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Proposition 16 and the Myths of Affirmative Action Debunked

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On November 3rd 2020, Californians vote on Proposition 16, which determines whether or not to allow government or public institutions to discriminate or grant preferential treatment to persons based on their race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in public employment, public education and public contracting. A YES vote repeals the 1996 Proposition 209 that instituted a statewide repeal of affirmative action initiatives, and a NO vote allows these bans to stay in place. Prop 209 was one of three related propositions that does not fit the state’s population diversity (Prop 187, which sought to deny public services to undocumented immigrants, and Prop 227, which banned bilingual education, were the other two). Some say the backlash against these anti-immigrant ballots (one of which was found to be unconstitutional) ushered in the “deep-blue California we know today.” Repealing 209 by voting YES on Prop 16 would strike down the last of these three bad ideas and end California's infamy by taking it off the list of 9 states that ban the use of affirmative action to fight discrimination. 

In 1961, President Johnson’s Executive Order 10925 established the President’s Committee on Equal Opportunity, making a commitment to fairness in employment throughout the nation. The affirmative is synonymous with “do your best” (not preferential treatment) and action is to infer that we will make change and not just blow hot air about the problem. Proposition 16 is intended to bring affirmative action back into the way Californians do business. I studied both the arguments for and against Prop 16 and found that those against the ballot perpetuate several myths about affirmative action. I’ll explain why many of these takes are wrong.

Myth: Affirmative action puts quotas in effect, and it’s costly.

Fact: Affirmative action has nothing to do with quotas.  And the truth is, the repeal of affirmative action in California cost the state dearly.

After Proposition 209 was adopted, Black and Latinx admissions to California colleges and universities plummeted and never recovered. The loss of diversity was most dramatically felt at the state’s top schools, UC Berkeley and UCLA. The 2015 Campaign for College Opportunity report cites that over the past 20 years, admission rates for Black and Latino students declined by 30 and 26 points versus 21 points for white students within the whole UC system. At UC Berkeley, the differences are even starker. Admission rates for Blacks and Latinos fell y 41 and 45 points, respectively, compared to 24 points for white students. At UCLA, Black students' admission rates fell by 46 points and Latinos at 47 points, while admission rates for white students fell at 31 points. Enterprises owned by nonwhites and women lose out on about $1.1 billion in business every year. Contractors also suffered since Proposition 209 reduced payouts awarded under state contracts to organizations run by these underserved groups by about 5.6% when compared to those projects that were federally funded.

Berkeley students protest outside the meeting of the University of California's Board of Regents in favor of Affirmative Action October 1995. | David Butow/Corbis via Getty Images
Berkeley students protest outside the meeting of the University of California's Board of Regents in favor of Affirmative Action October 1995. | David Butow/Corbis via Getty Images

Quotas were never an issue here, as the courts have decided that they are unconstitutional. And in fact, not only are spaces not reserved for minorities, the truth is that affirmative action policy benefits white women most of all. For example, most people suing with regard to college admissions are white women. Since affirmative action policies were put in place, white women have reversed and outpaced the gender gap that had them enrolled in fewer numbers than their male counterparts. They also more than tripled their proportion in STEM disciplines since 1970, from 7% to 25%, by 2002,

Myth: Affirmative Action is “utopian” thinking and can’t actually work.

Fact: Affirmative Action really does live up to its promise.

Repealing affirmative action in California can make a positive difference. Affirmative action is not just a good thing for the state, but it’s also been proven that it’s good for the country. When the government responded to protests insisting on equal treatment with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and strengthened that Act with the addition of the Education Amendments of 1972, Title IX, and other measures, it turns out that it was actually good for business. These measures banned sex discrimination in federally assisted educational institutions and forced businesses to hire women and racial minorities. Businesses actually did better once it was law; they didn’t have to fear that white people would balk at being consumers if their business served Black people once every service business had to operate under the same edicts; moreover, these new business operating procedures increased the value of a diversified workforce that could make all customers feel welcome.

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If affirmative action works, why don’t we know that?

The facts are just some of the proofs that affirmative action measures worked. These and other myths about affirmative action persist. Why don’t people know what affirmative action is all about, let alone its positive outcomes? Politics that support elites who are wealthy and white might be the answer. The truth is that knowledge about how and why affirmative action works was purposely withheld from the general public. A study by Melvin Urofsky explains, for example, that the Reagan Labor Department commissioned a report on gains in hiring among African Americans and women. As Harvard professor Louis Menand explains, Urofsky’s study “found that between 1974 and 1980 the rate of minority employment in businesses that contracted with the federal government, and were therefore susceptible to being squeezed, rose by twenty per cent, and the rate of employment of women rose by 15.2 per cent. In companies that did not contract with the government, the rates were twelve per cent and 2.2 per cent, respectively. [But] this was so contrary to everything that Reagan had been saying about affirmative action that the Labor Department hired an outside consulting firm to vet its own report. When the firm returned with the news that the methods and the conclusions were valid, the Administration did the only thing it could do. It refused to release the report, thus allowing politicians to go on telling the public that affirmative action didn’t work.” 

Affirmative Action (and saying Yes! to Prop 16) is good for all of us.

Apryl Sims sets up in support of a Proposition 16 rally at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles | Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Apryl Sims sets up in support of a Proposition 16 rally at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles | Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Equality of economic gains for all underrepresented groups in our diverse population has proven to be a good thing, and anti-discrimination policies have already been proven to work. A resounding YES from voters on Proposition 16 can bring that back to California. This would be a positive move not only good for the state, but also for our nation. USC Sociologist Professor Manuel Pastor argues that California has long played a role as a bellwether to the nation, foretelling swings in economic and political conditions before they take place on the national stage. If he’s right, a win for Prop 16 could mean that the pendulum might be about to swing back, away from the nationalist and neo-fascist leanings of the Trump years, and instead toward ushering in greater equality and growth, and an embrace of the belief that we can and should create a social compact that works for the majority of citizens. Affirmative action clearly gets us part of the way toward where we need to be.

This article is a series companion to the documentary “City Rising: Youth & Democracy” funded by The California Endowment.

Top Image: A young girl protests outside the meeting of the University of California's Board of Regents in favor of Affirmative Action October 1995. | David Butow/Corbis via Getty Images 

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