The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

California voters revisit a fraught history on race with a referendum on the 1990s

Apryl Sims sets up a table at a Proposition 16 rally at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles during early voting in California. Passage of Proposition 16 would enable California state and local entities to consider race, sex, color, ethnicity and national origin in public education, public employment and public contracting. (Allison Zaucha/For The Washington Post)

LOS ANGELES — The University of California campus here is nearly silent on a recent blue-sky afternoon, the coronavirus the culprit. A few students play Frisbee or run stairs in the warm autumn sun.

Although Election Day is near, no voter education booths are in front of UCLA’s Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center, no pamphleteering in the vast quad or any other in-person efforts to help demystify California’s notoriously complex ballot, which this year is filled with propositions from legislators, lobbyists and citizen groups. More than 6 million people in the state have already voted.

Belying the calm here, among the two dozen ballot measures this November is a loud echo of California’s conservative past and a telling referendum on the nation’s debate about the place of race and gender in commerce and classrooms.

The question before voters is whether to restore affirmative action in considering state contracting, hiring and college admissions. The measure, known as Proposition 16, amounts to an opportunity for a new, much more liberal generation to reverse the last in highly contentious policies passed here decades ago.

Warmer. Burning. Epidemic-challenged. Expensive. The California Dream has become the California Compromise.

The verdict will serve as a response to the conservative 1990s, when California’s population shifted from a White majority to one in which minority groups account for the most residents. In 1996, state voters approved Proposition 209, which amended the state Constitution to ban affirmative action in the public sphere.

But a campaign season dominated by a noisy presidential race, big advertising money for California’s other ballot measures and coronavirus shutdowns has conspired against Proposition 16, which has the support of the entire Democratic establishment but less than a majority of the public. Some recent polls show the race tightening slightly as the “yes” campaign uses its financial advantage on social media and in cable advertising.

Its fate, though, is likely to be determined by voters such as Christine Tran and her friends here who were not yet born when Proposition 209 passed.

“It’s unrealistic to not consider race at all,” said Tran, 20, a political science major at UCLA whose Asian American racial group has benefited more than any other from the end of affirmative action.

Tran, a junior from San Diego, said she has heard very little about the proposition other than from her friends, including other Asian American students. Many of them are still questioning the merits of restoring a policy that gives added weight to race.

“They ask me why I would want to give away my spot to someone less qualified,” said Tran, a UCLA-printed mask covering her face. “But I also consider the fact all students don’t have the same resources growing up. There may be some harm to some groups, but overall it would be beneficial.”

The “majority-minority” population gap is widening in California, and communities are moving quickly to redress what they consider mistakes of the past.

In recent weeks, the San Francisco school board has identified nearly a third of the city’s public campuses for possible name changes, erasing figures such as John Muir, Paul Revere and other historically celebrated men with problematic records on race. A 13-year-old statue of former governor Pete Wilson (R), who campaigned for president in 1996 in part on his support for ending affirmative action, was removed this month in his hometown of San Diego amid public pressure from Latino groups.

The state legislature has established the nation’s first task force to examine the practicality of paying minorities financial reparations for the state’s historic racism, a step propelled by Assemblywoman Shirley N. Weber (D-San Diego), who also led the effort to place Proposition 16 on the ballot.

“It’s a different conversation now, given that, over the last 25 years, California has shifted from purple to blue to indigo,” said Dan Schnur, a top adviser to Wilson in the 1990s and now a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy.

Schnur, like many Californians, has since left the Republican Party because of its move to the right. He has not declared for any party, a voter category that has surpassed Republican registration in the state of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.

“Proposition 16 represents immense real-world stakes for a relatively small percentage of the population,” Schnur said. “But it seems as though, for the rest of voters, especially those on the left, it may seem more symbolic and that, in the age of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there may be more urgent concerns at hand.”

The conservative experiment

California in the 1990s would be politically unrecognizable to some of the young voters here today.

The decade began with Whites accounting for 57 percent of the state population, according to the U.S. Census. By the end of the decade, that share had dropped to 47 percent.

The politics, fearful and supercharged, reflected the slow-boil change. Voters approved Proposition 187 in 1994, the strictest measure against undocumented immigration in the nation. The legislation denied undocumented immigrants most public services aside from emergency medical treatment.

Wilson rode his endorsement of the measure to the governor’s mansion. Even Dianne Feinstein (D) waited until very late in the race to condemn the popular legislation, eventually winning her first term in the U.S. Senate. That same year, voters also passed a “three-strikes” measure, sending third-time felons to prison for life.

Two years later, state voters approved the ban on affirmative action, a measure labeled on the ballot as the California Civil Rights Initiative. Even the name has proven problematic for those who oppose it now, given its echo of the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

Where the nation saw a trend to conservatism in a vanguard state, some of those involved in the 1990s ballot efforts thought the rapid-fire timing, more than anything else, gave a somewhat false impression of where California was headed.

“The two may have added up to more than the sum of their parts,” Schnur said of Propositions 187 and 209. “It was common knowledge that the state was changing demographically. But the changes in voter registration were not keeping up with the population shift, to the point where it focused political attention on either side of the aisle.”

The Trump administration is targeting affirmative action policies at universities under a new initiative in the Justice Department. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

As those demographic changes accelerated, state lawmakers and the courts have amended all of those past measures, except for the affirmative action ban.

Proposition 187 was overturned in the courts, and in a sign of just how much has changed politically, lawmakers voted three years ago to make California the nation’s first “sanctuary state” for undocumented immigrants.

The three-strikes law filled state prisons to overflow, prompting legal action that required a reduction in the prison population. The third felony must now be a serious crime to warrant a life sentence, and this November’s ballot includes a measure to restore voting rights to former convicts and another to uphold a law banning cash bail.

To those behind Proposition 16, the moment has come to address affirmative action, which many young voters today are surprised to find was ever banned in a state that is now so liberal.

“Everything has changed: The electorate has changed, the mood in the cities has changed and the state is changing,” said Cecilia Estolano, a member of the UC Board of Regents, which in June voted unanimously to endorse placing Proposition 16 on the ballot almost a quarter-century after the board voted to end affirmative action.

“It is time to address this issue,” she said. “It is time to eliminate this vestige of what was a racist campaign in the 1990s.”

Personal then, personal now

In addition to revisiting political history, the campaign around Proposition 16 has had a “getting the band back together” feel to it. Organizers on both sides were involved with — or felt the effects of — Proposition 209.

Estolano was a student at the University of California at Berkeley Law School at the time. The state’s flagship public law school was then called Boalt Hall. But the name, taken from prominent Oakland lawyer John Boalt, was removed earlier this year because of his support for racist anti-Chinese campaigns at the turn of the 20th century.

“Those of us who were in graduate school and college when Prop 209 passed, and remember it very personally, very viscerally because of what it did to the campuses, well, we are now adults,” said Estolano, who runs an urban planning firm. “We are now in positions of influence and power, and we can, I think, effectively articulate what’s at stake.”

Those stakes have, until now, been argued mostly through numbers rather than in moral terms. The debate also has focused on the crown-jewel UC System, the state’s third-largest employer, which spends more than $12 billion annually on goods and services.

Across its 10 campuses, the UC System’s student body of 280,000 has never been more diverse. But it is not as diverse as the state’s rapidly shifting demography suggests it should be, a legacy of the 1996 measure. Opponents say the change prevented public admissions and faculty hiring from keeping up.

A report prepared for the UC Board of Regents in September showed that 37 percent of undergraduate students were from “underrepresented groups,” defined as African Americans, Native Americans and Latinos.

But in California, those groups account for 57 percent of the annual high school graduating classes, according to another UC Regents’ report. That’s nearly double the proportion since the affirmative action ban passed.

White admission rates have declined the most during the past 2½ decades, despite the end of affirmative action. Only African American enrollment has decreased in that time among historically underrepresented groups.

By contrast, Asian American enrollment has climbed to close to 35 percent of the undergraduate student body, even higher at UCLA. Asian Americans account for 15.5 percent of the state’s population.

For the first time, Latinos this year were the largest single racial group admitted to the UC System, with 36 percent of the accepted incoming class. Latinos account for 40 percent of the state’s 40 million people.

“I don’t think people realized at the time how restrictive this would become,” said Weber, the Black assemblywoman who in June pushed through the effort to place Proposition 16 on the ballot. Weber, a professor at San Diego State University, was a member of that city’s school board at the time Proposition 209 passed.

She said the measure required the school district to cancel — or offer to everyone — all programs tailored to at-risk minority groups, including ones for young Latina girls and African American boys.

“Once we opened it up for everyone,” Weber said, “the programs worked for no one.”

The economic effect on minority and women-owned businesses following the affirmative action ban has been, in some ways, even more significant than it has been on public university enrollment.

In the fiscal year before the measure passed, the UC System awarded 10.2 percent of the value of its contracts to minority-owned businesses and 5.7 percent to those owned by women, according to a Board of Regents report. Today, minority-owned businesses receive an estimated 2.8 percent of the value of the UC System’s goods and services contracts. Those owned by women secure less than 1.9 percent.

“The decline in these contractors benefiting from that spend is astonishing and really needs to be rectified,” Estolano said. “It’s hard to address it unless you’re actually able to tell the truth about it and design programs that are targeted to those contractors very early in the process.”

Defending the principle

At 81, Ward Connerly returned earlier this year to California’s raucous political stage, which he left along with the entire state several years ago. No person is more identified with the opposition to affirmative action in California than Connerly, in large part because he is Black.

As a UC regent in the 1990s, Connerly looked at the affirmative action policies around admissions and contracting, then at the disclaimer at the bottom of nearly every UC communication pledging not to discriminate on the basis of race, sex and other factors.

He saw a conflict between the policy and the pledge. He didn’t like it. In July 1995, during a meeting with the Rev. Jesse Jackson leading the opposition, Connerly, a Republican, pushed through a resolution to end affirmative action in the UC System.

“So that’s where this all began,” he said in a recent interview. “One regent, pissed off at the establishment, deciding to take it on because he was being honest intellectually.”

Later that year, Connerly became the head of the campaign to win the ballot measure then known as the California Civil Rights Initiative. The measure would extend his UC resolution to amend the state Constitution and outlaw affirmative action across the public sector.

Wilson’s presidential campaign featured his support for the proposition, turning Connerly into a national figure and a target of anger from minorities. Sitting in airports and restaurants, he frequently heard the term “Uncle Tom” and other slurs hissed at him.

“It was successful because our country has been beating into the soul of every American the principle of fairness,” said Connerly, who was born in Jim Crow-run Louisiana in 1939 with a “C” for “colored” on his birth certificate. “That has come to define who we are as people. That is something that beats in the heart of all different groups.”

This year, Connerly moved back to California from Idaho, where he had been living for the past three years and where he said his skin color, for the first time in his life, appeared to mean little to anyone else. He returned to defend the ban.

Given the changes in the state, Connerly thought that defeating Proposition 16 “was going to be a monumental, almost impossible task.” But two sets of polls in recent months have shown that the contest may not be as lopsided as he thought.

A survey by the Public Policy Institute of California this month found that 37 percent of likely voters would support Proposition 16 after being read only its title, a slight improvement in the “yes” numbers from the previous month. Half of those surveyed — including big segments of Republicans and independents — said they oppose the measure.

Connerly said affirmative action “sets up the ultimate policy sweepstakes” because, by pitting one racial group against another, the government picks winners and losers.

“No matter how the demographics may change, if there is a critical mass of belief within every group, it won’t matter who’s in power, as long as we have that fundamental grounding of principle,” he said. “And I’m happy to say that that has occurred.”

Casting ballots in confusion

To Weber and other advocates of restoring affirmative action, it is less a “critical mass” of belief than a large amount of what she calls “noise in the system” complicating efforts to pass Proposition 16.

Weber secured the legislature’s support to put the measure on the ballot in the weeks following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody in May. The margin was large.

But since then, the presidential race has overwhelmed even local political debate, and a complex discussion about race and history central to the Proposition 16 campaign has been largely a side note.

“Our biggest opponent right now is confusion,” said Eva Paterson, co-chairman of the “Yes on Proposition 16” campaign, who said she has been working on reversing Proposition 209 “since the night it passed.”

Paterson, president and co-founder of the Equal Justice Society, said focus groups have revealed that many do not support the measure after just reading the ballot language, which by rule must repeat some of the “anti-discrimination” language placed in the state Constitution by the earlier proposition.

Once people hear a deeper explanation, she said, support for the measure increases sharply.

The “yes” campaign has raised about $16 million, far more than the opposition effort. Nearly every Democratic politician, from Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on down, has endorsed the measure. But few have spoken out consistently in favor of it.

Paterson said a large turnout for the presidential election could help. Nearly 85 percent of eligible Californians have registered to vote, the highest proportion in at least two decades. Paterson said a sizable proportion probably will be first-time voters who are not captured by most polling.

Funni Baru is one of them. But her vote is a question mark.

The 18-year-old Black freshman studying neuroscience says she has heard it all before: “You are only here because of affirmative action,” even though the policy is not in place. Her parents immigrated from Nigeria when she was a young child.

Laptop flipped open on a park bench near the campus center, Baru said, “It is something that should be reconsidered to give those with less privilege more chances.” But the stigma she has felt has left her decision in doubt.

Anna Bratcher, a White 29-year-old PhD student in epidemiology, who is originally from Georgia, said: “It’s tricky, because in practice you wouldn’t want to see race as a factor, in a perfect world. But we don’t live in a perfect world.”

Part of the challenge for proponents of the change becomes apparent in any campus visit, any trip to the grocery store. There is simply no obvious sign of the campaign — any campaign — on the streets.

The “yes” effort has 75 student representatives on campuses statewide. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, the organizing and events are virtual. A rally earlier this month at UCLA in favor of Proposition 16 was held in cars, a caravan winding through the streets of West Los Angeles.

“I think we have an imperfect system right now, but it does have its benefits,” said Robert Quian, 21, an electrical engineering major here, whose parents immigrated from South Korea.

“If we are going to have decisions made again like this, I would like to see more attention paid to socioeconomic backgrounds rather than just race,” he said. “But if people’s hearts are in the right place, there’s always a way to make it work.”