Supporters of the amendment, which seeks to restore affirmative action in the November elections, say its passage will help remove policies that have fueled racism for more than 20 years in the state.
Ethnic Media Services. Peninsula 360 Press.
Twenty-four years after California voters approved Proposition 209, which banned race and gender from being considered in public college admissions, a new initiative aims to reverse that decision on Nov. 3. Known as affirmative action, the option will be back on the ballot in California with Proposition 16, in what its proponents say is a tool to "improve racial opportunity gaps for Californians."
The three co-chairs of the bill, all California civil rights veterans, spoke at a panel hosted by Ethnic Media Services via Zoom, at a time when protests over systemic racism and injustices against ethnic communities are raging across the country, as the COVID-19 pandemic hits immigrant and Black families hard.
"Proposition 16 directly addresses the issue of systemic racism," said Eva Paterson, president and co-founder of The Equal Justice Society, a national legal organization focused on civil rights and anti-discrimination. "We (African-Americans) don't have enough political power. We have the numbers, but we don't have the money to contribute to political campaigns or pay lobbyists ? with affirmative action we will have more access to higher education, better jobs, better health insurance and even greater access to public office," she said.
In practice, affirmative action seeks to ensure that groups that have been traditionally discriminated against (women, blacks, browns, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and immigrants in general) have greater access to educational, employment, and hiring opportunities through the adoption of gender- and race-friendly policies.
This is in contrast to what passed in Proposition 209 of 1996 with 56% of the general vote, but with a broad rejection by ethnic community voters (between 60% and 70% voted no). This initiative led by Ward Connerly, a University of California (UC) regent appointed by then-Governor Pete Wilson, made it constitutional to prohibit the state from "discriminating or granting preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, and public contracting. Critics say this confusing language was intended to appeal to white majorities.
"It was misleadingly labeled as a civil rights initiative in California," said Tomás Sáenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF). "By using the words "preferential treatment" instead of "affirmative action," it was intended to promote an unnecessary ban on discrimination that was already settled in the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision on racial segregation in schools."
But opponents of affirmative action have challenged the tool before the Supreme Court, and last month the Justice Department accused Yale of illegal admissions discrimination against white and Asian-American students.
According to Saenz, what Proposition 209 did do in California instead was affect access for people from ethnic communities to educational spaces from kindergarten through higher education. Today, although 60% of high school seniors are black or Latino, only 29% of those races make up the freshman student body on campuses throughout the California university system. A year after its passage, the number of black students at Berkeley Law School went from 30 to 1; in other areas, it made it even more difficult to hire Latino, Asian, and black police officers in California counties.
"No politician wants to address discrimination if the law prevents them from implementing something to address it. Under Prop. 209, anyone interested in addressing affirmative action is limited by gender- and race-neutral approaches to addressing those disparities," Saenz added.
The expert cited the example of how funding for the local control funding formula that provides additional resources to schools based on the number of foster youth, low-income foster youth and English language learners was delayed by legislators concerned about violating Proposition 209. "The majority of foster youth are African American, while the majority of English language learners are Asian or Latino ? it's not a law that helps fight discrimination.
On the labor front, proponents of Proposition 16, which will be voted on at the polls, argue that many Asian-American businesses were brutally impacted at the beginning of the pandemic by comments made by President Donald Trump himself when he dubbed COVID-19 as the Chinese virus or the Kung Flu. This has diminished the ability of small business owners to contract with the state because of those protected by Proposition 219 and these racist comments.
"Since President Trump used these terms we have documented 2500 reports of hate incidents," said Vincent Pan, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a social justice community organization based in San Francisco. "Although Congresswoman Grace Meng introduced a resolution against Asian hate (which eventually passed), 164 Republicans voted against that resolution and that is the party most vigorously opposed to Prop. 16."
Pan said that in cities like Atlanta or Chicago, the chance for Asian Americans to contract with the state is much greater than in San Francisco, despite the fact that, in the latter city, the Asian American workforce is larger in number. And the reason, he says, is the lack of affirmative action. The same goes for access to the Wage Protection Program (PPP), a federal measure to help small businesses during the pandemic that the 90% of businesses owned by women or people of non-white race could not access.
Validators and villains
As a result of Prop 209, women and ethnic communities have lost nearly $1 billion a year according to Equal Justice Society estimates shared by Paterson. The activist said there has been no incentive for white people to hire subcontractors of other races, which also limits growing businesses and resources within the community.
But his optimism with Prop. 16 is based on the fact that California's demographics have changed so much in the last two decades that nearly 43% of the state's voters are of a race other than white. Paterson also said that even before the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, an event that has sparked the solidarity of white Americans who "took off their blinders in the face of racism," most of them were already on board with affirmative action.
"We have a strategy called validators and villains," Paterson said of this final stretch of the campaign. Proposition 16 is supported by the likes of John Legend, the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, Kamala Harris, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and every professional sports player in the Bay Area.
"When people recognize that they are the validators, they come over to our side," Paterson said. "And when they know that among the villains who oppose this proposal are people like Trump, then they come over to our side as well," he concluded.