It banned what is usually called affirmative action, which means favoring groups that have suffered discrimination. Nine other states similarly restrict such programs.
California activists who want to give disadvantaged minority students more access to opportunities such as spaces in state universities thought this would be a good year to try to kill Prop 209. White Californians, who tend to oppose affirmative action, made up more than half of the population in 1996 but are now down to 37 percent. Polling of Hispanics, now 39 percent of the population, as well as Asians at 15 percent and Blacks at 6 percent, indicated support for affirmative action. The portion of registered Republicans, who strongly supported Prop 209, has dropped from 35.6 percent of the electorate in 1996 to 24 percent this year.
Vincent Pan, co-chair of the Yes on 16 campaign, is the co-executive director of the San Francisco-based organization Chinese for Affirmative Action. That group in 1975 won a landmark Supreme Court case, Lau v. Nichols, ensuring English speaking and writing instruction for immigrant students. Passing Prop 16, Pan said, would similarly encourage “very serious progress on gender discrimination and structural racism.” It would help not only minority college applicants but also minority- and female-owned businesses and minorities looking for work, he said.
But a poll of 1,704 likely voters released by the Public Policy Institute of California on Sept. 16 surprised many experts by showing Prop 16 losing by a wide margin. Only 31 percent were in favor of the proposition. Forty-seven percent were opposed.
Ying Ma, an author and public policy expert who is communications director for the No on 16 campaign, said, “We support affirmative action based on socioeconomic factors, expanded outreach to underserved communities, and the like. What we are adamantly opposed to are racial preferences.”
It is difficult to explain the issue accurately without complicated arguments and references to case law. Some Prop 16 opponents have suggested it would produce racial quotas. Pan said that is wrong. “The Supreme Court has already made it very, very clear that there will be no quotas,” he said. “Race and gender can be considered as only one of many factors.”
Such nuanced arguments are obscured in a campaign in which both sides use the same slogans. The Yes on 16 websites say “Fight Discrimination” and “Equal Opportunities for All.” The No on 16 websites say “Keep Discrimination Illegal” and “Equal Opportunity for All.”
A 2019 study by UC-Berkeley economist Zachary Bleemer found enrollment of Black and Hispanic applicants dropped an average of 13 percent over all University of California campuses after affirmative action was prohibited, the highest reductions occurring at Berkeley and UCLA.
But there has been little public outcry. Bleemer concluded that programs that emphasized applicants’ socio-economic status or guaranteed admission to the top graduates at each high school “mitigated the URM [underrepresented minority] enrollment declines precipitated by affirmative action’s prohibition.” Most California families, like American families in general, still celebrate students going on to any college. Journalists often write stories about disadvantaged students triumphing by earning college degrees.
A Los Angeles Times headline in 2019 announced: “UC admits largest and most diverse class ever of Californian freshmen.” The portion from underrepresented groups admitted to those campuses rose from 38 percent to 40 percent. Forty-four percent were part of the first generation of their families to attend college. Low-income students were 40 percent.
In that 2019 freshman class, the portion of Asian Americans was 35 percent, Hispanics 34 percent, Whites 22 percent and Blacks 5 percent. In 1996 when Prop 209 passed, the freshman class was 36 percent Asian American, 13 percent Hispanic, 38 percent White and 3.7 percent Black. The portion of Hispanics soared 21 percentage points and the portion of Whites dropped 16 percentage points in those 23 years.
Research indicates low minority student performance in college is not the result of admission issues, but of poor preparation in K-12 schools. That is the reason public school districts such as Los Angeles have encouraged more participation in demanding Advanced Placement classes, even for students from low-income families.
Whatever the result of the Prop 16 vote, voters will remain split on the issue. As is usual with education, the most important developments will be in classrooms, not in voting booths.