‘Giving special or preferential treatment to someone based on their race is racism itself, or on their sex is sexism. I do not want to live in a state where the color of my skin or my race or my sex or my national origin determines my qualifications for a position, a job or entering to a college. I came here to this country to get away from ideologies like that.’ ~Assemblyman Steven Choi
On Wednesday, the Assembly passed passed Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5, making it more likely that the question of affirmative action will go before California voters for the first time in six years.
A battle for affirmative action
ACA 5, spurred by recent calls for change following the George Floyd protests, was passed by a 60 to 14 majority. The bill, which would reverse Proposition 209 and allow for race and gender factoring in to public university admissions and state employment once again, now heads to the Senate.
Prop. 209, passed by voters in 1996, prohibited the state from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, and public contracting.
The debate on Wednesday highlighted the major splits between voting demographics. While white and Hispanic Assembly members gave mixed views in the debate, a rift was evident between African-Americans in support of affirmative action, and Asian-Americans strongly opposed to affirmative action. The divide was also slightly muddled when it came to party lines, with some Asian-American Democrats choosing to abstain from voting rather than vote for it with other Democrats.
Impassioned testimony was heard from both sides during the hearing in the Assembly.
“The ongoing pandemic, as well as recent tragedies of police violence, is forcing Californians to acknowledge the deep-seated inequality and far-reaching institutional failures that show that your race and gender still matter,” noted Assemblywoman and ACA 5 author Shirley Weber (D-San Diego). “I’m so grateful I didn’t have to convince you that racism is real because George Floyd did that. So that was one conversation I didn’t have to have on this issue. Removing Proposition 209 will not solve all of the problems, but it’s one of the many tools that we have to have in California, to say California is the land of great opportunity.”
Others noted that African-Americans and Hispanics had a greatly reduced presence in state universities after Prop 209 was passed in 1996, with the University of California itself showing large drop-offs of many minority students coming in.
“Systematic racism didn’t stop because of Proposition 209,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego). “And so what we’ve seen over these generations is the missed opportunity of so many kids in our communities who haven’t had the benefit that we all had.”
Opposition against ACA 5
Those arguing against ACA 5 noted that many public schools had ineffective teachers kept in place by union rules, with many of the poorer performing schools subsequently hurting their chances of getting into colleges. Assembly members such as Assemblyman James Gallagher (R-Yuba City) pushed for solving the problem early on rather than resort to programs like affirmative action.
“You can talk about admissions and using, bringing back affirmative action, but what are we doing to ensure that Black and brown students graduate and get that education?” explained Assemblyman Gallagher. “That’s a conversation that we need to be having. We need to go even deeper.”
Asian-Americans come out strongly against ACA 5
Many Asian-American Assembly members, as well as those representing districts with a significant Asian-American population, pointed out that a large and growing percent of constituents were opposed to ACA 5 and affirmative action due to university admissions lowering the number of Asian-Americans being accepted, the same exact reaction that caused affirmative action to fail on the last ballot measure in 2014.
“Giving special or preferential treatment to someone based on their race is racism itself, or on their sex is sexism,” remarked Assemblyman Steven Choi (R-Irvine). “I do not want to live in a state where the color of my skin or my race or my sex or my national origin determines my qualifications for a position, a job or entering to a college. I came here to this country to get away from ideologies like that.”
Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell) also noted that a majority of calls to his office voiced opposition to ACA 5. Despite voting for ACA 5, Low had received over 3,000 emails and phone calls against ACA 5, with only 9 in total supporting it. Assemblyman Low voted for the bill because he himself is in support of social justice and equality.
“How do you go to a Black Lives Matter rally and say, ‘Yes, I am with you,’ but then all of a sudden say, ‘Oh, well, not here, not on that part,” said Low.
Assemblyman Low has since been threatened by a recall from constituents over his support.
“You look at the final vote tally and you think it’s a blow out in favor of affirmative action,” said Daniel Yang, a business executive in San Jose who has opposed affirmative action measures in California since the late 90’s. “But a lot of those [Assemblymembers] voted against their constituents’ wishes. A lot of them have districts with nearly even polling. So it may look lop-sided, but like previous attempts have shown, Californians are still very much against this.”
“The George Floyd [protests] may bring more sympathy this time around, but those in favor are once again severely underestimating the number of people against it, as many otherwise Democratic voters are dead set against this. They always forget to account for them each time affirmative action comes up, and it looks like they’re doing it again.”
Two weeks before the ballot deadline
California, one of 8 states that have removed affirmative action policies in the last 25 years, now has 2 weeks for final ACA 5 ratification before the June 25th deadline of making the November ballot. Despite quick passage in the Assembly and in previous Assembly committees, ACA 5 now faces the Senate, where many Senators have been receiving an increased number of constituent calls against ACA 5.