California voters reject bid to restore affirmative action

Asian American opposition seen as decisive, as state also favours human embryonic research

November 4, 2020
California ballot box
Source: iStock

California voters have rejected a bid to restore affirmative action to their state university system, heeding opponents who feel that racially protective policies are no longer essential.

The measure, Proposition 16 – which would have reversed the ban on race-based considerations in college student admissions that voters imposed in a 1996 referendum – was losing statewide vote by a count of about 56 per cent to 44 per cent.

The University of California system’s leadership endorsed the repeal after state lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to hold the referendum, in a sign of growing public recognition of the persistence of societal racism.

In a statement acknowledging the defeat of Proposition 16, the California system promised to keep pursuing “innovative and creative approaches to further improve the diversity of its student body”.

Such steps include campaigns to identify and assist minority students, and “holistic” admissions review practices that aim to “fully understand and evaluate each applicant through multiple dimensions”.

“However, excluding race and gender from that consideration continues to be a tall barrier to women and students from underrepresented groups”, university officials said.

Backers of affirmative action had celebrity endorsements and amassed a substantial advantage in political fundraising to promote the approval of Proposition 16, estimated at about $31 million (£24 million) to $1.6 million for their opponents.

But those opponents included large numbers of Asian Americans, many of Chinese origin, who feared harm from admissions policies that favour lower-performing African American and Latino students.

One of their chief strategists, Arnold Steinberg of Californians for Equal Rights, said that the state has grown even more diverse since voters approved the ban in 1996.

“It’s no surprise that voters are even more committed to equality under the law,” said Mr Steinberg, whose group reported getting more than 90 per cent of its donations from Americans of Asian descent.

That reflects the dynamic in the high-profile but so far unsuccessful lawsuit against Harvard University over its own affirmative action policies, in which ethnic Asian students complained of losing places at the Ivy League institution because Harvard prioritises its black applicants.

Some supporters of affirmative action concede that it less than an ideal tool, but one that remains necessary at a time when black students account for just 4 per cent of total enrolment in the 10-campus California system, below their 6 per cent share of the overall state population.

The state must “figure out every way that we possibly can to impact that”, argued one proponent of affirmative action, Shirley Weber, a Democratic member of the state assembly and professor emerita of Africana studies at San Diego State University, whose parents were sharecroppers in Arkansas.

Other experts have warned that reviving affirmative action in college admissions could worsen income-based divisions, by putting a greater premium on admitting wealthier black students.

In a separate referendum, California voters narrowly backed a proposition to keep alive the state’s pioneering stem cell research programme.

Voters created the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in 2014 at a time when politics on the federal level sharply restricted life-saving work involving human embryonic derived stem cells. While opponents argued that California’s own effort in the area was inefficient and no longer justified, voters supported authorising another $5.5 billion for the institute.

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Reader's comments (1)

Affirmative action is active discrimination, dress it up all you like, but that's what it is.