Proposition 16: Affirmative Action raises concerns over equity

Catherine Chu, News Editor

One of the most debated propositions on this year’s ballot is Proposition 16, an amendment that aims to repeal Proposition 209. Proposition 209 states that discrimination or preferential treatment for college admissions on the basis of race, color, ethnicity or national origin is unconstitutional. The passage of Proposition 16 would allow for the practice of preferential treatment based on the above factors, commonly known as affirmative action, to be used in California public education, public contracting and public employment.

The history of California affirmative action laws dates back to 1996, when Proposition 209 was passed in the California Assembly by a 54.6% vote. Since then, there have been three major suits that reached the California Supreme Court. In the Coalition for Economic Equity v. Wilson (1996), the initiative was challenged as written. The federal courts upheld Proposition 209. In Hi-Voltage Wire Works v. City of San Jose (2000), the California Supreme Court decided that outreach to help minority and women-owned businesses obtain subcontracts on city construction projects in San Jose violated Proposition 209. Specifically, the California Supreme Court decided that the type of “participation goal” and “targeted outreach” violated Proposition 209. In the third case, Connerly v. State Personnel Board (2001), the courts found that provisions in five state programs related to affirmative action violated Proposition 209 and the federal constitutional guarantee of equal protection. While all the cases were appealed multiple times, the proposition has always been upheld.

For years, there have been many attempts—such as affirmative action or housing stability programs on the federal, state and local levels—to help the underprivileged gain access to educational and social opportunities. Proposition 209 eliminated state and local government affirmative action programs on the basis that these programs were involved in preferential treatment towards groups solely based on ethnicity, color, sex or race, which was unconstitutional. This move limited accessibility for underprivileged demographics, subsequently decreasing the enrollment of minorities in both the University of California (UC) and California State University college systems. According to the UC Office of the President, passing Proposition 209 resulted in a 31% drop from 1996 to 2001 for underrepresented groups and minorities in the UC system.

Now, Proposition 16 aims to remove Proposition 209. Proponents of Proposition 16 argue that systemic discrimination has led to inequality in educational opportunities. According to The Center for American Progress, an independent policy institute, students of color face many barriers in the education system, including exclusion and segregation from extracurriculars, underfunding and limited resources. The institute states that students who are white and financially privileged have an advantage because they can access extracurricular activities, sports programs and college prep resources that others—due to a lack of finances—cannot.

Proponents also argue that affirmative action improves diversity. The Center for American Progress supports Proposition 16 in hopes that it will expand educational opportunities for women and people of color by prioritizing diversity in California public colleges. Similarly, the California League of Women Voters states that affirmative action is the only way to ensure that diversity is maintained in schools that translates to inclusivity in the workplace, since education is a critical factor in job recruitment. They believe that reinstating affirmative action promotes social mobility and gives those born with financial barriers an opportunity to get a better education and eventually better work opportunities.

On the other hand, opponents of Proposition 16 believe that repealing Proposition 209 and legalizing affirmative action would discriminate against other groups instead of compensating for systemic oppression. Tom Campbell of the Orange County Register writes that the pressure to repeal Proposition 209 stems from a desire to help Black individuals in today’s circumstances. He argues, however, that we must not do that at the expense of another racial group. Former California Senator Quentin Kopp believes that even if Proposition 209 would benefit Black individuals, it would discriminate against groups such as Asian Americans, thereby perpetuating racial injustice.

Many also argue that affirmative action reinforces stereotypes. An article from the Columbia Spectator argued that when organizations paint affirmative action as necessary, they imply that minority students can’t get in based on their merit alone; instead, they are admitted for representing a token racial minority or underprivileged demographic. This perpetuates racial stereotypes that certain groups cannot succeed because they are less intelligent than others. Opponents of Proposition 16 also believe that students admitted without racial preferences in place and students admitted due to affirmative action will be at vastly different academic levels. In turn, this disparity would decrease the overall quality of education. Many are afraid that the precedent set by affirmative action will also allow for the implementation of racial quotas, redirecting college admission focus from students’ personal merits to checking boxes for their “diversity requirement.”

This November, whether voters believe in the potential for affirmative action to increase diversity and address systemic racism or voters believe race and gender should not be included in admission decisions, it is clear that Proposition 16 could change the college admissions landscape for millions of Californians.