SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A decades-long push to let California's public universities and government agencies consider race when making admissions and hiring decisions passed its first test Wednesday as more than two-thirds of the state Assembly voted to put the question on the ballot in November.
California has banned affirmative action-type programs since 1996 when 55% of voters agreed to amend the state’s Constitution to ban “preferential treatment” based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.
That amendment has withstood multiple legal challenges and legislative attempts to change it. But this year, worldwide protests over racial injustice sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have given supporters a boost in their quest to bring affirmative action back to California.
“I’m so grateful I didn't have to convince you that racism is real, because George Floyd did that,” Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a Democrat from San Diego and the author of the proposal, told her colleagues moments before the vote.
The Assembly voted 58-9 to let voters decide whether to repeal the amendment. If the state Senate concurs by June 25, the question would be added to the November ballot — further intensifying an election year that already includes a presidential contest.
One Republican — Tom Lackey of Palmdale — joined 56 Democrats and one independent to put the amendment on the ballot. The nine “no” votes all came from Republicans. Twelve lawmakers did not vote.
The repeal effort faces strong, organized opposition among some in the Asian community. Wenyuan Wu, director of administration for the Asian American Coalition for Education, said Asian American students “have always been labeled as over represented in good schools.”
“We worry that the bill, once the bill is passed, that will give the state universities in California ample reason to use racial balancing to discriminate against us,” she said.
Assemblyman Steven Choi, a Republican from Irvine who was born in South Korea, said he opposed the measure because it would “legalize racism and 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,” he said. “I came here to this country to get away from ideologies like that.”
The opposition made for a tough vote for members of the Assembly's Asian and Pacific Islander Caucus. Democrat Evan Low, who is of Chinese descent and shares an apartment with his police officer brother, said he received more than 3,000 emails and phone calls from his constituents urging him to vote against the repeal.
But in an interview with The Associated Press, Low said he voted for the bill because “injustice to one is injustice to us all.”
“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,’” he said.
California’s ban of affirmative action was inspired in part by a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed public universities to use race as a factor in their admissions decisions. That case originated from the University of California, Davis School of Medicine.
Since the 1996 amendment, at least seven other states have adopted similar policies: Washington, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire and Oklahoma. A constitutional amendment in Colorado failed to pass in 2008.
“This is not the same California that voted on this 25 years ago,” said Assemblyman Miguel Santiago, a Democrat from Los Angeles.
California is the nation’s most populous state, and it’s also one of the most diverse. Hispanics surpassed whites in 2015 as the state’s largest ethnic group. As of 2019, Hispanics make up 39% of the state’s population while whites account for 36.8%, according to the U.S. Census. Asians account for 15.3% while African Americans make up 6.5% of the state’s population.
California State University, the nation’s largest four-year public university with 23 campuses and nearly 482,000 students, has a student body that is nearly 75% people of color. Hispanics account for 43% of the students while whites account for 22.4%. Asians account for 15.7% and black people make up 4% of the student population.
At the University of California system, Asians account for 30% of the undergraduate and graduate student population, followed by whites at 24%, Hispanics at 22% and blacks at 4%.