Posted on November 12, 2020

Why California Rejected Racial Preferences, Again

Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, November 10, 2020

For at least 50 years, Californians have been fighting about whether their state government should be race neutral, treating all individuals equally under the law regardless of the color of their skin, or race conscious, granting preferential treatment to certain groups while discriminating against others to remedy past discrimination or increase diversity

These various disputes over racial quotas and affirmative action have tended to anticipate national controversies. And last week, a majority of voters in this Democratic stronghold, where no single ethnic group constitutes a majority, reaffirmed their long-standing preference for neutrality: California voters defeated Proposition 16, an attempt by progressives to remove the provision in the state constitution that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race or gender in public employment, education, and contracting. The margin of defeat, 56 to 44 percent, was striking to students of political history, because it suggests that race neutrality is more popular now than when it was initially mandated by a 1996 ballot initiative that passed by a slightly smaller margin.

Disappointed progressives fear that Prop 16’s defeat will stymie their efforts to reduce racial inequality. But California voters looking to the future of their wildly diverse state were correct to conclude that permitting its officials to treat racial groups differently would be dangerous.


In the early 1990s, Ward Connerly, the most prominent proponent of ending racial preferences in his generation, rattled the uneasy peace. {snip}


Around the same time, two white academics, the Cal State Hayward anthropology professor Glynn Custred and the philosopher Thomas Wood, drafted what they called the California Civil Rights Initiative, a proposed amendment to California’s constitution. It stated, “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” The state legislature considered and rejected the proposal in 1994.

In 1995, Connerly became the chairman of an effort to put the matter to voters. Soon enough, signatures were gathered to qualify what became Proposition 209 for the 1996 ballot. {snip}


Proposition 209’s critics declared that the amendment was racist. In their telling, its backers had misappropriated the language of the civil rights movement and owed their margin of victory to confused voters who favored affirmative action and did not realize their votes would help end many guises of it. Progressives in the state have wanted to overturn Prop 209 ever since. In 2011, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill to weaken it.

In 2020, in the heat of the George Floyd protests, the California legislature finally succeeded in putting a new affirmative-action proposition on the ballot, one that would overturn Prop 209. Proposition 16 would test whether California voters had changed enough to change their minds. Compared to 1996, the state is much more Democratic. The governor is a progressive Democrat rather than a centrist Republican. Latinos rather than whites are its largest ethnic group. The ascendant populist movement is in favor of criminal-justice reform rather than against illegal immigration. And its youngest voters are Millennials and Gen Zers rather than Gen Xers. {snip}

California political and media elites overwhelmingly favored ending race neutrality by passing Prop 16. {snip}

Nevertheless, California voters rejected Proposition 16. {snip}

Many Californians believe that treating people differently on the basis of their race, ethnicity, or national origin is wrong. Others have concerns about the validity or adequacy of existing racial and ethnic categories and the attendant complications of shaping decisions on their basis. If Proposition 16 had passed, California officials would have been forced to decide, for example, whether African American descendants of slaves should be treated the same as Nigerian immigrants, whether Hmong, Chinese, and Indian Americans, or Spaniards, Argentines, Peruvians, and Salvadorans, were in the same category, or whether Latinos, the state’s largest identity group, should benefit from preferences historically reserved for minorities.

Even if those problems were ultimately resolvable, California today does not resemble the state where an all-white class at the UC Davis medical school prompted calls for an urgent remedy. Last year, with the state’s ban on racial preferences in place, the flagship UC system admitted the most diverse class in the state’s history. “First-generation students made up 44% of those admitted and low-income students 40%,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “Asian Americans remained the largest ethnic group at 35%, followed by Latinos at 34%, whites at 22%, African Americans at 5% and American Indians at 0.5%.” {snip}

My own vote against Proposition 16 was most heavily influenced by trepidation about the conflicts between racial groups that I anticipate if state officials are empowered to evaluate applicants on the basis of race rather than being compelled by law to treat every individual equally. As I understand the state’s history, the country’s history, and the world’s history, government officials cannot be trusted to factor race into decision making without treating people unjustly, and intergroup stigmas and resentments tend to increase when any group is given preferential treatment.


On November 3, the people wisely headed off such conflict: In public employment, public education, and public contracting, state officials are still compelled to treat every Californian equally regardless of their race. Will political elites obey those prudential constraints, given their overwhelming opposition to them? I expect not. But state and federal courts will serve as a check on the most flagrant violations of the law––and, in the long run, the people’s reaffirmation of Proposition 209 may portend victories for race-neutral policies elsewhere in the American political system. The prudence of that course will only increase along with the diversity of the nation.