Over two decades ago, California set a clear standard by passing a constitutional amendment that put the state on a path to towards true equality.
Proposition 209, passed by voters in 1996, adopted language from the 1964 Civil Rights Act to prohibit the state from discriminating against or giving preference to any individual or group on the basis race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the areas of public employment, public contracts and public education admissions.
The Californians who voted to pass Prop. 209 knew that discrimination, though long entrenched in our society, is against the fundamental values of American culture. Prop. 209 applied to California the essence of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a nation where individuals would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Both morality and data prove that this merit-based approach is working in its most controversial application – college admissions – and aiding minorities in the state. Hoping California voters ignore this, politicians in Sacramento recently approved Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5 (ACA 5), a ballot initiative repealing Prop. 209 and ensuring a return to racial discrimination.
Prop. 209 allows college applicants to be judged by their accomplishments in high school or community college in the admissions process, not by the color of their skin, where they come from, or by their gender. Because of this, we have seen an increase in both enrollments and graduation rates in California’s public colleges and universities.
Since the passage of Prop. 209, University of California schools have seen higher graduation rates. In the first ten years of Prop. 209, Black graduation rates at UC Berkeley saw a 6.5 percent increase. At UC San Diego, graduation rates for Black students rose from 26 percent to 52 percent. At UC Santa Cruz and UC Riverside, Black enrollment had a dramatic increase, and grades by Black students increased significantly as well.
Across the UC system, the four-year graduation rate for Black freshmen rose to 38 percent in the six years following Prop 209, from 22 percent in the six years prior to its passage.
Latino enrollment also increased in the UC system from 11.3 percent in 1998 to 20.7 percent in 2010. And while four-year graduation rates averaged 27 percent for Latino freshmen in the six years prior to Prop. 209, they rose to 40 percent in the six years after.
Asian American enrollment saw about a 5 percent increase from 36.1 to 41.3 percent over the ten-year period following passage of Prop. 209, with the percentage dropping to 39.8 percent in 2010.
In a press release announcing the UC Board of Regents support for ACA 5, Board Chair John A. Perez said – without irony – “As we continue to explore all the University’s opportunities for action, I am proud UC endorsed giving California voters the chance to erase a stain, support opportunity and equality, and repeal Proposition 209.”
Proposition 209 did not eliminate discrimination altogether in California, and we still have much to do to fight racism. Yet the success of Prop. 209 toward race-neutral opportunity for all is anything but a “stain.”
The text of Prop. 209 reads: 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.
And it works, even though there is still more to do.
What we cannot and should not do, in our ultimate quest for equality, is to reinstate racial discrimination. Particularly when we’ve seen that a policy of non-discrimination is actually lifting up Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans.
Eliminating Prop. 209 will divide us further along racial lines. It will reverse decades of merit-based advancement for all and promote unequal treatment based on race in California. This division is exactly what we seek to eliminate in the United States.
Michelle Steel is the chairwoman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors.
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