Racial Preferences Returning to California?

It’s said that timing is everything — it’s especially true in politics. And it’s why those who want to bring back racial preferences in California’s public education, government employment and contracting, chose the here and now to try and repeal Prop. 209, the 1996 California ballot measure that ended these practices.

Call it the perfect storm or an alignment of the stars (depending on which side of the debate you sit) –the current environment provides the optimal conditions for those who want to repeal it.

The COVID-19 pandemic has crippled the state’s economy. Shrewd Prop. 209 repealers know that Californians are singly focused on saving their lives and livelihoods.  Moreover, public health restrictions hamper attempts to try and organize an opposition. The last time the legislature tried to dismantle Prop. 209 was in 2012 when it was met with fierce opposition from Asian Americans who largely lean Democrat.  The bill was eventually withdrawn by its sponsors in the senate.  It would be difficult for citizen groups now to organize a similar effort even under the loosened guidelines for political protest announced earlier this week by Gov. Newsom.

Another key factor blocking opposition is the state’s one-party reign.  The Democratic Party currently holds veto-proof supermajorities in both the assembly and the senate.  “There’s nothing to stop the passage of this bill if the Democrat leadership is behind it,” said my colleague Tim Anaya, a long-time veteran of the legislature.  A two-thirds vote in both houses will put the measure on the November ballot.

Then there’s the fact that it’s a presidential election year.  Expect an increase in voter turnout, and the composition of California’s electorate by race and party affiliation favor the passage of a repeal.

If the political environment seems daunting, our justice system is even more discouraging. Last year, a federal court ruled against an Asian American group when it sued Harvard for the subjective admissions policies Harvard used to restrain admissions of highly qualified Asian American applicants.  Emboldened by Harvard’s victory, 209 repealers got the clear message: discrimination is okay against under-represented minorities.

Finally, 209 repealers learned some valuable lessons from the 2012 effort. Rather than focus on university admissions, organizers have shifted their effort to emphasize racial preferences in government contracting.  The legislative sponsors of Prop. 209’s repeal argue that women, particularly women of color, continue to face unequal pay for equal work.  Never mind that for the past decade, Democrats have controlled the legislature and the governor’s office. It’s actually the Democrat-controlled state government that has failed to pay women and women of color, equal pay for equal work.

Given the current political climate, upholding Prop. 209 will take a herculean effort.  But the feat, I would argue, is no less difficult than a young person’s commitment to years of education excellence to achieve acceptance to U.C. Berkeley, UCLA, or Harvard; or the tenacity it takes to be hired for a coveted job; or the entrepreneurial energy needed to win a government contract. A selection process based on talent, effort, and achievement is what’s made California the place of opportunity that it is today.

But a system without merit — as repeal organizers would have it — is a system without legitimacy.  If Prop. 209 is repealed, state government will devolve into a spoils system where those who have the political muscle will be rewarded with jobs, money, and the best of California’s education.

Rowena Itchon is senior vice president of the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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