The Failed Affirmative Action Campaign That Shook Democrats

A demonstration for affirmative action outside the U.S. Supreme Court, which was hearing oral arguments in a case that could determine if schools can continue to consider race as a factor in admissions decisions, in Washington, Oct. 31, 2022. (Shuran Huang/The New York Times)

A demonstration for affirmative action outside the U.S. Supreme Court, which was hearing oral arguments in a case that could determine if schools can continue to consider race as a factor in admissions decisions, in Washington, Oct. 31, 2022. (Shuran Huang/The New York Times)

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, the San Francisco 49ers, the San Francisco Giants 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.

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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,” Romero recalled in a recent interview. “It was not what matters.”

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 Joe Biden swamped Donald Trump by 29 percentage points in California, but Proposition 16 went down, with 57% of voters opposing it.

That vote constitutes more than just a historical curiosity. The 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% to 49%. And the Times analysis of electoral precincts found across all races, support for the referendum fell well short of support for 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 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,” 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 chair 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.

“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 Biden.

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

The results were quite different in 1996, when California voters banned affirmative action through Proposition 209. The population was majority white, the Republican governor opposed social services for people living in the country without legal permission, and nativism was in the air.

That year, 63% of white voters opposed affirmative action, according to an exit poll by The Los Angeles Times.

Sizable majorities of Black, Latino and Asian voters favored affirmative action, according to that poll, and many viewed the campaign as grounded in white resentment. By 2020, that coalition was greatly diminished.

“The 1996 vote was significantly more racially polarized than the 2020 vote,” noted Richard Sander, a law professor at UCLA and a critic of race-conscious affirmative action. “The 1996 campaign was cast in stark racial terms. The Prop 16 campaign was much less so, and to the extent that it was, voters did not buy it.”

‘Why Are We Going Back to the Past?’

Gloria Romero, a Democrat and former majority leader of the state Senate, was term-limited and left politics in 2010 out of frustration with the poor health of public education and her party’s opposition to charter schools.

Ten years later, she voted against affirmative action.

“Why are we going back to the past?” she said. “We’re no longer in a ‘walk over the bridge in Selma’ phase of our civil rights struggle.”

Like many Hispanic voters interviewed, Romero worried less about blatant discrimination and more about health care, education and housing.

The Hispanic population is at an inflection point in California, progress vying with lingering disparity. Slightly more than half of public school students are Hispanic, and the percentage of Hispanic undergraduates in the elite University of California system is roughly half that. The well-regarded if less competitive California State system has 23 four-year campuses and almost 460,000 students, and those who are Hispanic make up almost half of the total.

“We’re debating affirmative action when we have more Latinos than ever in college,” Romero said.

Valerie Contreras, a crane operator, is a proud union member and civic leader in Wilmington, California, where half the voters were against the referendum. She had little use for the affirmative action campaign.

“It was ridiculous all the racially loaded terms Democrats used,” she said. “It was a distraction from the issues that affect our lives.”

Asian voters spoke of visceral unease. South and East Asians make up just 15% of the state population, and 35% of the undergraduates in the University of California system.

Affirmative action, to their view, upends traditional measures of merit — grades, test scores and extracurricular activities — and threatens to reduce their numbers.

Sunjay Muralitharan is a voluble freshman and a leader of the Democratic Party chapter at the University of California, San Diego. A Bernie Sanders supporter, he favors universal basic income, a higher minimum wage and national health care.

In 2020, as a 16-year-old, he joined the campaign against race-conscious affirmative action in California. Afterward, he and friends applied to elite private universities outside California and were often surprised by the rejections, reaffirming his view that Asian students need higher grades and scores to gain admission.

“There were lots of students of Indian and Chinese descent who had to settle for schools not of their caliber,” said Muralitharan, who grew up in Fremont, California, a predominantly Asian middle-class suburb of San Jose.

“Affirmative action should be about economic status,” he said, arguing for a policy that gives weight to low-income applicants.

Kevin Liao, a consultant and former top Democratic Party aide, supported the affirmative action referendum, arguing it would help Asian American small businesses and was the only way universities could deliver diverse classes. High-achieving Asian students will succeed, he said, even if they settle for third or fourth choices in colleges.

He was not surprised, however, that many Asian Americans balked. “The notion that you would look at anything other than pure academic performance is seen by immigrants as antithetical to American values,” he said.

Black voters often spoke of different calculations in their support of affirmative action. They pointed to the toll of racism: poor schools, lagging incomes and generational wealth a fraction of that of white Americans.

Fola Asebiomo is a junior studying psychology at UCLA. She loves the school’s diversity and takes pride in her achievement. But she recalled Black friends back in Georgia who for reasons of poverty and family disadvantage stumbled when applying to college.

“I’ve seen disadvantage play out,” Asebiomo said. “The disparities created over centuries don’t just disappear.”

The Move Forward

Before 1996, affirmative action in the University of California system was in ill health. Black and Latino enrollment at top schools had stalled. Applications were falling and graduation rates low. At UCLA from 1992 to 1994, Black students had a 13.5% four-year graduation rate, according to data compiled by Sander, the UCLA law professor.

Then the ban was enacted, and the most elite campuses, Berkeley and UCLA, experienced calamitous drops in Black and Latino enrollment. It took a decade for that to reverse for Latinos. Black enrollment recovered much more slowly.

In the UC system as a whole, trends were less dire. Latino enrollment soon doubled. Black enrollment fell and recovered. Today, Black enrollment stands at 5%. (Black residents make up less than 6% of California’s population.) The overall six-year graduation rate of Black students stands at 77%. White enrollment fell to 18% today from 35% in 1996.

At Berkeley today, Black and Hispanic enrollment lags. Black students accounted for 3.4% of the freshman class last September, while Hispanic students were at about 20%.

Numbers are higher at UCLA: Black students are 8% and Hispanic students 22% of its 2022 freshman class.

All of which perhaps points to a counterintuitive reality. The University of California system seems to have cobbled together a softer version of economically driven affirmative action. By spending about $50 million per year and targeting top students from low-income neighborhoods, the universities have attracted a competitive student body that is economically and ethnically diverse.

The system takes in many transfer students from the California State and community college systems. Transfers account for one-third of new students at Berkeley; many are low income and nonwhite.

Some University of California professors divine a semi-hidden success story.

“Many states may be looking at the California example, and what we did and how we responded when affirmative action was ruled out,” noted Sylvia Hurtado, an education professor and former director of the Higher Education Research Institute of UCLA.

Sander, who favors class-based affirmative action, suggested California’s leaders should accept its universities are better for the changes.

“The sky did not fall,” he said. “It was a triumph in many ways.”

Not all accept his verdict.

Thomas A. Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, served as co-chair of Proposition 16. Black and Latino students, he said, remain marked by bias from kindergarten to high school, from standardized tests and grades to the expectations of teachers and counselors.

What looks like progress — the growing number of Latino students — is attributable mostly to demographic growth, he said.

“Much of what passes for merit-based admissions is influenced by subconscious bias,” he said. “We have to guard against a coronation of color blindness.”

There is reason to wonder if California’s model is replicable. The state has poured money and effort into attracting diverse students. In a post-affirmative action world, other states might balk at such investments.

Electoral politics are another matter. Those who favored Proposition 16 blamed their loss on confusing ballot language, the difficulty of campaigning during the COVID pandemic and too little voter education.

Ruy Teixeira, a political scientist, takes a different view. He noted polling consistently demonstrates the unpopularity of race-conscious affirmative action.

A Supreme Court death knell, he said, might save Democratic leaders from themselves, untethering them from affirmative action.

“For years, they have said, ‘We must positively discriminate,’” he said. “Maybe they no longer need to die on that hill.”

To estimate how demographic groups voted on Proposition 16, the Times combined precinct-level election results from the Statewide Database; a voter file provided by L2, a nonpartisan data vendor; and estimates of the citizen voting-age population by race and ethnicity at the census block level as compiled by the ALARM Project at Harvard University. Those results were then analyzed using multiple methods to determine whether support or opposition to the proposition was tied to factors including the racial and ethnic makeup of each precinct. The analysis included using the eiCompare R package to perform ecological inference using multiple methods; reviewing voting patterns where an ethnic group made up at least 60% of the voting population; and regression analysis.

While analyzing precinct-level results can help better understand voting patterns and trends, the conclusions are limited in that there is no way to know how individual voters of certain races or ethnicities voted.

c.2023 The New York Times Company

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