California’s Proposal to Restore Affirmative Action Defeated in Referendum

November 4, 2020 Updated: November 4, 2020

Voters of California have rejected a proposal that would have overturned a long-standing ban on affirmative action in the state’s institutions.

The ballot measure, known as Proposition 16, proved overwhelmingly unpopular. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, only 43.9 percent of voters voted “Yes” on it on Election Day. Its opponents had 56.1 percent, and about 1.4 million more votes.

If approved, Proposition 16 would repeal Proposition 209, a 1996 amendment to California’s constitution. Proposition 209 prohibits the state from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, or ethnicity in public employment, education, or contracting.

A nationwide outcry of “systematic racism” following the death of George Floyd has prompted California’s Democratic lawmakers to rekindle their effort to strike down Proposition 209. In June, the proposal to place Proposition 16 on the November ballot passed the state legislature on largely party-line votes.

Some high-profile supporters of Proposition 16 include Gov. Gavin Newsom, and vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“We stood together in 1996 to fight the ‘Civil Wrongs’ initiative, Proposition 209, which banned Affirmative Action in California. We have fought together for decades to advance equality of opportunity, racial, and social justice,” said Pelosi in September. “Today, we stand together to repeal proposition 209 and restore opportunity for all Californians. Please vote YES on Proposition 16!”

Among the opponents of Proposition 16 is Ward Connerly, a businessman and founder of the American Civil Rights Institute. He also led the 1996 campaign for the racial neutrality amendment during his service on the University of California Board of Regents.

“It is no accident that this challenge to Prop 209 has arrived at the same time as mass protests and race riots,” Connerly, who is black, wrote in a Fox News op-ed. “Thugs and rioters—along with the media and political class that enable them—have been tearing at the social fabric of this country.”

The chaos and moral confusion experienced by Americans over the past months, according to Connerly, provided an opportunity for supporters of Prop 16 to advertise a “state-mandated practice of treating human beings as racial groups instead of individuals” under the name of diversity and equity.

“The country as a whole is now caught in a vicious spiral of undoing its hard-won racial equality, and California stands as the vanguard of this cultural revolution,” he wrote, noting that soon after state legislators put Prop 16 on the ballot, they implemented a series of measures such as hard racial quotas for corporate boards, mandatory race-focused courses for students, and a task force for reparations for descendants of slaves.

“If Prop 16 passes, this virus of racial divisiveness will spread to the rest of the country,” Connerly wrote. “We urge all Americans who believe in the foundational principles of this country to support us.”