Voting on Affirmative Action

Will Election Day see a restoration of the consideration of race in admissions in California? Will the vote be as influential as the measure to ban affirmative action?

November 2, 2020
Student table for Proposition 16
(Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Tomorrow, Californians will vote on a measure -- Proposition 16 -- to restore the right of public colleges and universities to consider race and ethnicity in admissions and financial aid.

The measure would repeal Proposition 209, which California voters approved in 1996. The 1996 measure inspired other states to vote similarly. The measure led to an immediate sharp decline in Black and Latinx enrollment at the top University of California campuses. Since then, Latinx numbers have grown substantially, but not by as much as the state's Latinx population has grown. Asian enrollments have grown substantially since the passage of Prop 209. The share of white enrollments has not changed dramatically, while Black rates have fallen.

Prop 16 has been endorsed by California's governor, both U.S. senators (one of whom is running for vice president), leaders of the state universities and a slew of newspapers in the state (plus The New York Times). But polling suggests that the measure will fail, although supporters still hope for passage.

The arguments being given for passage and defeat of Prop 16 are similar to those that have been made about Prop 209, but with 25 years of evidence.

The Center for Studies in Higher Education, at the University of California, Berkeley, in August published a paper by Zachary Bleemer, a research associate and Ph.D. candidate in economics.

It was based on a longitudinal database for all University of California applicants from 1994 to 2002. It tracked where they enrolled and their wages through their mid-30s. The findings:

  • Ending affirmative action caused the University of California's 10,000 annual underrepresented minority freshman applicants "to cascade into lower-quality public and private universities."
  • Underrepresented applicants' undergraduate and graduate degree attainment declined over all and in STEM fields in particular.
  • The average underrepresented applicant's wages declined by 5 percent annually between ages 24 and 34
  • By the mid-2010s, Prop 209 had caused a cumulative decline in the number of early-career underrepresented minority Californians earning over $100,000 by at least 3 percent.
  • Prop 209 also deterred thousands of qualified underrepresented students from applying to any University of California campus.
  • Enrolling at less selective University of California campuses did not improve underrepresented minority students' performance or persistence in STEM course sequences.

A primer for the UC Board of Regents said, "The University of California has been ground zero with respect to public engagement on discussions about the value of actions, initiatives, and programs intended to address enduring, even historical, inequalities by considering race, religion, ethnicity, color and sex in admissions, employment, and contracting."

The Times editorial linked the push for Prop 16 to the protest movements in the wake of the killing this year of George Floyd (and many others). "This summer, millions of Americans took to the streets to protest racial injustice. Now, millions more in California can cast their ballots for a simple measure advancing that cause: undoing two decades of educational and economic setbacks for Black and Latino Californians," the editorial said.

While the arguments for Prop 16 have focused on studies and reports on the impact of minority students, the arguments against it are about the values associated with a world in which race and ethnicity aren't considered.

The website of Californians for Equal Rights features quotes from Kali Fontanilla, a public school teacher. She says, "My father was a Jamaican immigrant, but I was raised in poverty by my single mother. My husband is Mexican/Puerto Rican: we are proudly multiracial. An honors multi-degreed University of California graduate, I tutored black students in Compton; now I help Latinos enter UC on MERIT (like I did), NOT quotas! Proposition 16, a giant step backward, would hurt the very students we want to help. There is no need to lower standards! I love teaching, but Proposition 16 would totally disrupt K-12."

Or Tom Campbell, the former dean of the Haas School of Business at Berkeley: "This proposition will allow California’s public universities to keep students out because of their race, in order to help students of another race get in. That’s currently illegal. Berkeley’s business school was rated among the best for recruiting minority graduates, and we did it without using race. We also gave no favoritism to children of donors, alums, or politicians. We were strictly merit-based. That’s how it should stay. (I’m neither a Democrat nor a Republican.)"

The themes are straightforward: there are minority Californians who support Prop 209. They aren't all Republicans.

Will It Pass?

There has only been limited polling on Prop 16.

The Public Policy Institute of California found in mid-October that among likely voters, 37 percent would vote yes and 50 percent would vote no, with 12 percent undecided. This is a slight gain from a September poll the institute conducted, when 31 percent said yes, 47 percent said no and 22 percent were undecided.

Sixty-one percent of Democratic likely voters support Proposition 16 (up from 46 percent in September), compared with 22 percent of independents and 11 percent of Republicans (both similar to September). Support is highest among likely voters in Los Angeles (41 percent) and the San Francisco Bay Area (40 percent).

The Latinx vote is expected to be crucial -- making up one-third of Californians. But some polling of the Latinx population has suggested many do not understand Prop 16.

A poll by the Latino Community Foundation found that a slim plurality of the Latinx population agreed with the proposal (50 percent to 48 percent). However, the poll also asked the voters what they perceived Prop 16 to do. Thirty-two percent believed that voting yes would preserve the status quo and block the consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions.

Of those who understood that Prop 16 would allow such consideration, a clear majority -- 65 percent to 34 percent -- was in favor.

Finally, Capitol Weekly has been polling those who have voted early. It found that those voters narrowly supported Prop 16 -- 53 percent to 47 percent. However, early voters are overwhelmingly Democratic, and the margin is likely to be different when the final results are in.

However the vote comes in, California is only one part (albeit an important one) of the future of affirmative action. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit is currently considering an appeal of last year's decision that Harvard University's use of affirmative action is legal. And however that decision comes down, it will likely reach the U.S. Supreme Court. While several new justices have not ruled on affirmative action, it is clear that there are not five votes that colleges can count on to support affirmative action.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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