Hello affirmative action my old friend
More than two decades after California voters banned consideration of race in university admissions, public employment and contracting with Proposition 209, the state Assembly on Wednesday approved a measure that would ask voters to repeal the law.
In a 58-9 initial vote, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, secured the necessary two-thirds majority approval needed to send Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5 out of her house and to the state Senate. Only one Republican, Assemblyman Tom Lackey, R-Palmdale, voted in favor of the bill.
ACA 5 would repeal provisions of the 1996 ballot measure, which prohibited state institutions from granting preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. Advocates of the change said it would once again allow affirmative action in hiring, contracting, and admissions.
“There is an urgent cry for systemic change,” Weber said. “The ongoing pandemic as well as recent tragedies of police violence is forcing Californians to acknowledge the deep-seated inequality and far-reaching institutional failures that show that your race and gender still matters…ACA 5 would allow Californians to revisit and express their views after 25 years.”
Despite California’s rich diversity, Democratic lawmakers argued, employment and higher education opportunities are disproportionately awarded to the white and wealthy. In the end, after more than two hours of debate, the Assembly agreed it is time to let voters weigh in the question.
“It does come with political peril,” said Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, who supported the bill but expressed concern that he’d received 99 calls in support from his constituents and more than 3,000 in opposition, many from the Asian-American community.
“It’s difficult to have race-neutral policies for very race-specific problems,” he said.
Latinos make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s 40 million residents, but represent less than 25 percent of the University of California’s 2019 fall enrollment. About 6 percent of Californians are African American, but at both UC and California State University, 4 percent of students are black.
The demographic disparities harm California’s economic progression, said Audrey Dow, senior vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, and exacerbate racial and socioeconomic inequities.
“We need every available person in California to have a college opportunity,” Dow said. “When colleges can use race as a consideration, you can really start to address some of the systemic barriers that have kept underrepresented students of color out of colleges and universities.”
Affirmative action dates back to 1961, when President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order to ban discrimination against government contractors based on “race, creed, color or national origin.” President Lyndon B. Johnson later expanded that list to include sex.
For decades, affirmative action has faced one challenge after another in courtrooms throughout America, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
The nine justices determined in 1978 that the University of California, Davis could consider race in the medical school admissions process, but could not section off a portion of seats for students of color. In 2016, the court voted to uphold the University of Texas’ admissions process that factors in race. The court will likely hear a 2018 lawsuit filed by Asian-American students who have said Harvard’s admissions process is discriminatory.
The effects of Proposition 209 have extended beyond higher education. According to a 2015 Equal Justice Society report, minority and women-owned businesses lose about $1 billion annually in state contracting opportunities.
The 2017 Annual Census of Employees in State Civil Service also notes women make up half the state’s population, but 46 percent of state workers, while white workers comprise nearly 44 percent of the public workforce, but 37 percent of California’s population.
In the years since its passage, state legislators have attempted to modify the law as the legislative body has grown more diverse in reflection of California’s changing demographics.
The closest the Legislature came to revising the law was in 2014 through Senate Constitutional Amendment 5. The measure passed the Senate on a 27-9 vote but the Assembly refused to consider the amendment amid push-back from Asian-American lawmakers, whose constituents asked them to shelve the bill as they worried their children would be displaced during the college admissions process by those of other races.
Currently, Asian-Americans represent 15 percent of California’s population, but 16 percent and 33 percent at CSU and UC, respectively.
Asian-American lawmakers were divided on Wednesday, and the debate reflected diversity of opinion within that community.
“Just ask yourself,” said Assemblyman Steven Choi, R-Irvine, who urged a no vote on ACA 5. “Is it right to give someone a job just because they are white, or black or green or yellow? Or just because they are male? Repealing Proposition 209, enacted by voters 24 years ago, is to repeal the prohibition of judgment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity and national origin. We are talking about legalizing racism and sexism.”
Choi, who was born in South Korea, said that he had intentionally left behind a country “with ideologies like that.”
Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, chair of the California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, said that it was “simply not true” that Asian Americans “unilaterally oppose affirmative action.”
“When Proposition 209 is lifted, Asian Americans will receive more equal opportunities to advance,” he said. “I would not be standing here on this floor as the first Asian American to represent eastern San Francisco but for affirmative action.”
In recent weeks, protests over police brutality against unarmed black Americans have additionally refreshed enthusiasm for political remedies to racial inequities.
It’s not enough to change the criminal justice system, members of the California Legislative Black Caucus have recently said. They say education and labor laws also need to change.
In addition to repealing Proposition 209, the black caucus’ priorities include capping parole periods, pursuing reparations for descendants of slaves and banning police from using various use-of-force restraints.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said during a Friday press conference that he’s “long supported righting that wrong” when asked whether he supports ACA 5.
The Senate will have until June 25 to act on the amendment. Its passage would put the question on California’s November ballot.