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Californians -- and Americans -- Reject Racial Quotas and Preferences

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Among the most surprising of the multiple surprising results in this election was California's rejection of Proposition 16. The ballot measure was supported by the Democratic supermajorities in the state legislature; by long-established corporations and Silicon Valley tech firms; by leaders of mainline churches and nonprofit organizations. Some $20 million was spent on its behalf and only $1 million in opposition.

Yet it lost by a solid margin of 57% to 43% in a state that voted 64% for Joe Biden.

Why? Because Californians, like most other Americans, don't like racial discrimination. Proposition 16 was put on the ballot to repeal Proposition 209, which passed in 1996 and banned state government from discriminating "on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin." Most Californians thought then and think now that that's a good idea.

Disagreeing emphatically are the people who run the state's giant state colleges and universities. Like their counterparts across the nation, they want to admit more black and Latino students than would qualify on non-race-based criteria such as test scores. The result, as documented by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. in their 2012 book, "Mismatch," is that more black and Latino students are admitted, but since instruction is pitched to the median student, many opt out of rigorous STEM majors or drop out altogether. Enforcement of Proposition 209 meant fewer black and Hispanic students at flagship campuses (University of California, Berkeley, and UCLA) but more -- and more graduates -- at other UC campuses and Cal State campuses.

Racial quotas and preferences these days discriminate less against whites than against Asians, who are denied places despite high test scores and rigorous preparation, much as Jews were denied by the Ivy Leagues from the 1920s to the 1950s. Anti-Asian bias is made plain in lawsuits pending in federal courts against Yale and Harvard, whose admissions personnel are accused of suspiciously rating Asians low on "positive personality."

The case for racial quotas and preferences got renewed attention after the death of George Floyd in May. The suddenly famous author of "How to Be an Antiracist," Ibram X. Kendi, argues that "any racial balance not exactly representative of the population as a whole" must be the result of "systemic racism," to be rectified by quotas and preferences. But as Andrew Sullivan writes in an elegant and withering refutation of Kendi, "Any attempt to make a specific institution entirely representative of the demographics of its location will founder on the sheer complexity of America's demographic story and the nature of the institution itself."

Which leads back to California and its voters' stark rejection of its Democratic politicians' and corporate elites' determination to replicate its statewide ethnic proportions in the student body of each state college and university.

What I find most striking is that Proposition 16 was rejected by a wider margin -- 57% to 43% -- than the margin by which Proposition 209 was adopted 24 years ago -- 55% to 45%. Yet during that time, California has become strikingly more ethnically diverse and culturally liberal. And more Democratic. Bill Clinton carried California by 13 points, Joe Biden by 30.

There's a vivid contrast here with the way California led the nation toward one major change of opinion: on same-sex marriage. California voters rejected same-sex marriage in 2008, but only by a margin of 52% to 48%, at a time when it was backed by (according to Gallup) 67% percent nationally and resolutely opposed by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

California was thus ahead of the nation on an issue that zoomed from 27% support in 1996 to 67% in 2020. But in that same 24-year period, opposition to racial quotas and preferences -- which are, by definition, racial discrimination -- has actually risen in Los Angeles County and Southern California, in the Central Valley and the Sierras, even in the San Francisco Bay area. Americans embrace the Civil Rights Act of 1964 now more than ever.

The courts have lagged behind. The Supreme Court allowed discrimination in the interest of "diversity" in 1978 and reaffirmed that in Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003. But then-Justice Sandra Day O'Connor added that "the Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today."

We're only eight years away from Justice O'Connor's deadline. The elites -- and certainly the Biden administration -- want to keep racial quotas and preferences in place. The American people, speaking through the unlikely medium of California voters, have said they don't. Will the courts follow the lead of the people toward the principles of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the elites' embrace of racial discrimination?

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.


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See Other Commentaries by Michael Barone.

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