More than 20 years ago, California became the first state to outlaw affirmative action through Proposition 209.
That 1996 law bars any attempt to “discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin” in matters of public employment, education or contracts.
But now, amid protests for racial justice, California voters will have the opportunity to reinstate affirmative action — which is meant to give a leg up to historically disadvantaged communities — through Proposition 16.
If it passes, Prop. 16 would again let government agencies set goals for recruiting diverse employees and awarding contracts to women and minority-owned businesses. It would not reinstate racial quotas, which have been illegal under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling since 1978.
While much in society and politics has changed since California voters outlawed affirmative action in the ’90s, many of the arguments surrounding affirmative action are familiar.
Supporters say it evens the playing field for students, workers and business owners who typically face discrimination, while opponents say affirmative action is itself a form of discrimination and racism.
Even some of the players are the same 24 years later, including Leo Terrell. The Los Angeles civil rights attorney fought against Prop. 209 but has since switched sides and is now working to keep the ban in place. (The lifelong Democrat also plans to vote for a Republican — Donald Trump — for the first time this year.)
Terrell, a Black man, says California and the nation have made tremendous progress on diversity in the years since affirmative action was banned, so it’s no longer necessary.
“Look at all these Democratic cities we’re talking about right now — L.A., Chicago, Atlanta — you got people of color running government,” he said. “We had a Black president for eight years!”
Barack Obama’s election as president did not end racism. But Terrell says his issue is with the term “systemic racism”: “You can’t have systemic discrimination when the people that are allegedly being discriminated against are the people in charge,” he said.
There are of course many people, including Prop. 16 supporters, who disagree with Terrell wholesale, arguing that life for communities of color has not improved since California outlawed affirmative action.
Prop. 209 “created even more unequal opportunity,” said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D—San Diego). “It created a situation where we saw greater levels of poverty. We still see women who don’t have the same opportunity as other women. We still see businesses leaving California because it is too difficult to get contracts here.”
Weber, who has previously served on San Diego’s Board of Education, said in the aftermath of Prop. 209 it was difficult to tailor programs to the needs of certain students.
“We knew young women were struggling in the area of science, technology, mathematics and electronics, and yet we could not have a STEM program for girls,” she said. “We had to have a STEM program for everybody, and those ‘everybody’ programs weren’t the most effective.”
A poll out this week from the Public Policy Institute of California suggests the proposition is floundering, with only 31% of likely voters in support and nearly a quarter undecided on the measure.
Even among Democrats, Prop. 16 is struggling — the poll shows only 46% of Democrats in support of the measure, while 72% of Republicans and 58% of independents oppose reinstating affirmative action.
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