Traditional conservative White opposition to affirmative action is a big part of Prop 16’s failure but cannot explain all of it.
Democrat Joe Biden carried deep-blue California 64 to 34 percent over President Trump. Assuming, plausibly, that all Trump voters voted “no” on Prop 16, up to 23 percent of the state’s 16 million voters may have both backed the Biden-Harris ticket — the latter member of whom, California Sen. Kamala D. Harris, endorsed Prop 16 — and rejected affirmative action.
Supporters of the proposition, led by Shirley Weber, an African American Democratic state legislator, put it on the ballot in June at the height of anti-racism protests set off by the death of George Floyd under a police officer’s knee in Minneapolis. It seemed an opportune moment to repeal the 1996 ban, one of eight similar measures in states, including Florida and Michigan, that contain roughly a quarter of the U.S. population.
Endorsements for Prop 16 came from Newsom; Democrats who represent California in the U.S. House and Senate; the mayors of Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and San Diego; the Bay Area’s professional sports franchises; Facebook; Wells Fargo; Uber; United Airlines; the University of California Board of Regents; leading editorial boards and major public employee unions.
Yet instead of securing passage, this unified stance of the state’s institutional leadership mainly exposed a gap between elite opinion and public opinion.
Californians are facing the political realities of race-conscious policy in a state where non-Hispanic Whites and Latinos each compose 38 percent of the population, Black people 6 percent and Asian Americans 14 percent. That last group, a historically oppressed non-White category, accounted for 29 percent of enrolled students at the University of California at Berkeley in 2017 under the existing no-affirmative action law.
Pre-election opinion data showed Asian Americans second only to Whites in rejecting Prop 16; the former group did so by 11 points. Latinos were evenly divided, and African Americans backed it by a margin of 25 points.
Almost 73 percent of Santa Clara voted for Biden-Harris, but it rejected Prop 16 by 53 to 47 percent. The measure won just six of California’s 58 counties; in Los Angeles, the only “yes” county outside the Bay Area, it squeaked by with 51 percent.
Meanwhile, California’s moribund Republicans staged a comeback in races for the U.S. House, increasing their share of the state’s delegation from eight to as many as 11, if current vote leads hold.
Circumstantial evidence suggests Prop 16 may have helped them. Republican Michelle Steel, a Korean American who campaigned for a no vote on Prop 16, won her race in Orange County, which is 40 percent White and 21 percent Asian American, by two points over incumbent Democrat Harley Rouda. Another Prop 16 opponent, Korean American Republican Young Kim won a neighboring district that is also heavily Asian American. Orange County voted no by 65.4 percent, even as it gave Biden-Harris 53.6 percent.
Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, an Asian American group that backed Prop 16, acknowledged in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle after Nov. 3 that “there’s a lot of work to do to help enlist more folks who are championing the promotion of policies that really fix structural racism.”
If anything, this is an understatement. Prop 16 would have permitted the use of race in admissions and other decisions for purposes of “diversity,” not compensation for past injustices.
It is a far milder remedy for systemic racism than the intellectual leader of the anti-racism movement, Ibram X. Kendi, has recommended: a constitutional amendment that would declare all group inequities evidence of racist policy, coupled with a new federal anti-racism agency empowered to eliminate and prevent them.
Yet diversity is the one rationale for race-conscious policies the Supreme Court has ever accepted.
And it may not do that much longer. The California vote has no direct impact on the legal challenges anti-affirmative action groups are mounting against race-conscious university admissions, but it provides them a political and psychological boost. Affirmative action seems to be an area in which a 6-to-3 conservative majority is likeliest to thwart progressive aspirations at the court.
In 2003, the justices endorsed race-conscious university admissions, 5-to-4, with a controlling opinion by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noting they might no longer be needed after 25 years. That proviso expires in 2028.