By Katie Ryu
In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, the ballot measure that amended the state constitution to essentially ban state entities and public universities from using affirmative action. For years the controversial measure held, impacting California students and contributing to discourse on systemic racism, discrimination, and equity.
But in 2020, Proposition 16 was placed on the November ballot, introducing the possibility of voters overturning the ban. Prop 16 would have permitted the state to practice affirmative action based on race, gender, and ethnicity had it passed.
California voters rejected affirmative action with the margin of defeat being 56 to 44 percent, according to CNN. But while the time to vote for or against this California proposition has since passed, affirmative action remains a highly debated and timely topic in America. This is made especially evident by the existence and efforts of anti-affirmative action groups like Students for Fair Admissions, as well as charges of discrimination against schools including the University of Texas at Austin, Harvard University, Yale University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Advocates and backers of affirmative action, in particular race-conscious affirmative action, emphasize the importance of a diverse student body. Additionally, some say affirmative action may be used as a means of accounting for the lack of opportunities and resources underrepresented groups are more likely to have faced. This can explain lower grades and less involvement in extracurricular activities. Similarly, some affirmative action supporters argue that it takes into consideration how many of these students are, as a whole, historically disadvantaged due to systemic inequalities and discrimination. Higher education and experiences in college can help these students increase economic and social mobility. In this argument, affirmative action can even be understood as a form of reparations.
On the opposing side, many view affirmative action as paradoxical and a means of enabling reverse or positive discrimination. Critics say certain groups are overly prioritized and that race becomes the predominant factor in determining which students are accepted. Those who are against affirmative action prefer the premise of merit, saying it is most fair that students are accepted solely based on qualifications, skills, and so on.
There is also the matter of how affirmative action does not take into consideration income and socioeconomic status, something that becomes particularly relevant when thinking about how 71 percent of Harvard University’s Black and Latino students come from wealthy backgrounds, according to a Newsweek article from 2019. Opponents may also contend that affirmative action promotes the idea that college admissions is a zero-sum game, potentially fueling racial hostilities and conflicts.
While Proposition 16 did not pass, the debates regarding affirmative action are very much ongoing. This is because the matter of diversity and equality is complex. We can see this by acknowledging that the role of socioeconomic status cannot be ignored, while also understanding that being color-blind in admissions cannot work because America and life are not color-blind. Discussions on combating systemic racism, lack of diversity, and inequalities in relation to college admissions will continue to be relevant as those issues remain prevalent in this country.