Californians Reject Effort To Reinstate Affirmative Action Policy

The Prop. 16 ballot measure to overturn a 1996 law faced a tough battle in its final weeks.

California voters rejected a ballot measure in Tuesday’s election that sought to give public institutions the ability to reinstate affirmative action policies, The Associated Press projected Wednesday.

Had it passed, Proposition 16 would have overturned a ballot measure approved in 1996 that said public institutions could not consider race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin when making decisions about employment, contracting or university admissions.

It became clear in the weeks leading up the Nov. 3 election that Prop. 16’s supporters were fighting an uphill battle. It was down by 10 percentage points in late October, and a September survey by the Public Policy Institute of California found that just 31% of likely voters planned to vote yes on the bill.

The effort to walk back the 1996 law came amid the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent economic downturn that have disproportionately affected people of color, especially Black and Latinx Americans.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, who chairs the California Black Legislative Caucus, led the effort to introduce the measure in March, saying that banning affirmative action has “cost women- and minority-owned businesses $1.1 billion each year. It has perpetuated a wage gap wherein women make 80 cents on every dollar made by men and has allowed discriminatory hiring and contracting processes to continue unhindered.”

California, she noted, is one of only nine states in the country that does not allow race or gender to be considered when giving out employment and educational opportunities.

Almost immediately after voters decided to ban affirmative action in public institutions, Black and Latinx enrollment in the University of California system plummeted.

Though opponents of affirmative action in education often argue that it sets underqualified students up to fail, research says otherwise.

Jack Mountjoy, a University of Chicago economist, broke down the small effects it has for The New York Times in August: According to his research, there is only a 1-percentage-point decrease in graduation rates and a $1,000 decline in earnings for Black students who attended more selective public universities in Texas, where an affirmative action program guarantees that students who graduate in the top 10% of their high school class are granted admission to a state-funded college.

But the campaign against Prop. 16 painted it as a step backward and a gateway for discrimination. Several of its supporters have said they believed it would hurt white and Asian American students from underprivileged backgrounds.

“There are lots of poor kids from immigrant families today going through what I went through when I first came to this country from communist China at age 10 not speaking any English,” Ying Ma, communications director for the No on 16 campaign, told the Los Angeles Times a week before the election.

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