California voters in November are being asked to overturn a decision they overwhelmingly made nearly two decades ago. Proposition 16 would overturn California’s affirmative action ban and allow race, ethnicity, national origin and sex to once again be used by public agencies, including public universities, to give preferential treatment in admitting, hiring and contracting.

There are better ways to achieve desired educational and economic diversity than affirmative action. The Californian recommends a NO vote on Prop. 16.

In 1996, California pioneered a national movement to ban affirmative action, when voters passed Prop. 209 by 54.55 percent statewide and 87.8 percent in Kern County. Since then, Washington, Arizona, Michigan, Idaho, Nebraska, Oklahoma, New Hampshire and Florida have passed bans. Last year, Washington voters rejected a move to reinstate affirmative action.

Prop. 16 proponents decry the low percentage of Black students enrolled in California state universities and the University of California, and the low percentage of Black faculty members.

But Prop. 16’s reach goes beyond college campuses. It also would allow an applicant’s race, ethnicity, national origin and sex to be considered in public agency hiring decisions and the awarding of public contracts.

It is difficult to sort out the arguments supporting and opposing Prop. 16. For example, proponents note that since California banned affirmative action in 1996, the percentage of Black students at some universities has greatly declined. But if you consider enrollment numbers, they may have stayed the same, or actually increased. However, as student body sizes grew, the percentages decreased.

Over this same period, white, Latino and Black students saw higher-than-average declines in admission rates, while Asians saw a much less decline. Last year, Asians made up only 15 percent of California’s population, but they made up 35 percent of the UC freshman class.

That’s why Asian-American groups are wary of Prop. 16. Efforts to “balance” enrollments through affirmative action may derail opportunities for qualified Asian students.

According to a 2020 California Legislative Analyst report, only 21 percent of African American high school students who graduated in 2018 were prepared for college or a career. This compared to 33 percent Latinos graduates, 52 percent white graduates and 74 percent Asian graduates.

This suggests that increased emphasis on preparing K-12 students to enter college would be more effective than giving preferential entrance treatment. Prop. 16 opponents contend minority college student performance and graduation rates have improved since California banned affirmative action. They conclude students now are better matched with their admitting universities and better prepared to succeed.

The UC and CSU systems recently embarked on programs to recruit minority students and faculty, and support their academic success. Some examples include:

  • The UC-HBCU Pathways Grant program, which is a partnership between the UC system and undergraduates at historically Black colleges and universities. It invites HBCU undergraduates to participate in short-term research programs on UC campuses, with the hope these students will decide to attend UC graduate schools and return as faculty members.
  • Last month, The Los Angeles Times reported on UC Irvine’s new “Black Thriving Initiative.” In 2019, Irvine’s Black undergraduate student population was 3.3 percent – the lowest in the 10-campus UC system. The university is expanding its research and teaching about the Black experience, and has added 10 new faculty positions and research grants.
  • In recent months, UCLA approved a Black Resources Center and in 2018, UC Berkeley launched a campus-wide diversity initiative that resulted in the most Black and Latino students admitted in 30 years.

Determining the impact of California’s 1996 affirmative action ban on contracting is a bit more difficult since U.S. law still requires preference be given in awarding federally-funded contracts to women and minority firms.

But according to Justin Marion, an economics professor at UC Santa Cruz, the ban has saved California taxpayers millions of dollars. He reported after Proposition 209 passed, prices on state-funded contracts fell by 5.6 percent, relative to federally funded projects.

Innovative minority recruitment strategies are a more effective way to increase diversity on university campuses, in public workforces and in public contracting. Vote NO on Prop. 16.