The Important Legacy of Proposition 209


On August 8th at the State Capitol, I spoke at a rally at the State Capitol supporting the legacy of Proposition 209, California’s landmark 1996 anti-discrimination law, and warning of the consequences of Proposition 16, which would eliminate 209 and bring back race-based preferences.  Ward Connerly, the architect of Prop. 209’s passage, was one of the other speakers.  The following are my prepared remarks for the event:

Back in 1996, I worked with Ward Connerly and others to explain the racially discriminatory practices that had been occurring in California for years, and then explaining the principles underlying Prop. 209.

It is important to point out that Prop. 209, also known as the California Civil Rights Initiative, was based on the exact language of the 1964 U.S. Civil Right Act.

The language of Proposition 209 is clear: “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.”

This similarity to the U.S. Civil Rights Act is extremely important because of the moral case made by President John F. Kennedy and others for passage of this law.

In his landmark message to Congress on the need for the Civil Rights Act, President Kennedy said: “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. . . . The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”

Further, he said that all Americans “have a right to expect that the law will be fair, [and] that the Constitution will be color blind.”

The United States Congress passed the U.S. Civil Rights Act in response to the moral case laid out by President Kennedy.

Similarly, the people of California passed Proposition 209 by a near-landslide majority because of the moral case laid out by Ward Connerly and others, which was based on actual discrimination experienced by Californians due to government-sponsored racial preference programs.

For example, prior to the University of California eliminating race preferences in its admissions process in 1995, there was widespread racial discrimination in admissions throughout the UC system.

The Pacific Research Institute did a study in 1995 and found that prior to the UC’s elimination of race preferences, Japanese Americans were 13 times less likely to be accepted to UC Davis medical school than those benefiting from race preferences.

Korean Americans were 14 times less likely to be accepted than those who benefited from race preferences.

My good friend, the late State Assemblyman Nao Takasugi, who for many years was the only Asian American in the Legislature, testified to the UC Regents: “Let us be clear, what we are discussing today with UC’s special preferential admissions policy is nothing more or nothing less than state-mandated discrimination based on race, the same discrimination that locked me and my family away in the prison of injustice in [the Japanese-American internment camp at] Gila River, Arizona.”

Proposition 209 has guaranteed that the injustice that Assemblyman Takasugi pointed out would never happen again in California.

Finally, let me say that the effort to repeal Prop. 209 totally fails to recognize that the true culprit for the difficulties of underrepresented minorities gaining entrance into the University of California system lies not with Prop. 209’s anti-discrimination language, but with the failure of the California’s public K-12 system to adequately prepare these students for higher education.

The UC Academic Senate has found that for underrepresented minorities, the most significant factor preventing UC eligibility was not Prop. 209, but the “failure to complete all required A-G [college preparatory] courses with a C or better.”

Even UC President Janet Napolitano herself admits that “the biggest contributor to underrepresentation at UC is that students do not fulfill A-G subject requirements for admissions.”

So, if legislators, policymakers, and educators truly want to improve the chances for success for underrepresented minority children, then they should avoid divisive identity politics and get to the hard work of offering better education alternatives for all children in California.

In his message on the U.S. Civil Rights Act, President Kennedy said that America was “founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”

Repealing Proposition 209 would therefore threaten the equal rights of all people in California.  And that would be wrong.

Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at 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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