Disappointment for Democrat's

The Failed Affirmative Action Campaign That Shook Democrats

The Supreme Court will soon rule on race-conscious college admissions, a core Democratic issue. But an analysis of a California referendum points to a divide between the party and voters.

USA California
USA California

The 2020 campaign to restore race-conscious affirmative action in California was close to gospel within the Democratic Party. It drew support from the governor, senators, state legislative leaders and a who’s who of business, nonprofit and labor elites, Black, Latino, white and Asian.

The Golden State Warriors, San Francisco Giants and 49ers and Oakland Athletics urged voters to support the referendum, Proposition 16, and remove “systemic barriers.” A commercial noted that Kamala Harris, then a U.S. senator, had endorsed the campaign, and the ad also suggested that to oppose it was to side with white supremacy. Supporters raised many millions of dollars for the referendum and outspent opponents by 19 to 1.

“Vote for racial justice!” urged the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

None of these efforts persuaded Jimmie Romero, a 63-year-old barber who grew up in the working-class Latino neighborhood of Wilmington in Los Angeles. Homelessness, illegal dumping, spiraling rents: He sat in his shop and listed so many problems.

Affirmative action was not one of those.

“I was upset that they tried to push that,” Mr. Romero recalled in a recent interview. “It was not what matters.”

Mr. Romero was one of millions of California voters, including about half who are Hispanic and a majority who are Asian American, who voted against Proposition 16, which would have restored race-conscious admissions at public universities, and in government hiring and contracting.

The breadth of that rejection shook supporters. California is a liberal bastion and one of the most diverse states in the country. That year, President Biden swamped Donald Trump by 29 percentage points in California, but Proposition 16 went down, with 57 percent of voters opposing it.

USA California

That vote constitutes more than just a historical curiosity. The U.S. Supreme Court is soon expected to rule against, or limit, affirmative action in college admissions, which the court supported for decades.

The Court’s decision could test the potency of affirmative action as an electoral issue — just as its decision last year to end a constitutional right to abortion led to a backlash that contributed to Democratic wins in congressional races and to abortion rights victories in such unlikely corners as Kansas.

But Proposition 16 suggests the politics of affirmative action are different. The results exposed a gulf between the party establishment and its voters.

To make sense of its failure, The New York Times analyzed the 2020 vote, focusing on Los Angeles County, the nation’s most populous county, and spoke to dozens of voters across demographic groups.

Los Angeles voters, an ethnically diverse and liberal lot, passed the proposition by a mere whisker, 51 percent to 49 percent. And the Times analysis of electoral precincts found across all races, support for the referendum fell well short of support for Joe Biden on the same ballot.

This was true across majority Black, Asian, Hispanic and white precincts.

In 1996, California voters banned affirmative action, during a more conservative time, with a Republican governor. By 2020, with liberal Californians infuriated about Donald Trump and the murder of George Floyd, Democratic leaders hoped Los Angeles voters would run up big margins and overcome conservative opposition elsewhere in the state.

Democrats have yearned for a demographic deliverance, arguing a multiracial coalition would inevitably elevate their progressive policies. Proposition 16 points to a more uncertain reality.

Carlos E. Cortés has lived the history of diversity in California. An emeritus professor and historian of race and ethnicity, he became the second Mexican-descended scholar to join the faculty of the University of California, Riverside. He supported the measure, even as he understood its limited appeal.

“It’s not going to cause great eruptions of protest,” Dr. Cortés said, speaking of the possible end of affirmative action, which, he noted, is a reliable loser at the ballot box. “If they keep making it a cause, they will just alienate Hispanic and Asian voters.”

 Expectations Upended

California’s college officials framed support for Proposition 16 as a matter of social justice. They said it would lead to more diverse campuses and allow students to understand sad historical legacies.

“There is amazing momentum for righting the wrongs caused by centuries of systemic racism in our country,” John A. Pérez, then the chairman of the California Board of Regents, said during the 2020 campaign.

There was the view, too, that California’s 1996 ban deprived Black and Hispanic business owners, who have less generational wealth than white counterparts, of hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts.

The New York Times
The New York Times
“Unconscious bias and institutional racism is embedded,” said Lisa Holder, president of the Equal Justice Society, a nonprofit law firm, and a Proposition 16 supporter. “Unless you take affirmative steps, this continues in perpetuity.”

Supporters believed such arguments held broad appeal. But the Times analysis and interviews showed support for Proposition 16 is often divided along racial lines, with Black voters supporting it, while Asian voters rejected it. In fact, nearly all majority Asian precincts in Los Angeles voted against the proposition. And across racial and ethnic groups, support for the referendum fell short of support for Mr. Biden.

This was true even of majority Black precincts in Los Angeles, which supported Proposition 16 by wide margins. Mr. Biden outpaced that support by an average of about 15 percentage points.

Sourse:New York Times



  1. The breadth of that rejection shook supporters. California is a liberal bastion and one of the most diverse states in the country. That year, President Biden swamped Donald Trump by 29 percentage points in California, but Proposition 16 went down, with 57 percent of voters opposing it.

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