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Prop. 16 Asks: Should California Allow Affirmative Action Once Again? (Transcript)

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Supporters of affirmative action have been trying to repeal Proposition 209 since it was put in place in 1996. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

If reading through the statewide ballot propositions has made your head spin, you are in the right place! From Oct. 1 – 16, Bay Curious is exploring the 12 statewide ballot propositions in our Prop Fest series. This episode tackles Prop 16, which asks voters if affirmative action should once again be an option for public institutions.


Olivia Allen-Price [00:00:01] Good morning, everyone. Olivia Allen-Price here. If you caught our two episodes last week, you know that we are in the middle of Bay Curious Prop Fest, a 12 part series that explores the propositions on the California ballot. Last week, we went through Prop 14. A bond to fund stem cell research and Prop 15, which would affect property tax assessments for commercial real estate. If you missed those, go check out the Bay Curious podcast feed this week. We’ll continue onward down the list of props, starting right now.

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Olivia Allen-Price [00:00:38] Did you know that public entities are banned from using affirmative action in California, Proposition 16 would overturn that ban. On your ballot it reads like this:


Voice 1 [00:00:49] Proposition 16 permits government decision making policies to consider race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin to address diversity.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:00:59] Today on the show, we’ll look back to when the state first banned using these categories; race, sex, ethnicity, for hiring and admissions decisions. And learn how Prop 16 could bring them back.

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Olivia Allen-Price [00:01:19] KQED politics and government reporter Katie Orr joins us today to talk through Prop 16. Welcome, Katie.

Katie Orr [00:01:25] Hi, Olivia.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:01:26] At its core, Prop 16 is asking voters, basically how they feel about affirmative action. And I do want to talk about that phrase, “affirmative action”, because we hear it thrown around a lot in politics, but I think sometimes we can forget what it actually means. So, what are we talking about when we say affirmative action?

Katie Orr [00:01:45] So historically, there have been some groups such as women, people of color, who have been excluded from employment or educational opportunities. And so affirmative action is a practice where these specific groups are actually given preferential treatment to access those opportunities now with the goal being to give them more parity, to increase equality and diversity, and tackle lingering inequalities that we still deal with today.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:02:15] OK, and Proposition 16 would repeal a ban that California has had on affirmative action for more than two decades now. Where did that ban first come from?

Katie Orr [00:02:26] For that, we need to go back to the 1990s. So, Pete Wilson was the governor for much of that time.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:02:32] Wilson was more conservative than many California lawmakers are now, and he strongly opposed affirmative action.

Katie Orr [00:02:38] A lot of Californians agreed with Governor Wilson. They passed Proposition 209 in 1996. That banned the state from considering race, gender, ethnicity, things like that when hiring, awarding contracts, and admitting students into public universities. And that law has been in place ever since.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:02:57] What would Proposition 16, which is what we’re voting on this year, do?

Katie Orr [00:03:01] So, Prop 16 would overturn Prop 209, meaning that the state could once again consider race and sex and ethnicity in those decisions of hiring, awarding contracts and admitting kids in to our public universities here in California.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:03:23] I’m really glad you brought up university admissions because that’s where we usually hear about affirmative action. What kind of impact would this prop have on California’s public universities?

Katie Orr [00:03:35] It’s really hard to say. Supporters say that it would increase racial diversity at these universities, especially the top performing universities like UC Berkeley and UCLA. Critics of this proposition are worried that it could hurt some racial groups.

Katie Orr [00:03:55] When people hear the words affirmative action, they actually have a gut reaction related to fairness. And I spoke with Janelle’s Scott, who is a professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education about this.

Janelle Scott [00:04:08] Some people fear that they’ll miss out, but they especially fear that they’ll miss out because they think they deserve it, right. Whereas other people, they believe, don’t.

Katie Orr [00:04:18] But she also points out that the way we measure who is “deserving” is problematic.

Janelle Scott [00:04:26] We’re relying on measures that seem to be only merit based, but that would actually measure a whole lot of social status and social privilege.

Katie Orr [00:04:34] For instance, you know, somebody’s grades, somebody’s SATs, somebody’s, you know, extracurriculars, which might speak to whether or not they deserve to be at this high tier university. They tend to track a lot with a person’s socioeconomic status.

Janelle Scott [00:04:51] Without a kind of holistic assessment that takes into account, you know, multiple ways of measuring intelligence and competence and talent, we’re left with indicators that map really neatly onto race and socioeconomic status and immigration status.

Katie Orr [00:05:10] Scott also points out that the ‘Varsity Blues’ admissions scandal and a recent state audit of UC admissions both highlight what many of us already know, that white, wealthy people often find ways to get a leg up in the current system.

Janelle Scott [00:05:24] There has been a different kind of affirmative action in place for wealthy people who have had access to preferential admissions through their wealth or political or social connections.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:05:35] All right. And then beyond education, this isn’t just, just about education, what other public sectors are going to see impact if this passes?

Katie Orr [00:05:43] So, one area where we could see a big effect is state contracts,. The state awards, you know, hundreds of contracts for various projects. And supporters of Prop 16 say that women and minority owned businesses have lost out on a lot of these contracts because they don’t have the same connections that, say, a firm owned by a white man might have – the same connections or the same resources. So, supporters say that this could give those businesses a boost and essentially level the playing field for women and minorities.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:06:17] Now. Proposition 209 banned preferential treatment, which we’ve been talking a lot about. But it also banned discriminatory treatment. So, I guess, is there risk with overturning 209? You know, could that open the door for more discrimination?

Katie Orr [00:06:32] Well, we have to keep in mind that affirmative action would not be the only law in place. There are several state laws, as well as federal laws, in place that are meant to ensure against discrimination.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:06:46] And I know one other concern has been, you know, are we going to see effectively like quotas, let’s say UC Berkeley, you know, has these ideas about what the racial makeup of a class is and they’re just looking to fill those quotas. Will that come to fruition?

Katie Orr [00:07:00] No. Quotas are against federal law. And actually, the UC Board of Regents just passed a measure reaffirming that no, none of their campuses will ever use a quota system. But I will say critics of Prop 16 have expressed concerns that while we might not have a specific quota spelled out, they’re worried that there will be some kind of secret target in mind that schools will try to fill regardless of whether or not they’re actually allowed to.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:07:36] And let’s talk about arguments for and against Prop 16. Who is lining up in support of this so far?

Janelle Scott [00:07:42] So, the yes on 16 campaign has drawn a lot of high-profile names. Kamala Harris has been supportive of it. Governor Gavin Newsom has been supportive of it. And it’s really I think the campaign is trying to capitalize on this national conversation we’ve been seeing about socioeconomic justice, race and equity, those kinds of conversations, because they have been trying – supporters of affirmative action have been trying to overturn Prop 209, basically since it was passed. So, this is the moment they’re really trying to seize and trying to capitalize on this attention and get that message through and finally overturn the ban.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:08:28] And what about the opposition?

Katie Orr [00:08:30] The opposition to Prop 16 doesn’t have the high powered names associated with it, but their argument isn’t as hard to make, though. I mean, they’re on the no side of the proposition. They don’t have to convince anyone to, like, change anything. It’s hard to get people to change their minds on affirmative action because there’s a feeling that, you know, it’s been working. Our universities are relatively diverse without an affirmative action policy in place.

Gail Heriot [00:09:03] It has increased graduation rates for underrepresented minority students because they were going to schools where their academic credentials put them in the ballpark with other students.

Katie Orr [00:09:14] I spoke with University of San Diego law professor Gail Heriot about this.

Gail Heriot [00:09:18] They wanted to increase diversity, but they weren’t allowed to use it. Just in terms of race and more, it caused the University of California to concentrate on students who are actually in need. This is lower income students, students whose parents didn’t go to college.

Katie Orr [00:09:34] She’s concerned that if universities are once again allowed to consider race in college admissions, that’s all they’ll look at.

Gail Heriot [00:09:42] They want to be able to measure disadvantage just in terms of race.

Katie Orr [00:09:47] Harriet’s concerned that Prop 16 might actually mean state universities end up admitting more middle class students based on race instead of those with the most need.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:09:58] Mm hmm. That’s interesting, although I guess it’s worth remembering that Prop 16 would allow race to be considered, but that doesn’t mean universities would have to stop using any of these other factors, right?

Katie Orr [00:10:08] Yes, that’s right. It would be one of the elements they would be allowed to consider in admissions.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:10:14] All right. What about campaign finance on this one, Katie? How’s the money looking as of now?

Katie Orr [00:10:18] It’s pretty lopsided, actually, right now at the end of September, supporters of Prop 16 have raised 14 million dollars, whereas the opponents have raised about one million.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:10:30] All right. Well, KQED politics reporter Katie Orr, thank you.

Katie Orr [00:10:33] You’re welcome.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:10:38] In a nutshell, a vote yes on Proposition 16 says you want to end the ban on affirmative action for public institutions in California. A vote no means you think affirmative action should continue to be banned in public employment, education and contracting.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:10:58] Join us tomorrow to learn about Prop 17, which would restore voting rights for felons while on parole. In the meantime, you can find more of KQED election coverage at KQED.org/elections.


Olivia Allen-Price [00:11:14] Bay Curious is made in San Francisco at member supported KQED. Our show is produced by Katrina Schwartz, Rob Speight, and me, Olivia Allen-Price, with help from the entire KQED newsroom. See you tomorrow, everybody.

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