Trumpism Helps Revive Affirmative Action in California

The racial, political and cultural backlash embodied by Donald Trump is now in retreat in much of the U.S. In California, the “nation-state” of the future, it is being routed.

The California Legislature voted last week to put an initiative on the statewide ballot in November that would repeal Proposition 209, which voters adopted in 1996 to ban affirmative action in government institutions, employment and contracting. If adopted by voters, the new proposal, known as ACA 5, would allow affirmative action in the University of California system as well as in state hiring and contracting. The University of California Board of Regents unanimously endorsed the proposal.

The anti-affirmative-action Prop 209 came on the heels of Prop 187, the initiative passed in the state in 1994 to prohibit undocumented immigrants from accessing state services. Nothing remains of that anti-immigration measure, which was rejected first by the courts and then by the people. California is now a sanctuary state for undocumented immigrants. In 2019, it became the first state to provide state-subsidized health care benefits to young undocumented adults. "It's crazy what they're doing,” Trump said in response. “And we're going to stop it, but we may need an election to stop it."

An effort to repeal California’s ban on affirmative action fell apart in 2014; too many legislators balked. But by 2017, after Trump’s election, the leading Democratic candidates for governor all supported repeal, and last week the repeal proposal easily secured a super-majority to pass the Legislature. Some of the debate was strikingly raw.

“Quit lying to yourselves and saying race is not a factor,” Steven Bradford, a Black Democratic state senator, said to white colleagues. “The bedrock of who we are in this country is based on race.”

Proposition 209 had a powerful effect. According to a 2015 study, businesses owned by women or racial minorities have lost billions in contracts since its adoption.

A study published in April of this year found that 209 led to “underrepresented group enrollment at the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses of the University of California immediately falling by more than 60 percent and systemwide underrepresented group enrollment falling by at least 12 percent.” Competition for university places has grown more acute as places in state universities have failed to keep pace with population growth.

In a statement the UC Board of Regents said that due to 209, “UC has been unable to reflect California’s full diversity in its student body.” In May, the regents unanimously voted to suspend SAT and ACT tests as an admissions requirement until 2024, citing the need for admission policies consistent with "the broad-based values of the university."

Whether all this action is the predicate to the next backlash is hard to tell. Affirmative action is a relatively crude response to failures of equity and opportunity that begin before birth and persist through years of substandard schooling, segregated housing and lack of access to social or financial capital.

But in the absence of more comprehensive social programs, support for it has been ticking upward since Trump’s election. In 2019, Gallup measured the highest support for affirmative action for women and minorities since 2001, at 65% and 61% respectively.

White opponents of affirmative action have sought to enlist Asian-Americans in their cause, with some success. A group of Asian-American students who were rejected for admission by Harvard University sued the school for discrimination, and subsequently appealed a 2019 federal court ruling against them. 

An Asian-American group in California similarly opposes the repeal of 209. According to UC Berkeley data, Asian-Americans, who make up about 15% of California’s population, accounted for 43% of fall enrollees at the school in 2019. However, a 2018 national poll of Asian-American registered voters found them generally supportive of affirmative action — despite diversity of opinion among specific ethnic groups. Altogether 58% agreed that programs to increase the number of Black and minority students on college campuses are a “good thing.”

California’s move to embrace affirmative action, like Americans’ increased support for immigration, and the recent spike in support for Black Lives Matter, takes place in the context of Trump’s presidency and his white nationalist MAGA movement. In many places across the country, the blunt pressure of Trump’s racial aggression is being met with blunt resistance. What he is for, large numbers of Americans are openly against.

The reanimation of affirmative action in California should be seen in that context. It may or may not be built to last. (The U.S. Supreme Court will be among those having a say.) But it’s built to counter Trumpism, and to outlast it too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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