Proposition 16, the latest attempt in over two decades of efforts to bring affirmative action back to California, failed to pass in last week’s general election, upholding that race cannot be used in admissions or employment decisions in public institutions across the state, including the University of California.
Affirmative action was first banned in California in 1996 under Proposition 209. The vote to repeal the ban on the most recent ballot gained large support from the UC system and its students, but ultimately, the vote failed in the California general election, with 56.7% of voters voting “no” on repealing the affirmative action ban and 43.3% in favor of the repeal. The proposition needed more than 50% of the vote to pass.
For student leaders on the “front lines” of campaigning, the decision came as a blow for those hoping to bring greater racial diversity to the UC system, according to Aidan Arasasingham, president of the UC Student Association (UCSA). He said that Proposition 16 was UCSA’s “number one electoral priority” this fall.
“The history of affirmative action in California is really a history of student organizing. Students have been on the frontlines of battles for affirmative action since the civil rights movements in the 1960s and 25 years ago in the battle against Proposition 209,” Arasasingham said. “And I know us as student leaders really feel like we stand on the shoulders of those giants who came before us.”
“This fight began before we came to campus, and unfortunately, with the failure of Proposition 16, this fight will continue long after we leave campus,” he continued.
Affirmative action allows public employers, such as universities and government offices, to factor in a person’s race, gender or ethnicity in hiring and admissions. Bringing back affirmative action would not force public employers to consider race in admissions and employment decisions but would permit the option to do so under California law.
Affirmative action previously allowed for the usage of racial quotas in public employment and education, but in 1978, the United States Supreme Court mandated a more indirect consideration of race in its decision in the case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.
Nearly two decades later, 54% of registered Californians voted to ban affirmative action altogether with Proposition 209 in 1996. At the time, the UC supported the ban.
Over the years, there have been multiple attempts to repeal Proposition 209 and bring affirmative action back to California, all of which died in the California State Legislature — until this year.
Assembly Constitutional Amendment No. 5 (ACA 5) was introduced to the legislature in January 2019. When the legislature passed ACA 5 in June 2020, Proposition 16 was officially put on the November ballot — only for the initiative to once again die, this time in the voters’ hands.
Arasasingham attributed Proposition 16’s failure to the “tough election cycle, one that preyed on divisions and misinformation at the national level,” which trickled down to California’s ballot measures.
“Polling showed the more people knew about it, the more likely they were to vote ‘yes’ on Prop 16,” he said. “In this environment, where attention spans were limited, misinformation on the part of ‘No on 16’ was able to spread so pervasively. People were more confused about Prop 16, and in that environment of confusion, they were more likely to vote ‘no.’”
In a Nov. 4 statement, the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) said it was disappointed Proposition 16 failed to pass in the election, and that the UC Board of Regents — along with the California State University and California Community Colleges system — supported Proposition 16 since its passage in the state legislature.
“The failure of Proposition 16 means barriers will remain in place to the detriment of many students, families and California at large. We will not accept inequality on our campuses and will continue addressing the inescapable effects of racial and gender inequity,” UC Regents Chair John A. Pérez said in the statement.
The ban on affirmative action in California has directly impacted admissions diversity in the UC system over the past 25 years, according to a report by the UC which showed that the ban caused a decline in systemwide underrepresented group enrollment by at least 12% — and up to 14% — from 1998 to 2000.
Part of this decline could have arisen from the elimination of race from financial aid and other UC decisions when Proposition 209 was implemented in fall 1998, the report said.
At UC Berkeley and UC Los Angeles, underrepresented group (URG) enrollment fell by “more than 60 percent” immediately after the proposition was passed. During this time, there was also a substantial increase in higher-income UC student enrollment.
“Prop 209 also discouraged many highly-qualified URG students from applying to any UC campuses, likely because those students believed that they would be unlikely to earn admission to their preferred campus after the end of [affirmative action],” the report suggested.
To counteract this decline, the UC implemented an Eligibility in the Local Context (ELC) policy in 2001 which guaranteed admission to California students who had high school GPAs in the top 4% of their class. From 2001 to 2011, URG enrollment increased by about 4%.
More recently, changes in campus-specific admissions policies — including holistic admissions review policies that place less emphasis on grades than in prior years — since 2012 appear to have largely nullified ELC’s impact on underrepresented groups’ enrollment in the UC, despite the extension of the program to students in the top 9% of their classes, according to the report.
Campuses turned their focus to a holistic admissions approach to increase admission for underrepresented groups, since contextualizing applicants’ strengths and challenges allowed universities to “change the ethnic composition of admitted students despite being race-blind,” the report said.
UCOP remarked in its Nov. 4 statement that while this comprehensive review method “seeks to fully understand and evaluate each applicant through multiple dimensions … excluding race and gender from that consideration continues to be a tall barrier to women and students from underrepresented groups.”
Six UC campuses — including UC Santa Barbara — now utilize a holistic approach to admissions. From 2011-12, when just four of the then-six UCs transitioned to this admissions process, underrepresented groups’ enrollment rose from 4% to 9%, the report stated.
The report concluded that even with the measures that the UC has taken since the repeal of affirmative action, applicants have suffered.
“We saw that backsliding; we saw that decline immediately after Prop 209 passed in the ‘90s, and we’ve seen it continue over the past 25 years,” Arasasingham said. “Until we repeal Prop 209, that decline is going to only continue.”
“It’s disappointing that our hands are still tied in fixing a problem that we see right in front of us,” he continued.
Alia Reynolds, the UCSB External Vice President for Statewide Affairs, said she and her office worked with other campus organizations for months ahead of the election to educate students on Proposition 16 and affirmative action.
Even with the proposition’s failure, Reynolds said that there was major success in educating students about affirmative action and that all the credit goes to the Opportunity for All Coalition and “Black and brown students that were the forefront of this movement.”
“We’ve seen from this election that there are just such large swaths of voters that are not ready for these policy changes. Essentially, their minds need to be changed, and that’s going to take a lot of work. We have a lot more work to do, even in California, a seemingly progressive state,” she said.
While affirmative action is still banned, Arasasingham said that the UC still has other options to help bring more students from marginalized communities into the UC system without considering race.
He pointed to the Student Academic Preparation and Educational Partnerships (SAPEP) from UCOP, a group of programs that build partnerships with K-12 schools, community-based organizations and businesses to help students from underserved backgrounds prepare for college. SAPEP includes programs such as the Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP), Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) and transfer student preparation and support, among others.
“These programs have been the backbone of what we’ve been able to do in absence of affirmative action, but ever since the 2008 recession, they’ve been continually underfunded, Arasasingham said.
“If we’re going to really focus on increasing diversity and representation … we’ve got to put our money where our mouth is and truly invest in these programs,” he continued.
He added that UCSA is in the process of proposing and advocating for broader admissions reforms in the wake of the Varsity Blues scandal and a UC Audit that found over 64 cases in which wealth and privilege factored into UC student admissions.
“The failure of this one proposition in this one election cycle is not going to diminish that intergenerational movement; it’s going to only continue and it’s only going to grow in the years ahead,” Arasasingham said. “I know that one day we will repeal Prop 209.”
A version of this article appeared on p. 6 of the Nov. 12 print edition of the Daily Nexus.