Proposition 16 (2020): Restoring Affirmative Action in State Government

Repealing 1996’s Prop. 209

RAC-CA endorses Proposition 16, which would once again allow consideration of race, gender, and ethnicity (affirmative action) in state government - specifically contracting and procurement, employment, and university admissions - after a 24-year ban.

Jewish Values:

“If one sees a great crowd, one should thank God for not having made them all of one mind. For just as each person’s face is different from another, so is each person’s mind different from any other mind.”

- based on Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 58a

“Here is a Talmudic statement that speaks directly to what we today often call diversity. The Rabbis were aware of the human tendency to seek homogeneity. They knew that we commonly choose friends on the basis of similar likes and dislikes and a shared world perspective rather than seek out friends whose lifestyle differs significantly from our own. The Rabbis also recognized the inherent difficulty in accepting our innate differences.”                                                                             

 - Lori Lefkowitz, on Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 58a

The promise of equality is not sufficient if there are obstacles that make the reality of equality impossible.

- A. Vorspan and D. Saperstein, Tough Choices. New York: UAHC Press, 1992

The Problem:

  • When Proposition 209 passed in 1996, all state government programs to promote minority- and women-owned businesses in obtaining contracts, to give extra consideration to women and people of color in state hiring and promotion, and to offer preference in admission to state universities based on race and ethnicity, were disallowed under the State Constitution. Court rulings subsequently extended the reach of Prop. 209 to force California cities also to end their race- and gender-conscious contracting programs, further setting minority- and women-owned business enterprises behind.

Today, inequalities that affirmative action programs previously helped to address remain unresolved:

  • A 2015 study by the Equal Justice Society estimated that $1 Billion in contract dollars is lost annually by businesses owned by women and people of color due to the state’s ban on affirmative action.
  • A recent study from the Economic Policy Institute revealed that Black workers are twice as likely  to be unemployed as white workers overall.
  • The Institute for Women’s Policy Research has compiled data showing that women in California earn 90 cents for every dollar a man earns.
  • In California’s high school class of 2019, 53% of students were Latinx and 6% were Black. In the UC freshman class of the same year, only 25% were Latinx and 4% were Black. (The Education Trust - West)

What This Measure Does:

Proposition 16 would repeal Section 31 of Article I of the California State Constitution, which was enacted by Proposition 209 in 1996.

"You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say you are free to compete with all the others, and still just believe that you have been completely fair."                                                                                                                  

  - President Lyndon Johnson

Affirmative action is the name used for programs that actively work to end discrimination, to prevent its recurrence, and to create new opportunities that were previously denied qualified minorities and women.

Prop. 16 would once again allow for affirmative action preference programs in state contracting, employment, and education. It does NOT mandate any affirmative action programs or preferences, but rather allows state agencies and the Legislature to consider enacting them through existing decision-making processes. Additionally, the state would still be prohibited from putting racial quotas on college admissions, public employment, and public contracting, as the U.S. Supreme Court found quotas unconstitutional in 1978. However, reinstating affirmative action will permit state agencies, including universities, to implement race-conscious strategies such as targeted recruitment and enhanced outreach to communities of color.

The most intense debates around Prop. 209, at the time of its passage and since, have emphasized the potential effects of affirmative action on state university admissions, with opponents saying that it tilts the process unfairly against merit-based admissions. This argument neglects documented inequities in K-12 education and college preparation, along with the strong benefits of diversity for everyone in universities and California’s workforce. As noted above, Latinx and Black students are still highly underrepresented in state institutions despite programs that have focused on supporting low-income and first-generation students (but which had to remain race-blind).  

Prop. 16 would not impose any specific spending or costs on the state budget, although subsequent affirmative action programs could potentially result in budget costs.

“It is worth noting, perhaps, that governmental preference has not been a stranger to our legal life. We see it in veterans' preferences. We see it in the aid-to-the-handicapped programs. We see it in the progressive income tax.... In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently. We cannot --we dare not --let the Equal Protection Clause perpetuate racial supremacy.”                                                            -- Justice Harry Blackmun

Several other Jewish organizations have endorsed Prop. 16 and/or the legislation that put it on the ballot, including the Anti-Defamation League, Bend the Arc, National Council of Jewish Women - California, the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Sacramento Region, and Congregation B’nai Israel - Sacramento. In addition, the Union for Reform Judaism, Women of Reform Judaism, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis all passed resolutions decades ago in support of affirmative action policies that use goals and timetables to correct the historical injustices in our society.

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