California weighs overturning 24-year ban on affirmative action

Mario Koran in Oakland
Photograph: Colin Underhill/Alamy

A proposal to repeal California’s 24-year-old ban on affirmative action will go before voters in November after it passed the state senate on Wednesday.

The bill would remove rules in California’s constitution, passed in 1996, which bar universities and government agencies from giving preferential treatment on the basis of race or sex.

Related: The impact of affirmative action at the University of California in one graphic

The proposed amendment, known as ACA 5, comes amid a national reckoning on racial injustice, triggered by the killing of George Floyd and other publicized cases of racist violence, and rejuvenates a decades-long conversation about the degree to which colleges and government employers can consider race in admission and hiring decisions.

In an emotional session on the senate floor, in which numerous lawmakers of color recounted personal experiences of discrimination, Steven Bradford, a Democrat from Los Angeles who is black, challenged his white counterparts to count the times they’ve entered a room in which they were the only members of their race.

“I know about discrimination. I live it every day. We live it in this building,” Bradford said.

“Quit lying to yourselves and saying race is not a factor,” he added. “The bedrock of who we are in this country is based on race.”

“We are living in a moment when so many are finally opening their eyes to the structural and institutional racism that has burdened the black and brown communities for generations,” Lorena Gonzales, the co-author of the bill, said in advance of Wednesday’s vote.

“Once you acknowledge that, then the next step you must take is to correct that injustice. With ACA 5, we have an opportunity to do something,” she said.

Under the governorship of Pete Wilson, who made opposition to affirmative action a centerpiece of his bid for the presidency, California became the first of eight states to ban affirmative action in college admissions. A study published by the Brookings Institution found the states that implemented the ban saw their share of underrepresented students go down in the years that followed.

In California, admissions rates for black and Latino students have dropped since the ban on affirmative action, according to data from the California department of education.

In 1994, before the ban took effect, the admission rates for black students who applied to UC schools was six percentage points below the average admission rate for all students; Latinos were admitted at higher than average rates. Today, UC admission rates are 16 points below average for black students, and six points below average for Latinos.

Patricia Gándara, a research professor of education at UCLA and co-director its Civil Rights Project, said the impact of Prop 209, which banned affirmative action, was seen most acutely at UCLA and UC Berkeley – two of the state’s flagship universities.

Since 1995, a smaller percentage of all applicants to UC schools have been admitted, as universities didn’t expand to keep pace with demand. But the number of black and Latino students admitted to UCLA and UC Berkeley dropped by 70% to 75% at the two universities, compared to just 35% and 40% for Asian and white applicants.

“The numbers just got worse and we never really gained it back even to the level where we were before 1995. In California, we’re desperate to recruit bilingual teachers. But Prop 209 has really tied our hands in terms of being able to recruit students from underrepresented groups and bring them into the pipeline,” said Gándara.

Today, about two-thirds of high school graduates in California are latino, black or Native American, but those students account for only a third of incoming freshman, she said.

The proposal would not create racial quotas, which in 1978 the US supreme court found to be unconstitutional, but rather would allow universities to create race-conscious strategies like targeted outreach in order to boost diversity.

A protest against the death of George Floyd at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus in June. Photograph: Eugene García/EPA

The ban on affirmative action has survived a number of challenges over the years. Some of the push to keep it in place has come from advocacy groups who argued that using race as a factor in admissions could disadvantage Asian students.

The Silicon Valley Chinese Association Foundation, for example, argues ACA 5 would amount to de facto racial quotas that could work against Asian students, who on average score higher on standardized tests.

“ACA-5’s proposal to legalize racial preferences erodes America’s fundamental principles of equal opportunity, merit and individual liberty. It further hurts the unity of our society, at a particularly vulnerable moment facing our nation and California,” the group said in a press release.

That race-conscious admissions policies discriminate against Asian students was central to a lawsuit against Harvard that was rejected by a federal judge in 2019.

Janelle Wong, a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland, said that much of the pushback to a repeal on affirmative action has been led by older, first-generation Chinese American groups that have campaigned against the repeal through misinformation – stating falsely that institutions will institute racial quotas that will slash representation of Asian American students.

“As Asian Americans, particularly Chinese Americans, have gained influence in the political system, they have mobilized against a variety of efforts to racially integrate schools and programs that try to ensure equity,” said Wong.

“It comes from a sense of sense of scarcity – an assumption that there aren’t enough resources for all. And it’s also about prestige and a fear that Chinese American students will lose seats at UC schools and Ivy League universities”, she said.

Despite organized opposition among certain demographics, survey results indicate the majority of Asian Americans favor affirmative action.

Yet, while much of the focus in the affirmative action debate is on college admissions, the proposal would have more important implications for the state’s K-12 system, said Elisha Smith Arrillaga, the executive director of The Education-Trust West, a research organization that advocates for student equity.

Currently, education officials in California can allocate resources to students based on income, but not race.

“Race and income overlap, but they’re not synonymous”, said Smith Arrillaga.

“If we were allowed to consider race, we could target funds to black and brown students who need the most support. We could invest in resources like summer bridge programs, which help colleges recruit and retain students of color. Right now we don’t have the tools to do that”.

It would also help to recruit a more diverse pool of teachers, she said. According to data from the California Department of Education and California Credentialing Commission, more than 250,000 students in California attend schools without a teacher of the same race and more than half of all schools don’t have a single black teacher.

“A lot of the pushback to repealing affirmative action has been ‘racism doesn’t exist.’ But recent events surrounding the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many others has made clear that we can no longer pretend racism doesn’t exist, and if we want to fight it, we have to use race-conscious policies. That’s what ACA 5 does”, said Smith Arrillaga.

Now that members of the state senate have ratified ACA 5, it will go before voters as a state ballot measure in November. If approved at the ballot box, colleges and institutions will determine how race will be considered in applications.