Debates about affirmative action have drifted in and out of the public sphere for decades. With the recent injustices against Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others, affirmative action has returned to the forefront of public conversations as governments seek to rectify years of racial discrimination. This November, Californians have the opportunity to enact legislation that legalizes affirmative action with Proposition 16, which would allow for preferential treatment of marginalized groups in the hiring process.
However, affirmative action addresses the symptoms of racism, not the roots. It hopes to promote marginalized individuals to positions they would not normally have access to without ensuring that those same people have the skills to achieve those positions on their own. Affirmative action is a good tool that could temporarily benefit minorities in the California education system and job market. But, affirmative action is not the permanent solution.
Supporters of the proposition argue that affirmative action will combat disadvantages that marginalized groups have faced for centuries, allowing them to overcome institutional disadvantages and reach the same social heights as white Americans. In the UC system, affirmative action could allow a more representative student body — one that reflects all the diversity of California despite the hardships many students of color face on their path to higher education.
“As we look around the world, we see there is an urgent cry — an urgent cry for change. After 25 years of quantitative and qualitative data, we see that race-neutral solutions cannot fix problems steeped in race,” California Assemblywoman and Chair of the Legislative Black Caucus Shirley Weber argued.
Others disagree. Some, including California Assemblyman Steven Choi, believe affirmative action is simply another form of racism and voters should uphold the meritocracy.
“Repealing Proposition 209, enacted by voters 24 years ago, is to repeal the prohibition of judgment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity and national origin. We are talking about legalizing racism and sexism,” Choi said.
However, the meritocracy Choi assumes has long discriminated against people of color. In 2019, women of color were still paid 75 cents for every dollar a white man earned even though the two groups had the same qualifications.
In 2017, 69% of Black eighth graders attended schools where the majority of students were people of color. Additionally, 72% of Black eighth graders attended high poverty schools, compared to 31% of white students. These statistics suggest that American schools are segregated along racial and economic lines — lines that affect funding and quality of learning. Desegregating schools would begin to provide an equal starting line for people of color as they enter society. While California implements affirmative action to increase opportunities for people of color in the workforce and higher education, it must simultaneously work on lower levels to make lasting change.
Although these statistics suggest meritocracy does not currently exist, a meritocracy is an ideal that California should strive to achieve. When California works on desegregating schools, investing in communities of color and providing bias training for government employees, meritocracy begins to be possible. When California achieves that ideal, and can forgo affirmative action, all groups will benefit.
Asian American groups have long argued that affirmative action leaves them at a disadvantage. Harmful stereotypes about Asian students and the “model minority” mean that affirmative action often limits Asian American opportunities. Recently, the Justice Department alleged that Yale discriminated against white and Asian applicants in their admissions process.
“Yale’s race discrimination imposes undue and unlawful penalties on racially-disfavored applicants, including in particular Asian American and white applicants,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband claimed.
These allegations suggest that affirmative action has limited potency on its own. When it stands alone, affirmative action can reinforce stereotypes instead of combating them. California must recognize these potential harms and proceed carefully.
Addressing the system’s roots and giving people of color opportunities and equal advantages from the outset will hopefully render affirmative action unnecessary in the future. After a few generations of elevating California’s minority population with Proposition 16, the legislature should be able to phase out its practices. Ultimately, affirmative action should buy California time to solve the entrenched reasons for racism while also immediately helping minority groups.
For now, vote yes on Prop 16.
Emily Anderson is a staff writer for the New University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.