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Affirmative action just lost in California — again

The state will maintain its ban on using the controversial practice in hiring and admissions decisions.

Christina Animashaun/Vox
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

California voters rejected the ballot initiative Proposition 16, voting to maintain a ban on affirmative action in the state.

Affirmative action became illegal in the state in 1996 under ballot measure Proposition 209, which prohibited discrimination or preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin. Proposition 16 would have overturned this, meaning California’s state and local governments, as well as public universities, would have been allowed to establish affirmative action programs that rely on factors like race and sex.

In 1996, Proposition 209 was popular, winning about 55 percent of votes. Its proponents argued it was time to eliminate preferential treatment based on factors like race and sex, and then-Gov. Pete Wilson advocated for the measure as part of his bid to be the Republican nominee for president.

But it had immediate negative effects for many minority residents in the state, particularly in education and business.

For example, before Proposition 209 was passed, African American students at the University of California Berkeley made up between 6 and 7 percent of the freshman class, according to the Wall Street Journal. After the measure passed, African American students made up around 3 percent of the freshman population for the past decade, while being 6 percent of the state’s public high school graduates. Latinos make up about 54 percent of the public high school seniors in the state but are only 15 percent of Berkeley’s freshman class.

This has had long-term ramifications, according to a recent UC Berkeley study. Since underrepresented minorities ended up attending lower-quality public and private universities, they experienced an overall decline in wages of 5 percent annually between ages 24 and 34. Overall, the study found that the ban on affirmative action has exacerbated socioeconomic inequities.

Motivated by the social justice protests that erupted after the police killing of George Floyd, California lawmakers voted to put the measure back on the ballot. Proponents of the measure — everyone from California Gov. Gavin Newsom to teachers unions and sports teams — argued that systemic racism has kept people of color out of certain schools and away from certain economic opportunities, and that race-based programs could help reverse the damage done by “colorblind” policies.

Those who opposed Proposition 16 claimed that the measure is itself a form of discrimination because the law would not treat everyone equally, but instead give preference to certain groups. The opposition was been led in part by groups that have argued Asian Americans would be discriminated against under Proposition 16. The WSJ report found that Asian American and Pacific Islander students made up 43 percent of the most recent freshman class but just 13 percent of California’s public high school seniors.

But some Asian American groups, like Hmong students in Sacramento, claim they are discriminated against under Proposition 209, and would be helped by Proposition 16. They argue that debate over how the new ballot measure would affect the state’s Asian Americans fails to recognize the socioeconomic diversity within Asian communities, and note that refugees in particular have historically had more difficulty than immigrants in creating wealth and accessing educational opportunity.

In the months leading up to the vote, registered voters in California were divided on Proposition 16, according to survey data from the Public Policy Institute of California — 47 percent of voters opposed the measure, 31 percent of voters supported it, and 22 percent were undecided.

Those opponents have succeeded: California will continue to bar affirmative action.

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