Affirmative Action Moving Closer to the Ballot in California

The California Capitol building.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — An effort to reinstate affirmative action to California colleges and government agencies moved one step closer to the November ballot Wednesday after clearing a key legislative hurdle.

Democratic members of the Senate Labor Committee argued affirmative action could advance California’s fight against systemic racism by giving people of color a better chance to enter the state’s renowned public universities. The committee passed Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5 by a 4-1 vote, setting up a likely Senate floor vote next week.

Co-author state Sen. Holly Mitchell said it was crucial for lawmakers to capitalize on the momentum created by the widespread protests against police brutality and inequality and allow voters this fall to determine whether race or gender should be considered in college admissions and public employment.

“We’re going to make sure that ACA 5 gets on the ballot in November 2020, in the middle of an international awakening about the role bias — implicit and explicit — has played on our world, country and state,” said Mitchell, D-Los Angeles.

Stunted by the coronavirus-induced recess, the bill carried by Mitchell and over a dozen lawmakers has received a renewed sense of urgency in wake of the May death of George Floyd.

Last week the Democratic-led Assembly approved the bill by a 60-14 margin, with a sole Republican yes vote cast by Palmdale Assemblyman Tom Lackey. The Assembly vote was quickly followed by a unanimous nod of support from the University of California regents, who endorsed the banned practice in a special meeting.

“If we are going to be serious about creating a university that truly serves the public interest, we cannot be silent,” said John Perez, regents chairman.

With the Assembly’s approval, the Senate has until June 25 to clear the bill by a two-thirds vote. If cleared by the Senate next week, the proposal would be placed on the November ballot and need to be approved by a simple majority of voters.

California barred affirmative action in 1996 when voters approved Proposition 209, which forbid government preferential treatment for individuals on the basis of race, ethnicity or sex. The initiative passed with strong support of then Governor Pete Wilson, who was pursuing the Republican nomination for president.

“Today, students are being rejected from public universities because of their RACE. Job applicants are turned away because their RACE does not meet some ‘goal’ or ‘timetable.’ Contracts are awarded to high bidders because they are of the preferred RACE,” said the voter guide argument written by Wilson and supporters.

Three decades later, the changing political tides have drawn the argument over affirmative action back to the forefront: the once powerful Republican Party is now an afterthought as Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers and all eight statewide officer positions, from governor to attorney general.

Along with the UC regents, the authors have amassed a powerful coalition, including groups like American Civil Liberties Union, California Teachers Association, NextGen California and the Anti-Defamation League. Members of the Legislature’s Black, Latino, Asian Pacific Islander, Women’s and Jewish caucuses are also backing ACA 5.

None of the committee members spoke against the bill Wednesday but dozens of people called in opposition. Some said affirmative action amounts to “reverse discrimination” while the Silicon Valley Chinese Association Foundation argued the practice is unconstitutional.

“It will divide California and pit one group of citizens against another simply based on their race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin,” wrote the foundation in an opposition letter. “It will minimize the accomplishments of minority groups to a simple result of preferential treatment, a blow to their extraordinary hard work and sacrifice.”

State Sen. Richard Pan, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan, pushed back on the argument that Asian Americans stand to be harmed by affirmative action. He said while Asian students are often well represented at medical schools, they are glaringly absent from university leadership positions.

“We have 150-something medical schools in the United States; we don’t have a single API medical school dean,” Pan testified during the three-hour hearing. “So what happened there? Look at the department chairs, what happened there?”

Pan said the lack of minority representation is common across many industries and argued the affirmative action ballot measure would spark a badly needed conversation among voters.

“If we really want to be honest about this conversation, we cannot pretend that race doesn’t matter,” Pan said.

California is currently one of eight states that does not allow race or gender to be considered in college admissions or hiring, according to the bill’s authors.

If approved by the Senate and ultimately voters, the measure would not introduce a race quota or target for colleges and state agencies.

Proponents contend reinstalling the affirmative action framework is legal by pointing to U.S. Supreme Court precedent confirming the use of race in college applications. While the high court barred the use of racial quotas in Regents of University of California v. Bakke, it affirmed an agency’s ability to consider race or gender as a “plus” but not a decisive factor in admissions or assigning contracts and jobs.

The bill’s main author Assemblywoman Shirley Weber says the repeal of Proposition 209 has not only reduced the amount of educational opportunities for people of color but perpetuated the wage gap between men and women/minority-owned businesses. She cast wealth inequality as a growing, relatively unnoticed crisis and tied it to the recent protests over police brutality.

“We also have to realize that we can never solve a problem that we refuse to see and that’s what we see in the streets today; a problem that has existed and festered for so long, and we have turned a blind eye to it believing that because we have a wonderful state with wonderful beaches and wonderful weather, that somehow or another that will cure all the ails of California. It does not,” she said.

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