Prop. 16 Would Bring Affirmative Action Back To California, Critics Say It's Not Necessary
In the 1950s, California Assemblywoman Shirley Weber and her family moved from Hope, Arkansas to Los Angeles. She was only a toddler then, but she remembers the details well. The situation was tense.
Her father — a sharecropper — had to dash out of town because there was a target on his back.
“He was going to be lynched,” Weber said. “Even though he owned land, he was forced to work someone else's land as well as his own. And so they were going to cheat him, as they normally do every year, by not paying them what he deserved.”
“He stood up. They had a brawl. And in the end, they decided that he was probably someone who needed to be eliminated,” she said.
At San Diego State University, Weber recalled escaping persecution, going to college and eventually becoming one of the founders of the Africana studies department at the university.
Weber said she was driven by her desire to work hard and fight like her father.
But she also had help.
“I went to grad school because I was a Black student. It was a gap program at UC Los Angeles, and I had one Black professor who nominated me for a Woodrow Wilson fellow,” Weber said.
“I was a struggling student as a freshman and sophomore, but I figured it out and I became an excellent student," Weber said. "They took my race and gender in consideration because they felt they needed more folks of my color in grad school and in universities teaching. That was an affirmative action program for a poor kid like me.”
When California banned affirmative action in 1996, poor, underserved minorities were left behind, because state institutions could not develop programs specifically for them, Weber said.
“To improve our schools everybody tells us we need teachers who look more like our students, yet we can't develop a teacher training and a program of recruitment for new teachers based on race,” she said. “And the improvement of my schools is contingent upon getting teachers who understand the kids. So this Prop. 16 is critical.”
Proposition 16 asks voters to strike the non-discrimination language in the state’s constitution.
Critics say reverse discrimination doesn’t fix discrimination.
Weber is the sponsor of Prop. 16, a November ballot initiative that asks California voters to bring affirmative action back to public schools and government work. In the years following the civil rights movement, affirmative action was seen as a next step to reverse centuries of racism.
But California banned the policy in 1996 by passing Proposition 209, which said public institutions and government work should grant no preferential treatment based on race, sex, ethnicity or national origin. Prop. 16 says that Prop. 209 should be reversed.
“You can't give preferential treatment to one group without discriminating against another group. What's fair is everyone is treated the same regardless of race,” said Gail Heriot, a professor of law at the University of San Diego and one of the lead donors on the No on Prop. 16 campaign.
“The legislature wants to be able to grant preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. I oppose that. I think that's a dangerous power to give the state government or the universities,' she said. "So that's what our campaign is about. We're urging the voters to keep discrimination illegal, to keep that those words in the Constitution.”
The Yes on Prop. 16 campaign argues recent protests against police brutality reflect how still law enforcement treats Black and brown people differently. But, Heriot said you can’t solve discrimination with discrimination.
“Just go cold turkey, you're not going to fix things by saying, 'Well, we used to discriminate this way. Now let's discriminate that way,'” she said.
And she says underserved communities have done better. It’s true, the University of California system has seen an increase in undergraduate students of color. Since 1999 the percent of Latinos has doubled and the black population has gone up by just under 1 percentage point.
Heriot said it’s not helpful when students are admitted into schools they aren’t prepared to compete at.
“There's also a lot of evidence that students do better when they're not given preferential treatment when they're not put in a school where they're going to tend to be with their academic credentials towards the bottom of the class,” she said. “It's a good thing when students attend colleges where their academic credentials put them in the ballpark with the rest of the students.”
A racist system will always be racist
While it’s true there has been progress for people of color in California, there are still a lot of disparities. For example, while Latinos and Blacks are around 46% of California’s population, they only make up about a third of the undergrad system. And the number of Pell grant recipients, or low-income students on scholarship, has steadily decreased since 2015.
And the U.S. Census Survey of Business Owners showed that from 2007 to 2012, the number of Black-owned businesses grew 40.4% in the U.S. and 32.3% in California. But while those increases show promise, the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are still hitting those minority-owned businesses the hardest.
National Geographic reported in July that an analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that 41% of Black-owned businesses, or 440,000 enterprises, have closed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s compared to just 17% of white-owned businesses.
With our without affirmative action, a racist society will never go far enough to eliminate disparities, said Autumn Arnett, an independent education equity researcher in Austin, Texas.
“We know that across industries, whether education or employment, that white women have been the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action,” she said.
One 1995 California Senate Committee study found that after decades of affirmative action, it was white women who ended up gaining most managerial jobs, not the people of color who were supposed to be elevated.
“We know that Black and brown people have still not been able to see their levels of representation increase proportionate to their population numbers,” Arnett said.
It’s one thing to create a policy to give people of color more opportunities, but once they get to the school or get to the job, they have to be given the support to succeed, she said.
“The benefits [of affirmative action] are that people are absolutely getting more opportunities. Like you absolutely can't say whites-only college. But, the detractors are that maybe we didn't help the people that we set out to help as much as we needed to and want to,” Arnet said.
“Affirmative action came about because we realized that we tried to say desegregate. We tried to say let them in. And that is not happening. So now let's go a step further and let's say affirmative action,” she said.
Real progress can only happen when everyone commits to moving toward a more equitable society, and that affirmative action, with the best intentions, is a first step, Arnett said.
“And I think now we're having a conversation on how that still didn't go far enough," she said. "We still didn't tell them how to fix it. We just told them you must let them play in your sandbox."
Opponents of Prop. 16 say affirmative action isn’t necessary, because the work to level the playing field is already happening. In other words, discrimination is not getting worse, it’s been alleviated and continues to go away.
But backers of Prop. 16, such as Assemblywoman Weber, say that’s not the case. And while passing the proposition doesn’t mean the work is done, it’s certainly a start.
“You can't begin to talk about changing the world,” she said. “You can’t do that if you're not willing to make sure that the people who live in this world with you have equal opportunity and access to things that will improve their lives.”