With the 2020 presidential election looming in our near future, the state propositions can often be overlooked. However, the propositions on the ballot in California this year hold incredible power and will directly impact Californians in important ways. One of the most crucial of these propositions is Proposition 16, which, if passed, repeals Proposition 209, which made affirmative action illegal and was passed in 1996. Affirmative action is when public institutions are able to take race, sex and ethnicity into account in their admission or hiring processes. Proposition 16 aims to repeal that ban and make affirmative action legal once again.
Prop 16’s implementation of affirmative action is a concrete step towards addressing the consequences of structural racism and sexism. Everyone deserves an equal shot at good jobs, fair wages and quality schools, which is not currently the case. White women in California still earn about 80 cents to the dollar compared to the earnings of white men, and the number is even lower for women of color, who face further discrimination in hiring, employment and education. With Black, Latinx and Native American people disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 in California, the devastating consequences of decades of discrimination are more evident than ever. With California being only one of nine states that maintains a ban on affirmative action, we need to get California back on track with the rest of the country’s progress.
Some key endorsements for Prop 16 are Black Lives Matter, ACLU, California Teachers Association, California Governor Gavin Newsom and activist Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.
There is a lot of misinformation being spread regarding Prop 16 that is based on misunderstandings of data and affirmative action as a whole. Firstly, many people opposed to the proposition argue that making colorblind decisions, not taking race or ethnic background into account, would be the fairest. And while this is seemingly a logical argument, colorblind decisions actually hurt minorities who are systemically disadvantaged.
For example, Proposition 209 led to a drastic drop in diversity the year after it was enacted. At UC Berkeley, students from underrepresented groups were 31% less likely to be admitted as compared to admissions prior to Prop 209. Contrary to popular belief, affirmative action does not allow for unqualified applicants to be selected over qualified ones. In fact, this is already prohibited by federal regulations.
Prop 16 would allow for race and gender as contributing factors in decision-making when considering similarly qualified applicants. For example, when deciding between competitive applicants in a workplace where minorities are scarce, Prop 16 would encourage an employer to hire someone from a historically discriminated-against group.
Another common concern is that affirmative action penalizes Asian Americans. This argument is largely based on the misinterpretation of a single study conducted by Thomas J. Espenshade, a sociologist at Princeton University. He himself actually stated in an interview that his research does not show a bias against Asian Americans because it did not have access to softer variables, such as extracurricular activities, recommendation letters and essays. The study did not look at a holistic review of the application process, but rather isolated test scores and GPA, which is unlike the actual admissions process.
Affirmative action is a step towards a new “American Dream” that isn’t entrenched in systemic inequality and inaccessibility.
Moreover, the label “Asian American” is not a monolithic identity group. Burmese, Cambodian, Khmer and various other Asian communities are underrepresented in higher education, while East Asian communities are largely overrepresented in terms of demographics. Affirmative action would help iron out the gaps in equity and experiences between the many communities that are lumped together under the term “Asian American.”
One of the most common themes among opposers of Prop 16 is that if people work hard enough, they can achieve anything. The issue with the “American Dream” narrative is that it blames marginalized people for the system’s failure to provide them with equal opportunity and basic needs access. Marginalized communities work just as hard as other communities, but they aren’t given the same opportunities. Higher education is vital in escaping poverty, yet higher education is mostly inaccessible to these communities. Affirmative action is a step towards a new “American Dream” that isn’t entrenched in systemic inequality and inaccessibility.
Many low-income white people become worried that affirmative action will discriminate against them. However, affirmative action is not the culprit that inhibits success for low-income white people. The real enemy is legacy admissions and even then, there is a strong pro-white skew. Legacy, athletics and donor admissions constitute a strong pro-white bias in admissions at elite schools.
For example, 43% of white admits to Harvard are either athletes, legacies or children of top donors. 27% of white students Harvard admits are “special cases” e.g. legacies and top donors. Only 26% of that 43% would likely even be admissible at all based on their grades. The percentage for these special admits drops down to below 16% for Black, Latinx and Asian racial categories. No other demographic has nearly this many special cases. Low-income white students aren’t fighting against people of color, but against the classist structure.
The concept of differentiating people by their background, race, gender and ethnicity is a large cause of hesitation for some people, which is understandable. Many argue that discrimination can’t be cured with more discrimination; however, it is important to understand the different types of discrimination and the motivation behind each. The discrimination that is used to exclude a group due to prejudice differs from the definition of discrimination in affirmative action, which works to undo the prejudiced exclusion through inclusion. Increasing efforts of inclusion is the most effective way to combat exclusion.
This is the same logic as treating a health deficiency with vitamin supplements. For someone who is healthy, high doses of supplements are not necessary and even harmful, but for someone with an unbalanced system, the supplements can restore balance.
If we lived in an even playing field, this wouldn’t unnecessary, but because our system is unbalanced, affirmative action is needed to counteract this discrimination. To reiterate, California is only one of nine states that are lagging on affirmative action due to the influence of corporate interests. Prop 16 is our chance to change that.
The fight for racial and gender equality is on the ballot in California. We can come together as students to support equal opportunity for all. By voting yes on Prop 16, we can come together as a part of a movement for equality.
UCSB Know Your Props urges you to stay educated and vote Yes on Prop 16.