California’s Affirmative Action Amendment Sparks Debate on Discrimination

June 22, 2020 Updated: June 24, 2020

A proposed amendment to California’s constitution would permit using race and gender as factors for college admissions, government hiring, and government contracting. 

Proponents say it will allow for hiring and admissions that support disadvantaged groups, while critics suggest it may result in discrimination, and urge other methods to support the disadvantaged. 

Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5 (ACA 5) would undo 1996’s Proposition 209⁠—which prohibits the state from discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment, on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin. 

“The ban on race-conscious and gender-conscious remedies do not allow for us to deal with root causes of systemic failures,” Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), the author of ACA 5, said when she introduced the legislation.

“California is out of step with 42 other states, being only one in eight states with this ban.” 

“The removal of 209 would not burden you, because it is permissive and not prescriptive and does not mandate anything,” she said. “But for leaders who want to help remedy gender bias and disparity, Proposition 209 has only served as an impediment to act on best practices aligned with the United States Constitution.”

If the amendment passes the state Senate by June 25, it will be placed on the November ballot for voters to decide.

It has support from more than 100 various organizations and entities, including the American Civil Liberties Union California, Chinese for Affirmative Action, and the California Faculty Association. But it also has vocal opponents. 

A ‘No’ Vote

Assemblyman Steven Choi (R-Irvine) voted “no” on the resolution before it passed the Assembly on June 10. 

“I felt that [ACA 5] was against the spirit of America and Democracy, in that we pursue the equality for everyone regardless the race, color of skin, national origin, sex, religion, or whatever,” he told The Epoch Times. “Proposition 209 was passed by Californian people to break those differences or barriers for the equal opportunity for everyone.” 

“America is the land of opportunity based on your desire, effort, hard work, and ability,” he said. “Anyone can realize the American Dream if you try to achieve it. That’s the reason why so many people of the world immigrate to the United States. Among them, many do achieve the dream. I am one of them. I had only $50 in my pocket when I landed here.”

According to Marc Ang, president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, Orange County lodge, the current “system is working as it should.” 

“What we need to do as a society is try to create a field of equal opportunity, not equal outcomes. And college is an outcome,” he told The Epoch Times.

“So we need to drill down to the actual things that would create the opportunity for other minority groups to get into college. And that really is through those prep programs, through mentorship, through working with nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations, to uplift the African American, Hispanic American communities. I’m all for that,” he said.

“The solution is not to enforce quotas,” he said. 

Groups who oppose ACA 5 argue that allowing race and gender to be factors for employment and school admissions detracts from relevant merits and fosters discrimination. 

A joint statement released by the Organization for Justice and Equality reads, “Everybody should be judged objectively based on merits including accomplishments, talents, dedication, and integrity, but not on immutable traits such as ethnicity/national origin or gender.”

The statement refers to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey that determined 73 percent of Americans said colleges and universities should not consider race or ethnicity. 

Seventy-eight percent of white adults, 65 percent of Hispanics, 62 percent of black people, and 58 percent of Asians who participated agreed that race should not be a factor. 

A 2011 study from Duke University found that minority graduation rates in the University of California (UC) system increased after the ban on affirmative action. An analysis of all UC applicants and enrollees found “that Prop 209 led to a more efficient sorting of minority students.”

Frank Lee, president of the Organization for Justice and Equality, told The Epoch Times, “Real equality means that we all be treated equally. That’s equality. Otherwise, it is inequality.”

Lee cited a quote by Martin Luther King Jr. that is often cited by opponents of ACA 5: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

That quote has spawned some controversy in recent years, taking on a kind of Rorschach quality. 

For Lee, King’s quote illustrates the ultimate goal for progress. But for Victoria Dominguez, education equity director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Los Angeles, the quote is being misunderstood. 

“Every time I hear that quote being misused, I have like a little physical reaction of cringing because it’s such a scapegoat to the real issue, which is we cannot fix something or address something that you’re telling me you don’t see,” she told The Epoch Times. 

Calls to See Race, to Recognize Racism

Dominguez sees racism as “a systemic issue that … bleeds into all of our institutions, and we need to be able to address it in all our institutions by being able to first acknowledge [it].”

The concept of systemic, or “institutional,” racism gained traction through Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton’s 1967 book, “Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America.” 

The authors draw a distinction between individual racism and institutional racism. As examples, they write that the former is responsible for “white terrorists bomb[ing] a black church,” but the latter is responsible for “five hundred black babies [who] die each year” in Birmingham, Alabama, “because of the lack of proper food, shelter, and medical facilities.” 

Epoch Times Photo
Students hoping for a repeal of California’s Proposition 209 hold signs outside of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, on Feb. 13, 2012. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Epoch Times Photo
Students hoping for a repeal of California’s Proposition 209 hold signs outside of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, on Feb. 13, 2012. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“We need to be able to acknowledge it,” Dominguez said. “We need to be able to study it, you need to be able to address it, in order for us to get to the point where it’s no longer an issue.”

Angie Barfield, president emeritus for Black Students of California United, told The Epoch Times that “there needs to be a leveling of the system.” 

While ACA 5 isn’t a total solution for systemic racism, in her view “it’s going to release the tension” caused by Proposition 209. 

“I think you have a lot of people in power that want to do something different, but are afraid⁠—because Prop 209 is in place⁠—that it will harm them and their environment and their employees or whomever because they don’t want [to be told], ‘You intentionally did this against Prop 209,’” Barfield said. 

She said the new amendment is “a first start at balancing equity within our state. And this next generation, who’s going to take the baton and run ahead with us, they need us to do this now. For them, we see them in the streets and the protests and how diverse those crowds are.” 

Hardship Rather Than Race as Consideration

From Lee’s perspective, ACA 5 might set a precedent that could result in more complications later on.

“When we promote just the interest for one group, down the road, eventually it will go in the other direction,” he said. “And the other ethnic groups will be very unhappy and they would also come up with something, and this is going back and forth. Why do we promote racial conflict like that?”

“It’s very easy to just create quotas and get more minorities in there,” Ang said. “But what are the effects of that?

“A lot of people don’t look at the specifics. They just want to look at the surface level and attack the problem that way. So we need to drill down deeper. And our society is very deficient on this drilling down deeper.”

Both Ang and Lee say financial hardship and family background⁠—not race and gender⁠—are more relevant factors worth considering at the institutional level. 

Family background doesn’t mean the national origin or place of birth, it actually refers to the hardship that one encounters,” Lee said. “For example, is this person an orphan or have only a single parent, and so the family is lacking basic financial support? It is economic hardship rather than the color of the skin that will be considered.”

Dominguez maintains that “income and class [are] not a proxy for race” because those factors don’t “take into consideration the other institutions of oppression and discrimination and power that … communities of color have to navigate their whole life.”

“Income can and should be part of the holistic evaluation of applicants, but it should complement rather than supplant the consideration of race and ethnicity,” Richard Konda, executive director of Asian Law Alliance, told The Epoch Times. “ACA 5 is more important than ever to help begin addressing institutional racism.”  

Choi said, “I realize that black people have suffered so much in America, and their opportunities were taken away. Through the civil rights movement, we’ve come a long way for black people to achieve even this much in a relatively short time.

“If people treat them truly equally based on each person’s ability and desire, I believe that they can achieve even more than what we see today.”

If ACA 5 is ratified by the Senate by June 25, it will appear on the Nov. 3 statewide ballot, and Barfield said she will celebrate the opportunity for the “voices of California to have their say.” 

“People need to get out and vote,” she said. “Vote your heart, but above all⁠—vote.”