On November 5th of 1996, 55% of California's general election voters supported Proposition 209, an initiative measure which added Section 31 to the California Constitution's Article of Rights & strictly prohibited the State from granting "preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting" (California Constitution, article I, § 31(a)). Since then, the United States Supreme Court has generally upheld that university admissions can indeed consider race as a qualifying factor in admissions, so long as they meet the standard of strict scrutiny; however, in California's public universities (UC & CSU), Proposition 209 has maintained a strict ban on consideration of race, sex, ethnic background or nationality as determinant factors in college admissions.
Yesterday's decision in the Sacramento by the state Senate may very well go down in the history books as a landmark moment in the history of California's Public University System, for as of June 24th, 2020, both the state Assembly (on June 10th) & Senate (on June 24th) have endorsed ACA-5, an Assembly Constitutional Amendment to the California Constitution that will now go on the General Election Ballot. If passed by a majority of voters, ACA-5 will effectively repeal Proposition 209's prohibitions on affirmative action policy in public institutions.
The significance of this amendment can be noted by its predecessor from 2014, Senate Constitutional Amendment No. 5, which proposed to allow race-based considerations in California's Public University admissions process & was ultimately stalled in the Assembly, returned to the Senate, and saw no further action since. Some suggest that its failure was in large part a result of Asian-American advocacy groups speaking publicly in opposition, many of whom claimed that such an amendment would inherently discriminate against Asian and Pacific Islander applicants, who comprise 33% of the undergraduate student population throughout the University of California (relative to ~16% of C.A. Population) and the largest share by race.
Some advocates would argue that while many of America's most prestigious schools can legally continue with institutionally prejudiced admissions practices as private institutions, that California's publicly funded institutions should be held to a higher standard, and would ultimately be no different from those schools if Proposition 209 were to be entirely reversed, proposing that the net effect would be most harmful to California's Asian-American diaspora.
Meanwhile, proponents and supporters of ACA-5 might argue back that this commitment to maintaining a student population more reflective of the state's ethnic population proportions is not a zero-sum game, and that its possible to keep effectively attracting the best and brightest students while ensuring equal opportunity for all. Furthermore, supporters like CSU chancellor Timothy P. White claims that the 1996 ban on Affirmative Action, which was intended to stop reverse discriminatory quota systems, has ultimately led to "a negative impact on access to higher education...for historically underserved students in California." (Edsource) While there is no quota specified in the amendment, its proponents believe repealing Prop. 209 would lead to long overdue mandates to reverse to the oppressive features of California's public education system, which would legally allow considerations of race in admissions & to equalize opportunities for citizens regardless of their socioeconomic or ethnic background. From ACA-5:
WHEREAS, Since the passage of Proposition 209, diversity within public educational institutions has been stymied. Proposition 209 instigated a dramatic change in admissions policy at the University of California, with underrepresented group enrollment at the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses of the University of California immediately falling by more than 60 percent and systemwide underrepresented group enrollment falling by at least 12 percent. Underrepresented group high school graduates faced substantial long-term declines in educational and employment outcomes as a result of these changes; and
WHEREAS, Among California high school graduates who apply to the University of California, passage of Proposition 209 has led to a decreased likelihood of earning a college degree within six years, a decreased likelihood of ever earning a graduate degree, and long-run declines in average wages and the likelihood of earning high wages measured by California standards. The University of California has never recovered the same level of diversity that it had before the loss of affirmative action nearly 20 years ago, a level that, at the time, was widely considered to be inadequate to meet the needs of the state and its young people because it did not achieve parity with the state’s ethnic demographics;
(California Constitution, Article I, § 31)
Still, opponents of the measure might argue that while indeed, there are clearly systemic issues that have limited opportunities and accessibility to higher education for minority groups that correlate with the passing of Proposition 209, that proposing to bring back "preferential treatment" policy as the solution is inherently oppressive and discriminatory to a single race group - Asians and Pacific Islanders.
For example, Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow of the Century Foundation, defends Proposition 209 by the wide range of UC diversity programs it gave birth to that have, in his view, "given a leg up to economically disadvantaged students"; Kahlenberg also worries that if voters repeal Proposition 209, that the UC system
"will probably revert to doing what most universities do: admitting relatively wealthy students of all colors."
While the disparities between Asians and other group representation in the University of California system are undeniable, there is no clear consensus among California's citizens, especially given the country's continually rising tensions following the murder of George Floyd, the global pandemic, and the social movements to expose the country's institutional flaws, remove corrupt representatives from office, and demand reforms to historically oppressive systems.
Nobody is denying that this country's institutions have a responsibility to build more opportunities and resources for social mobility, especially for America's historically disenfranchised communities. It is a problem of society when one individual must work twice as hard as another to reach a certain socioeconomic status because of something they can't control. Still, critics of ACA-5 make a point that while removing Proposition 209 might very well level the playing field & improve opportunities for most Californians, if it should come to pass, its success should not be at the expense of the Asian-American Community.
"Just ask yourself, is it right to give someone a job just because they are white or black or green or yellow? Or just because they are male?"
Republican Assemblyman Steven Choi - Irvine (Source)
One way or another, the decision to bring Affirmative Action back to UC and CSU will be decided by California voters this coming November; in the meantime, its specific procedures, effects, and overall contributions & detriments to California's residents remain uncertain at best. Until then, how do you feel about the Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5? If passed, how do you see it changing the landscape of California's Public Universities?
Ultimately, the decision will be yours - educate yourself about the history of Proposition 90 and Affirmative Action, consider how this will affect your future plans & if old enough, cast your vote!
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