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The politics of the failed re-vote on affirmative action in California


Practical Politics

As the California Reparations Commission makes final edits to its final report to the California Legislature (due at the end of June, 2023) on whether, why and how reparations should or should not be paid to African-Americans in California, it is instructive to re-look at a closely related process in the state.

During the 2020 state and national election in California, along with the list of various candidate choices on the ballot was Proposition 16, which sought to resuscitate affirmative action in college and university admissions in the state. It is well remembered that under a mainly conservative state administration in 1996, when the affirmative action question was on the ballot as Prop 209, it was decisively defeated at the ballot box. With political campaigner Ward Connerly’s fierce public opposition to it, the proposition to allow California colleges and universities to use affirmative action principles and guidelines in its admissions policies was soundly defeated.

In 2020,  in spite of the absence of the usual fanfare since there was a lot else going on, mainly Democratic party leaders organized a state campaign to overturn that 1996 decision—during the presidential election-- with proposed new legislation, Proposition 16.  That proposition had major support from Governor Newsom, from the state’s U.S. senators and many of its Congressional House members, and included a wide base of other state governmental leaders and community activists that looked like a who’s who of California business, nonprofit and labor leaders across the board from the Black, Latino, White and Asian communities.

Even the state’s popular Golden State Warriors, San Francisco Giants, the football  49ers and the baseball Oakland Athletics put out public messages which urged voters to support the new referendum, Proposition 16, and remove Prop 209 from the books. The attempt had major funding and political muscle behind it, but though most Democratic Party candidates—including Joe Biden-- won in the state in 2020, the new attempt at instituting affirmative action in California went down to defeat, and it wasn’t even close.

A great number of Hispanic and Asian voters, let alone many White voters, spurned the measure and it went down to ignominious defeat. Factually, students of color are actually entering and graduating from California’s world famous and less well known schools fairly well without the Affirmative Action support requested in 1996, so the question was why did they need more race and ethnic-based help.

After the California Reparations Commission makes its final recommendations to state government this month, if the state legislature actually approves the report recommending paying reparations in some fashion and the governor signs the measure that will be sent to him, that 2020 vote for Prop 16 may need to be re-looked at as a harbinger of public opinion concerning any reparations plan that recommends financial compensation as reparations to California’s African American population, in whole or in part.

For any Black citizens who got encouraged after the recent vote of the San Francisco Reparations Commission included recommended monetary payments to Black San Franciscan’s, and the public meetings of the California State Commission, here’s a warning: like the non-promise of 40 acres and a mule from 1865, there will probably only be a whiff of any financial compensation coming from the State Reparations Commission’s work.

There are many worthy issues to fight for in California, and in the U.S. in general. Black Americans should not expect any real financial largess from the state or the national overall effort at getting reparations accomplished. That may not be how many of us want it, but that may very well be how it comes out.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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