Californians were right to decline to give affirmative action a second life. People are much better off without it.
Saying 2020 is full of surprises is a gross understatement. One of the good surprises — in contrast to, say, the coronavirus reaction — in this election cycle is that voters in California, the bluest of the blue states, rejected Proposition 16, a measure that sought to restore affirmative action in the state, meaning “universities and government offices could factor in someone’s race, gender or ethnicity in making hiring, spending and admissions decisions.”
Prop 16 was the left’s latest attempt to overturn Proposition 209, which passed in California in 1996 with overwhelming support. Prop 209 banned affirmative action in the state’s constitution, mandating that California “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.”
The passing of Prop 209 made California one of eight states that ban race-based affirmative action in college admissions for all public universities. Consequently, the state’s public universities, including the University of California (UC) system, could no longer consider an applicant’s race in college admissions. Private colleges such as Stanford University, however, are not governed by Prop 209. Therefore, they continue to take race and ethnicity into their admissions considerations.
Leftists in California predicted that Prop 209 would cause a sharp drop in black, Latino, and Native American students’ enrollment in public universities and harm women and minorities’ public employment. None of these predictions came true.
Ending Affirmative Action Actually Helped Minorities
A study by Charles L. Geshekter, a professor of African history at California State University-Chico, shows that within a decade after the passage of Prop 209, minority students’ enrollment in the UC system had steadily increased to a point where “non-white ethnic minorities constituted over 60% of all freshmen and transfers at the University of California.”
The Los Angeles Times reports that white students make up only 21 percent of the UC system’s 2020 freshmen class. The rest are all minorities, including 36 percent Hispanics, 35 percent Asians, and 5 percent blacks. The rest are American Indians, Pacific Islanders, and other unidentified groups. Additionally, “about 44% of admitted students were low-income while 45% were the first in their families to attend a four-year university.”
Minority students’ graduation rate has also improved. Richard Sander, a University of California at Los Angeles law professor, found “a 55% increase in the number of black and Hispanic freshmen who graduated in four years and a 51% rise in black and Hispanic students who earned degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math.”
According to Geshekter, the improvement in minority students’ graduation rates in the UC system is a direct benefit of Prop 209: “The elimination of ethnic preferences and the prohibition against racial double standards in admissions led to a redistribution of students among the ten-campus system,” so minority students achieved better academic success when they attended a UC campus that “offered an apparently better match for their academic backgrounds and preparation.”
Systematic Racism Is a False Narrative
Despite these amazing achievements, however, leftists insist Prop 209 was a failed experiment that has hurt minorities in California. They claim some discrimination is necessary to level the playing field and fight institutional racism. As crazy as their logic sounds, more than two-thirds of California’s Democratic legislators voted to put Prop 16 on the November ballot. The “Yes on 16” campaign had support from Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom and his party, the woke tech millionaires of Silicon Valley, all leftist media, and other progressive organizations.
Opposition to Prop 16 was led by 81-year-old Ward Connerly, an African American and former UC Regent, who led the passage of Prop 209 in 1996. Connerly’s grandfather was a slave, his father lived through the Jim Crow era, and Connerly grew up in segregated Louisiana.
In an article published by the Wall Street Journal, he wrote that he truly became a full American when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Being able to pursue his happiness on his own terms strengthened his belief that our nation has made tremendous progress on race and equality. He wrote, “[T]he claim that America is ‘systemically racist’ is a false narrative that fuels racial paranoia, division and hatred.”
Prop 16 Would Have Harmed Asian Americans
Connerly led a multiracial coalition to campaign for a “No” vote on Prop 16. Asian Americans have become the most vocal and visible members of the coalition. Many Asian American parents are concerned that restoring race-based college admission would mean fewer opportunities for their children. Wenyuan Wu of the Asian-American Coalition for Education summarized the parents’ anxiety this way: “If it passes, Asian-American students will be further scapegoated and penalized in college admissions.”
In recent years, Asian Americans have become the focus of the affirmative action battle nationwide, with a number of outstanding lawsuits alleging that Asian students have been victimized by several elite colleges’ race-based admissions practices. In New York City, Asian Americans led a campaign to successfully push back Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to get rid of the Specialized High School Admissions Test for the city’s elite public high schools. In Washington state, Asian Americans helped defeat a 2019 ballot measure attempting to restore racism in public college admissions.
Besides the concerns for their kids’ college admission, many Asian parents who are first-generation immigrants themselves see affirmative action as a contradiction to their belief that America is a land of equal opportunity, where laws treat everyone equally and anyone can make it if he works hard. Their life experiences validate their faith in America. They believe any kind of discrimination should remain illegal.
Given how progressive California is, the supporters of Prop 16 initially thought passing it would be a slam dunk. After all, they raised $31 million, thanks to donations from wealthy progressives including Patricia Quillin, wife of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who donated $1 million, and Steve Ballmer, former COO of Microsoft and current owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who donated $1 million. In the meantime, the opposition raised only a little more than $1 million through mostly small donations.
When pre-election polls showed growing public opposition to Prop 16, however, the supporters resorted to smear campaigns, shaming anyone who rejected Prop 16 as racists. They claimed the “No on Prop 16” campaign was a white supremacist effort despite the fact that the “No” campaign was led by an African American and supported by diverse groups.
One of the “Yes on Prop 16” campaign ads said Prop 16 was “opposed by those who have always opposed equality.” The ad showed a video of a group of men carrying tiki torches in a march. It turned out the video was from a white supremacist march in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Affirmative Action Is an Empty Promise
In the end, neither the smear campaigns nor millions of dollars made any difference. California voters rejected the ballot measure by an overwhelming majority. The fact that this happened in a year when race-related issues have been front and center, in the most progressive state in the union, speaks volumes.
The defeat shows that even in the bluest state in America, the majority of people do not believe the only way to achieve equality is to treat people differently based on their race, ethnicity, and sex. By rejecting Prop 16, Californians also rejected the left’s condemnation of America as racist.
The history of affirmative action is a history of broken promises. Black intellectuals from Thomas Sowell to Walter Williams to Jason Riley have all written extensively on how affirmative action has slowed black people’s upward mobility, stoked racial conflicts, and diminished the achievements of blacks. Californians are right to decline to give this failed public policy a second life. People are better off without it.
Since California often sets the trend for the rest of America, hopefully the defeat of Prop 16 will inspire other parts of the country to follow suit. Maybe the time has come for us to finally end race-based preference in all college admissions and public employment so we can fulfill the ideal that every American will have an equal opportunity to live to their full potential, regardless of their race, ethnicity, and gender.