California voters will be asked to restore affirmative action in November

John Myers
California voters will be asked in November whether to erase Proposition 209, which banned the use of race and gender as consideration for access to government contracts and in college admissions.

California could allow college admissions and government contracting decisions with a focus on race and gender diversity under a measure placed on the November ballot Wednesday, a decision that would reverse strict limits imposed by voters in 1996.

The ballot measure, which won final approval from the state Senate, could become a centerpiece in the national reckoning over racism and systemic inequities. The measure, an amendment to the California Constitution, was approved two weeks ago by the state Assembly and now moves to the Nov. 3 ballot.

Proposition 209, an intensely debated and controversial ballot measure approved by voters 24 years ago, said that government agencies "shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin." Its prohibition on affirmative action policies extends to colleges and universities, the awarding of public contracts and decisions in hiring government employees.

Like the earlier debate in the Assembly, Wednesday's discussion was personal for many lawmakers. Black and Latino senators said the 1996 ballot measure had not lived up to its backers' promises of creating a level playing field for millions of Californians who no longer represent a minority of the state's population.

"I challenge my white colleagues: I bet you can count on one hand the number of times that you've walked into a room, walked into an organization, and you're the only one that looks like you," said state Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), who is Black. "I know about discrimination. I live it every day."

No Democrat in the Senate voted against the measure, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5. All but one Republican — state Sen. Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita) — voted against putting the proposal on the ballot this fall. GOP lawmakers who spoke during the long floor debate echoed some of the messages used to support Proposition 209 almost a quarter-century ago.

"The problem with ACA 5 is that it takes the position that we must fight discrimination with more discrimination," state Sen. Ling Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar) said. "Preferences for any purpose are anathema to the very process of democracy."

While Proposition 209 imposed a ban on race and gender considerations across a wide swath of government decisions, it has been a flashpoint for decades about the fairness of admission policies at California's colleges and universities. While the topic was a key point in Wednesday's debate, Democratic lawmakers said discrimination begins much earlier for some students.

"When I was in high school, I went to my college counselor to say that I wanted to go to college," state Sen. Susan Rubio (D-Baldwin Park) said. "And I was told that that's not a place for me — that Latinas, that I wasn't college material."

Other Democrats said that standardized testing used during the college admissions process failed to provide an equal opportunity for many students who didn't grow up in white or affluent communities. Republicans, on the other hand, insisted state officials have done little to ensure quality teachers and school choices for K-12 students who come from disadvantaged communities.

Senate GOP Leader Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) said that Black and Latino supporters of charter schools, for example, have been stymied by Democrats who have imposed strict limits on the expansion of those schools.

"We need to start at the level of K-12 and giving parents the opportunity to be able to choose the best school for their children and not make them stay in the ZIP Codes in which they are living in," she said.

Wednesday's vote to send the issue to California voters marked a sharp change from just six years ago. At that time, a similar effort in the state Capitol stalled after Asian American advocacy groups warned that reinstatement of any kind of affirmative action policy would limit college admissions for Asian American students.

State Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), who is Black, said the long floor debate between lawmakers hinted at a larger problem that is reflected in the conversation now playing out across the nation.

"I think perhaps we don't have enough opportunity to have these kinds of conversations and clearly don't have enough opportunity to have conversations about race because that's the real crux of the problem with our country," she said. "So we really have work to do."