In the Democratic Party, the 2020 campaign to reinstate race-conscious affirmative actions in California was a near-gospel. The governor, state legislators, and business, nonprofit, and labor leaders, Black, Latino and white, all supported the campaign.
Golden State Warriors and San Francisco Giants, 49ers, and Oakland Athletics all urged voters in support of Proposition 16 and to remove "systemic barriers." The ad noted that Kamala Harris had endorsed the campaign. It also implied that opposing it would be to support white supremacy. Supporters raised millions of dollars to support the referendum, and they outspent their opponents 19-1.
Vote for racial Justice! The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California urged voters to vote for racial justice.
Jimmie Romero was a 63 year old barber from the Latino working class neighborhood of Wilmington, Los Angeles. Homelessness, illegal dumps, and spiraling rents were just some of the problems he listed as he sat at his barbershop.
Affirmative Action was not included in this list.
In a recent interview, Mr. Romero said: 'I was angry that they were trying to push this'. It was not important.
Mr. Romero is one of the millions of Californians, about half of whom are Hispanic, and a majority of whom are Asian Americans, who voted in opposition to Proposition 16 which would have reinstated race-conscious admissions and hiring practices at public universities and government contracts.
The magnitude of the rejection shocked supporters. California is one of the most liberal and diverse states in America. In California that year, Donald Trump was beaten by President Biden by 29 percentage points, but Proposition 16 failed to pass, as 57 percent of voters opposed it.
This vote is more than a mere historical curiosity. The U.S. Supreme Court will likely rule soon against affirmative action or limit it in college admissions. This was something the court supported over decades.
The Court's ruling could be a test of the electoral power of affirmative actions, just as last year its decision to end a constitutionally protected right to abortion sparked a backlash which contributed to Democratic victories in congressional races as well as abortion rights victories even in unlikely places like Kansas.
Proposition 16 shows that the politics of affirmative actions are quite different. The results revealed a gap between the establishment of the party and its voters.
The New York Times spoke with dozens of voters from different demographics to understand the failure of the 2020 election.
Los Angeles voters, a diverse, liberal group, only narrowly passed the proposal, with 51 percent to 49. The Times' analysis of voting precincts revealed that support for the referendum was far less than support for Joe Biden, across all races.
The majority of the precincts were Black, Asian, Hispanic, and white.
California voters banned affirmative actions in 1996. This was during a conservative period with a Republican Governor. In 2020, liberal Californians furious over Donald Trump's election and the murder George Floyd, Democratic Leaders hoped Los Angeles voters could win by a large margin and defeat conservative opposition in other parts of the state.
Democrats have long wished for a demographic breakthrough, believing that a coalition of multiracial people would elevate their progressive policies. Proposition 16 reveals a more uncertain future.
Carlos E. Cortes is a Californian who has experienced the diversity of California. He was the second Mexican-born scholar to join University of California Riverside's faculty as an emeritus historian of race. He supported the measure even though he knew its limitations.
'It won't cause big protests,' said Dr. Cortes, speaking about the end of affirmative actions, which he pointed out is a sure loser in the voting booth. If they continue to make it a issue, they'll only alienate Hispanics and Asians voters.
Expectations are not met
California's college officials have framed their support for Proposition 16 in terms of social justice. They claimed that it would result in more diverse campuses, and help students understand the sad history of their country.
John A. Perez said, during the 2020 election campaign, that there was a'magnificent momentum' for redressing the injustices caused by decades of systemic racism.
The view was also that California's 1996 prohibition deprived Black and Hispanic businesses, which have less wealth generationally than their white counterparts do, of contracts worth hundreds of millions.
Lisa Holder, a supporter of Proposition 16, and president of Equal Justice Society, said that 'unconscious bias and institution racism are embedded'. This will continue in perpetuity unless you do something about it.
Such arguments were believed to be popular by supporters. The Times' analysis and interviews revealed that support for Proposition 16 was often divided by race, with Black voters favoring it while Asian voters rejecting it. Nearly all Los Angeles precincts with a majority Asian population voted against it. Support for the referendum was lower than support for Mr. Biden across all racial groups and ethnicities.
Even in Los Angeles, where the majority of Black precincts supported Proposition 16 with large margins, this was also true. Mr. Biden's support was about 15 percentage points higher than that of the majority Black precincts in Los Angeles.
Affirmative Action Drew Less Support Than Biden in 2020
Votes cast by Los Angeles County precincts grouped according to predominant race or ethnicity.
Support for Proposition 16
Note that the vote total for Joseph R. Biden Jr. does not include votes from third-party candidates.
Sources: New York Times estimations based on California Statewide Database data, L2 at Harvard University and the ALARM project.
In 1996, California voters rejected affirmative action with Proposition 209 and the results were very different. In 1996, California's population was overwhelmingly white. The Republican governor was against social services for undocumented migrants, and nativism ruled the day.
According to an exit survey by The Los Angeles Times, in that year, 63 per cent of white voters were against affirmative action.
According to the poll, a large majority of Black, Latino, and Asian voters supported affirmative action. Many also believed that this campaign was based on white resentment. By 2020, this coalition had been greatly reduced.
Richard Sander, law professor at University of California Los Angeles and critic of affirmative action based on race, noted that the 1996 vote was more racially divided than the 2020 vote. The 1996 campaign was framed in stark racial language. Prop 16 was much less racial, and voters didn't buy it.
Why do we need this?
Gloria Romero was a Democrat, former majority leader in the State Senate. Her term ended at the end of 2010, and she left politics out of frustration over the state of education and the opposition of her party to charter schools.
She voted against affirmative actions ten years later.
Why are we going to the past again? She said. "We are no longer in the 'walk across the bridge in Selma phase' of our civil right struggle."
Ms. Romero, like many Hispanics interviewed, was more concerned about housing, health care and education than about discrimination.
California's Hispanic population is reaching a turning point, with progress and lingering disparities battling for attention. The Hispanic population in California is slightly more than half of all public school students, while the number of Hispanics who are undergraduates at the elite University of California System is about half. California State University, a less competitive but highly regarded system, has 23 campuses with almost 460,000 students. Hispanics make up nearly half of this total.
"We are debating affirmative actions when there are more Latinos in college than ever before," Ms. Romero stated.
Valerie Contreras is a crane operator and a proud member of the union in Wilmington. Half the voters there were against the referendum. She was not a fan of the affirmative-action campaign.
She said that the Democrats' use of racially charged terms was absurd. It was a distraction away from the important issues in our lives.
Asian voters expressed a visceral sense of unease. South and East Asians only make up 15 percent of California's population and 35 percent of its undergraduates.
According to them, affirmative action threatens to reduce the number of people who are eligible for benefits.
Sunjay Muralitharan, a boisterous freshman at the University of California San Diego and leader of its Democratic Party Chapter, is an outspoken newcomer. He is a Bernie Sanders supporter and supports universal basic income, higher minimum wages, and national health insurance.
As a 16 year old, he began a campaign in 2020 against affirmative action based on race. He and his friends then applied to elite universities outside California, and were often shocked by the rejections. This reinforced his belief that Asian students require higher grades and test scores to gain entry.
There were many students of Indian or Chinese descent who had no choice but to attend schools that did not meet their standards, said Muralitharan. He grew up in Fremont - a middle class suburb of San Jose with a majority of Asians.
He argued that affirmative action should focus on economic status and give priority to applicants with low incomes.
Kevin Liao is a former top Democratic Party official and consultant who supports affirmative action. He argues that it will help Asian American businesses and universities can only offer diverse classes if affirmative actions are implemented. He said that high-achieving Asian students would succeed even if they settled for their third or fourth choice of college.
He was not, however, surprised that so many Asian Americans resisted. He said that immigrants viewed the idea of evaluating anything other than academic performance as being antithetical to American culture.
Black voters have often cited different calculations when defending affirmative action. They cited the cost of racism, including poor schools and incomes that are lagging behind those of white Americans.
Fola Asebiomo, a junior at U.C.L.A. studying psychology. She is proud of her accomplishments and loves the diversity at U.C.L.A. She recalled Black Georgian friends who, due to poverty and family disadvantages, had difficulty applying to college.
Asebiomo stated, "I've watched disadvantages play out." The disparities that have been created over the centuries do not just disappear.
The Move Forward
Affirmative action was not in good health in the University of California System before 1996. Black and Latino enrollment in top schools was stagnant. The number of applications was falling, and the graduation rate was low. U.C.L.A. According to Mr. Sander's data, from 1992 to 1993, Black students at U.C.L.A. law professor.
After the ban, the Black and Latino population on the most elite campuses (Berkeley and U.C.L.A.) dropped precipitously. Latinos had to wait a decade before the trend reversed. Black enrollment recovered more slowly.
The U.C. Black enrollment dropped and then recovered. Black enrollment is now at 5 percent. Black residents in California make up less that 6 percent. Black students have a six-year overall graduation rate of 77 percent. The White enrollment has fallen to 18% today, from 35 % in 1996.
Black and Hispanic students are underrepresented at Berkeley. Black students made up 3.4 percent of Berkeley's freshman class in September last year, while Hispanics made up about 20 percent.
U.C.L.A. has higher numbers. Black students make up 8 percent, and Hispanics 22 percent, of the 2022 freshman class.
All of this may point to a reality that is counterintuitive. The University of California System seems to have crafted a more tolerant version of affirmative action based on economics. The universities are attracting a diverse student body by spending $50 million a year on top students in low-income areas.
Transfer students are a large part of the system, coming from California State colleges and community colleges. One-third of the new Berkeley students are transfers; many come from low-income backgrounds and are nonwhite.
Some University of California Professors have uncovered a semi-hidden story of success.
Sylvia Hurtado is an education professor at U.C.L.A. and former director of its Higher Education Research Institute.
Professor Sander, who supports class-based affirmative actions, suggests that California's leaders accept the university is better because of the changes.
He said, "The sky didn't fall." It was a victory in many ways.
Some people do not accept his decision.
Thomas A. Saenz was co-chairman for Proposition 16, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. He said that black and Latino students are still marked by prejudice from kindergarten through high school. This includes standardized tests, grades, and the expectations of teachers.
He said that what appears to be progress -- the increasing number of Latinos in schools -- is largely due to population growth.
He said that subconscious bias is at the root of many admissions decisions made on merit. We must guard against the emergence of colorblindness.
California's model has many reasons to be questioned. The state has invested money and efforts into attracting diverse student. Other states may balk at these investments in a world post-affirmative actions.
The electoral politics is another issue. Proposition 16 supporters blamed their defeat on unclear ballot language, difficulties in campaigning during Covid pandemics and inadequate voter education.
Ruy Teixeira is a political science who has a different opinion. He said that polling consistently shows the unpopularity racial affirmative action.
He said that a Supreme Court death knell could save Democratic leaders by releasing them from affirmative actions.
He said: "They have been saying for years that we must positively discriminate." "Maybe they don't need to die there anymore."
Ruth Igielnik contributed data reporting. Alain Delaqueriere contributed research.
The Times used a combination of precinct level election results from the Statewide Database, a voter list provided by L2, an independent data vendor, and estimated citizen voting-age populations by race and ethnicity based on census block estimates compiled by Harvard University's ALARM Project. The results were analyzed with multiple methods in order to determine if support or opposition for the proposition was related to factors such as the racial/ethnic makeup of each precinct. This analysis involved using the eiCompare R Package to perform ecological inferences using multiple methods, reviewing voting patterns when an ethnic group constituted at least 60% of the voting population, and regression analysis.
The results of precinct analysis can be used to better understand voting patterns, but the conclusions are limited because it is impossible to determine how specific voters of different races and ethnicities voted.