Proposition 16

This post is about California’s Proposition 16 of 2020.

(Background information about California’s ballot proposition process may be found here.)

Proposition 16 of 2020 (which failed) sought to undo Proposition 209 of 1996 (which passed), so let’s first examine that earlier proposition.

Proposition 209 of 1996 added Section 31 to Article I of the California state constitution, which reads in relevant part:

The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.

Proposition 209 passed by a margin of 55% in favor to 45% opposed. Votes were cast by 10 million citizens out of 16 million registered voters (66% turnout). (source)

Proposition 16 of 2020 proposed to repeal Section 31 of Article I. Proposition 16 failed by a margin of 57% opposed to 43% in favor. Votes were cast by 18 million citizens out of 22 million registered voters (81% turnout). (source)

There are two ways that propositions can be placed on the ballot in California: by the voters (initiative) or by the legislature (referendum). Proposition 209 of 1996 was a voter initiative. Proposition 16 of 2020 was a referendum put before the voters by the legislature.

Proposition 16 was the result of Assembly Constitutional Amendment No. 5 (ACA-5) of 2020:

A resolution to propose to the people of the State of California an amendment to the Constitution of the State, by repealing Section 31 of Article I thereof, relating to government preferences.

ACA-5 was passed by the California legislature one year ago this month by large majorities: 60 to 14 in the 80-member Assembly and 30 to 10 in the 40-member Senate. (source)

In other words, in 2020 the California legislature sought to undo what California voters had initiated and passed in 1996; and the voters soundly rejected this attempt.

ACA-5 included a statement of legislative findings consisting of 19 “WHEREAS” paragraphs explaining why the legislature felt that Section 31 of Article I should be repealed. See ACA-5 here. In brief, the legislature felt that past discrimination and disparate outcomes justified government preferences for women and minorities. The voters did not agree that government preferences are good for society.

Three additional factors warrant noting.

First, Proposition 16 was supported by almost the entire California establishment – not just the legislature, but also:

Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein; former Senator Barbara Boxer; at least 30 Democratic members of the U.S. House, including Nancy Pelosi; and Governor Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, State Controller Betty Yee, State Treasurer Fiona Ma, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, Speaker of the Assembly Anthony Rendon, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, and hundreds of other local officials. It was also supported by many of the state’s newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, The Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle, The San Diego Union-Tribune, La Opinión, the East Bay Times, The Sacramento Bee, The Fresno Bee, and The Modesto Bee. (source)

California’s political and media establishments are significantly out of step with the people on this issue.

Second, supporters of Proposition 16 outspent opponents by $27 million to $1.7 million. (source) The monied establishment is also out of step with the people on this issue.

Third, California voters are notably not right-wing. In the same election in which Proposition 16 was defeated, California voters supported Joe Biden for president by 63% vs. 34% for Donald Trump. (source) That was similar to Vermont: 66% for Biden vs. 31% for Trump. (source) Furthermore, California voters today are more left-leaning and more diverse than in 1996. (source)

For additional perspective, see Conor Friedersdorf’s essay in The Atlantic dated November 10, 2020: Why California Rejected Racial Preferences, Again. Mr. Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He grew up in and lives in California. He writes insightfully about Proposition 16, and he explains why he voted against it.

Proposition 16 was defeated by a greater margin than Proposition 209 was passed a generation earlier, and with a larger voter turnout. With Proposition 209, California voters rejected racial and gender preferences. With Proposition 16, they said: And we meant it.

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2 Responses to Proposition 16

  1. Lesley Ryan says:

    I get that state officials need to be held to neutrality, but where and when do we level the playing fields? Where in our systems are the historical and current inequalities rectified? Have we no hope of progressing towards the ideal of equality?


  2. My purpose in the post was to recount some facts, which I think are surprising and not well known, about Propositions 16 and 209 – and to leave the analysis to others. But, Lesley, to respond to your questions, I will attempt some analysis in this longish comment.

    I think the view of the 57% who opposed Proposition 16 is that society moves AWAY from the ideal of equality when it imposes government preferences, and that the way to move TOWARD that ideal is to eliminate both government discrimination and government preferences. See Proposition 209.

    I think the 57% would agree those who favor government preferences have good intentions, but that those good intentions are outweighed by the ill effects of government preferences.

    “[A]fter 20 years of implementation I think that affirmative action has shown itself to be more bad than good[.]”

    That was written in 1990 by Shelby Steele in his book “The Content of Our Character” in the chapter titled “Affirmative Action: The Price of Preference.” Dr. Steele, now a professor emeritus, was then a 44-year-old professor of English at San Jose State University in California. Dr. Steele is black. His paternal grandfather was born a slave in Kentucky.

    One of the ill effects of government preferences that concerns the 57% is societal discord that will inevitably result when government divides people into groups and treats those groups differently. Perhaps it takes a diverse public such as California to see this. Many blacks, for obvious reasons, favor government preferences for themselves. Many whites favor government preferences for blacks because it eases their guilt. But California has substantial Hispanic and Asian populations. Conor Friedersdorf discusses this aspect in his essay in The Atlantic that I linked to in the post.

    Another ill effect, according to Dr. Steele, is that government preferences are bad for blacks themselves because preferences discourage self-development, thus worsening the very problem that they purport to solve. The full sentence that I partially quoted above is:

    “But after 20 years of implementation I think that affirmative action has shown itself to be more bad than good and that blacks – whom I will focus on in this essay – now stand to lose more from it than they gain.”

    That is from the chapter titled “Affirmative Action: The Price of Preference” in Shelby Steele’s 1990 book “The Content of Our Character.” You can read a version of that chapter in the New York Times Magazine here:

    I recommend reading the essays by both Conor Friedersdorf and Shelby Steele.


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