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Affirmative Action Could Return to California. How Impactful Would It Be?


This November, voters will determine the fate of Proposition 16, which would reinstate affirmative action across California. Whether affirmative action would be enough to address the underrepresentation of certain racial groups at the state’s top schools is unclear.    

In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, which prohibits the state from “discriminating against or giving preferential treatment to any individual or group in public employment, public education, or public contracting on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.” 209 effectively prohibits public institutions from employing affirmative action.

There have been various challenges to 209 in the past – none have succeeded. In 2012, State Senator Edward Hernandez proposed SCA-5, which would have allowed voters to repeal 209’s ban on the use of affirmative action by public universities. Although SCA-5 was passed by the state senate in 2014, State Assembly speaker John Perez withdrew it from consideration amidst strong criticism of the bill by Asian-American activist groups.

In June of this year, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s proposal to bring affirmative action back to this November’s ballot – ACA-5 – passed the California State Legislature.  A “yes” vote on 16 is a vote in favor of affirmative action.

Opponents of 209 point to the skewed racial breakdown of the UC student population as evidence of the need for affirmative action. I

In 2019, African-Americans, Hispanics, Whites, and Asians respectively constituted 6.5%, 39.4%, 36.5%, and 15.5% of California’s population. The UC undergraduate population, the same year, was 4% African-American, 25% Hispanic, 21% White, and 33% Asian.

However, private universities, allowed to employ affirmative action, do not necessarily display perfect racial balance either.

Chapman University’s current undergraduate population is 1.7% African-American, 14.6% Hispanic,  11.3% Asian, and 52.6% White. Stanford University’s current undergraduate population is 7% African-American, 17% Hispanic, 23% Asian, and 32% white. (It’s important to note that Stanford does attract a high amount of students from across the country, not just California.)

A report published by the New York Times in 2017 revealed that, based on an examination of 100 schools across the country, black students and hispanic students – despite affirmative action – were actually more poorly represented at the country’s top universities in 2017 than in the 1980s.  The report found that while affirmative action does boost the percentages of minority students at top schools, it fails to fully correct for deep seated educational inequalities.

These inequalities are particularly evident in California. Over the past several years, graduation rates for African-American, Native-American, and Latino students in California have been behind the statewide graduation rate by several points and behind the graduation rate of Asian-American students by over 10 percentage points.

A recent study by Stanford found that the highly segregated nature of California’s school districts means minority students are clustered in high poverty schools, contributing to the racial achievement gap in education.

Anthony Lising Antonio, a professor of education at Stanford University who supports proposition 16, wrote to the Cerritos Community News that affirmative action is only one of several remedies necessary to address underrepresentation.

“Affirmative action is one policy tool to address equitable access to more selective colleges and universities,” he wrote. “It has been shown to be helpful but to fully remedy underrepresentation requires a number of policies that affect access to the economy and quality K-12 schooling as well.”

Prop 16 is one of several propositions on this year’s ballot that could reverse longstanding laws in California. Others include Prop 17, which would allow people on parole to vote, and Prop 15, which would tax commercial property based on its market value and not based on the price at which it was purchased.

Bala is interning with HMG-CCN for the summer, a Cerritos resident, he is a student at University of Pennsylvania planning to study political science. He hosts a politically themed interview show for UPenn’s student radio station (WQHS). Bala is a big fan of comedy and proudly represents Stouffer College House as a member of its intramural basketball team.

  • Yorba Linda says:

    Some of the draft was created in Yorba Linda Prop.

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