to support race-neutral policies “prudent,” and said it was common sense for such a diverse state to reject affirmative action. However, examination of the data leads to a different conclusion. If the vote was a matter of common sense as some opponents of Prop. 16 believed, the vote would have been consistent across racial groups. In reality, however, the data suggests that there was more going on than that, as the “no” vote wasn’t equally distributed across certain demographics. Native American and Black voters strongly supported Prop. 16, a slight majority of Latino/a/x voters supported it, and a majority of white voters opposed it. This suggests that certain racial groups saw Prop. 16 as more favorable than others, countering the idea that it was “common sense,” which typically transcends demographics and social groups. While the Native American and Black voting bases voted in expected fashion, the doom of Prop. 16 came with the lack of support from the Asian-American vote, the Latino/a/x vote, and the white vote.  

In the months leading up to November 3rd, surveys indicated that the majority of Asian-American voters in California supported Prop. 16, and progressives hoped that, along with strong support from the Latino/a/x demographic, Asian voters could deliver a victory. However, as the vote drew nearer, dedicated Asian-American activists who opposed Prop. 16 began to campaign fiercely among this crucial demographic with a potent message: Prop. 16 would destroy Asian-American acceptance rates at UC schools. At the elite schools of the UC system, Asian-Americans disproportionately dominate the student population, as they comprise 45 percent of enrolled students despite making up just 15 percent of the state’s total population. As such, it stood to be reasoned that efforts to include more Black and especially more Latino/a/x students would come primarily at the expense of Asian-American student numbers. Regardless of how much truth that reasoning held, this fear was taken full advantage of by the “No on Prop. 16” campaign, and it hit home with many members of the Asian-American community. Groups like the Asian American Coalition of Education (AACE), the Silicon Valley Chinese Association Foundation (SVCAF), and Californians for Equal Rights, all of which have leadership teams of majority Asian-American members, were highly influential in turning the Asian-American vote against Prop. 16 and affirmative action. On the topic of affirmative action, Jason Xu of the SVCAF stated, “I want people to judge me by the content of my character, not the color of my skin. That’s one of the reasons the United States is the best in the world. Because it’s merit-based.” After the rejection of Prop. 16, President of the AACE Yukong Zhao had similar thoughts, saying, “The resounding rejection of Proposition 16 demonstrates again that we are on the right side of history. Going forward, I’d like to warn liberal politicians in California and nationwide: focus your efforts on devising effective measures to improve K-12 education for Black and Hispanic children, instead of introducing racially divisive and discriminatory laws time and again. You have failed in California… Asian-Americans will fight fiercely and defeat your racist policies wherever and whenever tried.” 

In terms of the divided Latino/a/x vote, the blame is largely put onto voter education, or a lack thereof. For example, according to exit polls, many Latino/a/x voters believed that Prop. 16 would bring back racial quota systems. However, as previously discussed, quotas based on race were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court decades ago. A modern approach to affirmative action is not nearly as reliant on race alone, it merely advocates for the inclusion of one’s race as a factor in employment and education applications. Prop. 16 supporters say that this is the culprit behind the divided Latino/a/x vote, which was shockingly almost a 50-50 split, despite the fact that researchers believed members of this racial group had the most to gain from Prop. 16. Exit polls indicated that only 39 percent of Latino/a/x voters understood what Prop. 16 was aiming to do. Furthermore, 16 percent of Latino/a/x voters switched their opinion on Prop. 16 once it had been fully explained to them. Considering that the Latino/a/x is the largest racial population in the state, these blunders had massive consequences for Prop. 16, which had a campaign that clearly failed to get the message out effectively. 

Another failure of the Prop. 16 campaign was the lack of support it got from moderate white voters. In California, 37 percent of white voters identify as liberal, and another 37 percent identify as conservative. The remaining 26 percent consider themselves moderate, though a vast majority of these voters skew to the left. Clearly, the loss of the white vote is due mostly to Prop. 16’s unpopularity among moderate white Democrats, which was another massive error on the part of the Prop. 16 campaign. Considering the fact that white voters as a bloc in California are firmly liberal, it’s clear that many of these moderates would have likely agreed with the Prop. 16’s agenda, but due to a lack of education many voted against it, thinking it would do something else. However, this is a controversial topic, as it’s also possible that many white moderate voters are just more centrist and anti-progressive than previously thought. 

It’s clear that the stunning rejection of affirmative action in California was a result of many variables, including Asian-American fears regarding acceptance rates at UC institutions, a lack of voter education, and potentially a white voting base that was more moderate than expected. Whatever the truth behind the outcome, California is likely to only become more diverse and progressive as time goes on, and in all likelihood this will not be the last time California voters are asked about the validity of affirmative action. For now, though, The Golden State will remain a bastion of race-neutral politics. 

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