California’s Prop 16 Could Soon Give Racial Preferences to a Majority of the State’s Population

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“I Voted Today” stickers at the Democratic primary in Philadelphia, Pa., June 2, 2020. (Rachel Wisniewski/Reuters)

Last year, Washington State voters rejected a deceitful effort by the state legislature to reintroduce racial preferences in public employment, education, and contracting. The legislature had claimed that preferences would be implemented “without the use of quotas or preferential treatment (as defined),” but voters who consulted the fine print learned that preferential treatment had been “defined” in a way that made the assurance meaningless.

By contrast, this year’s Proposition 16 in California is refreshingly honest. “Allow Diversity as a Factor in Public Employment, Education, and Contracting Decisions,” reads the ballot title. The official summary is also straightforward:

  • Permits government decision-making policies to consider race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin to address diversity by repealing article I, section 31, of the California Constitution, which was added by Proposition 209 in 1996.
  • Proposition 209 generally prohibits state and local governments from discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, individuals or groups on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, education, or contracting.

California voters will at least know what they are voting on, but that doesn’t make the substance of the proposal any better. Particularly worrisome is Prop 16’s justification for preferences. The word diversity appears in both the title and the summary, but there is no mention of the traditional, time-limited argument for affirmative action, which is to remedy past discrimination. Indeed, the summary is clear that the point of preferences is “to address diversity,” with no further qualifications.

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Taking that wording seriously, under Prop 16 racial preferences would be allowed whenever a merit-based selection system would produce a set of government workers, public-school students, or public contractors whose demographic profile does not match the demographic profile of the state overall. The state would not need to identify any past discrimination or historical injustices that cause the imbalance. Any time a group of people are not “diverse” enough, racial preferences could kick in.

The situation is all the more disturbing when we consider the relative sizes of the over- versus under-represented groups. The groups that will tend to be disfavored by Prop 16 are non-Hispanic whites and Asians, but together they constitute only about 53 percent of the state’s population. In effect, Californians will be voting on whether roughly half of their fellow citizens should be put at an official disadvantage for the benefit of the other half.

The white-plus-Asian proportion of the California population is projected to fall below 50 percent within two decades. Will racial preferences still be acceptable then? If so, at one point will they not be? Perhaps when the officially disfavored groups fall to 40 percent? How about 30 percent? For people who do not enjoy contemplating such questions, there is a simple way to avoid it: Reject Prop 16.

Jason Richwine is a public-policy analyst and a contributor to National Review Online.


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