Voters in the most progressive and racially diverse state in the union just rejected affirmative action by a stunning proportion of 57 percent to 42 percent. Conventional wisdom would suggest that if affirmative action can’t win the day in California, it’s doomed elsewhere. Some in the conservative space go so far as to claim the results show that Americans have rebuffed “the anti-racist cause.” But that conventional wisdom is wrong. Here’s why.
The results of California’s Proposition 16—a measure that would have repealed a ban on affirmative action passed in 1996—were likely a gut punch to racial equity advocates who hoped to see the country’s growing racial consciousness translate into support for race-forward policies at the polls. But a close look at how Proposition 16 unfolded suggests that it may have been doomed by extraneous factors—namely, unclear ballot wording, an extremely short window to inform voters, and airwaves dominated by higher-profile issues. In fact, pre-election focus group results suggest that many California voters were persuadable when they understood the measure. The voting public needs clear communication that articulates why such measures are important in order to be persuaded. The same thing is likely true in other states.
Beyond California, eight other states have bans on affirmative action that prevent public universities from considering race in college admissions. These bans do a disservice to the people of those states because affirmative action has proved to play a part in lessening racial disparities in college access for underrepresented students without causing disparate impacts in college attainment or labor market outcomes for white or Asian students. In California, the ban has also proved to decrease degree attainment and wages for Black and Hispanic students. In order to successfully repeal any of these bans, proponents of affirmative action will have to educate and target specific subgroups of voters, rethink messaging, and perhaps most of all, engage white voters more effectively.
Unfortunately, there is a real possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court, having recently shifted to the right, will overturn five previous decisions in which it maintained that affirmative action is constitutional. To be clear, affirmative action in this context means that colleges can use race as one factor among many factors in a holistic review process. It does not permit the filling of quotas; that would be illegal. But supporters of a just and effective higher education system must continue to seek a path forward. Even if the Supreme Court renders the issue moot in the near future, there will eventually be a day to revisit affirmative action.
What we know about Proposition 16
Among the likely contributions to Proposition 16’s demise: unclear ballot language, a short window in which to persuade voters, and opposition from the majority of white voters.
One of the biggest challenges for Proposition 16 was its wording. The summary on the ballot read: “[The measure] permits government decision-making policies to consider race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in order to address diversity by repealing constitutional provision prohibiting such policies.”
Leading up to and following Election Day, numerous media outlets have pointed to this description as one of the biggest obstacles that the Yes on Proposition 16 campaign faced. The first challenge was that “affirmative action” was not directly referenced, so voters may not have understood that a “yes” to Proposition 16 was a “yes” to affirmative action. Second, the reference to repealing a constitutional provision could have confused voters. The idea of repealing a prohibition is akin to a double negative, and since many people view constitutions as documents that enshrine their rights, the ballot summary might also be read as proposing to remove protections rather than restore them. Finally, many voters may not be familiar with the term “provision” as used in this context.
In focus groups and polls, support among Black and Latinx voters jumped when they understood the meaning of the proposition. Among Latinx voters, favorability was 24 percentage points lower—41 percent—among those who understood Proposition 16 as keeping the status quo than it was among those who correctly recognized that it would reinstate affirmative action (65 percent). Support rose to 76 percent when Latinx voters were shown data on racial disparities.
Similarly, Black voters in a focus group said they would not support Proposition 16 when it was read to them. But after being told the measure favors affirmative action, more Black voters indicated they would support it. In a separate poll released September 23, 51 percent of Black voters indicated they would support Proposition 16. Moreover, older voters who remember the 1996 ban may hold the misleading view that the law was a “prohibition against discrimination,” as the law’s original backers framed it in this way.
In addition to messaging challenges, the Yes on Proposition 16 campaign faced significant barriers to reaching voters. Because the state legislature approved the placement of Proposition 16 on the ballot in June, the campaign had only four months to persuade voters to support it. The measure also competed with 12 other consequential state propositions for the attention of voters fatigued by the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, Uber and Lyft swamped TV, radio, and social media with $190 million in ads—successfully—to continue treating drivers as independent contractors, meaning the companies don’t have to provide them with benefits such as paid sick leave, unemployment insurance, and health care.
Finally, it’s clear that not enough white voters supported the measure. In 2018, 54 percent of voters in California were white, even though they made up only 45 percent of the voter-eligible population. Therefore, in any statewide election, a significant portion of white voters are needed to reach a majority. But white voters demonstrated very low support for Proposition 16 from the beginning. In September, only 26 percent of white likely voters indicated they would vote in favor of the measure. By October, support among this group had risen to just 34 percent. Exit polls and final results for Proposition 16, such as turnout and support by precinct and by race, are not yet available.
What is still unclear about the opposition to Proposition 16
Exit poll data by race, gender, precinct, political party, and other identity markers will be critical to understanding who supported, misunderstood, and opposed Proposition 16. Identifying the level of voter confusion will help proponents better understand communication gaps and clarify messaging.
Other important nuances must also be examined. One factor is the extent to which the popularity of the measure was affected by opinions about affirmative action in college admissions versus affirmative action in public employment and contracting.
Another factor is the role of gender. Proposition 16 would have reinstated not only the consideration of race but also the consideration of sex in public education, employment, and contracting. Advocates should explore whether a more gender-forward message could be a ticket to victory.
Understanding the larger national context around affirmative action
A 2019 referendum in Washington similarly aimed to overturn a ban and reinstate affirmative action in public education, employment, and contracting. It was unsuccessful—although by a much smaller margin than Proposition 16—by 13,000 votes, or 50.4 percent of voters.
There’s been a misguided focus on Asian American opposition to affirmative action as the driving force behind developments such as the outcome of the Washington referendum and the high-profile lawsuit against Harvard University for its use of race in admissions. A coalition called Washington Asians for Equality opposed the Washington referendum, and the plaintiffs in the Harvard case allege that the college’s admissions practices discriminate against Asian American applicants. However, Proposition 16 polling showed that Asian American voters in California were more likely to support reinstating affirmative action than white voters. More importantly, white voters are a much larger portion of all California voters, at 54 percent, than Asian Americans, who make up only 12 percent of state voters. For that reason, white voters should receive significantly more attention. Of course, worthwhile efforts to engage voters of color, including the Asian American community, should not be discounted, as 43 percent of Asian American voters said in September that they were undecided about Proposition 16.
Perhaps most heartening of all, Americans actually support the concept of equal opportunity in theory. Seven in 10 Americans say that it is “very” or “somewhat” important that their places of employment support racial and ethnic diversity in the workplace. The broad concept of “affirmative action” is slightly less popular than equal opportunity. A 2019 Gallup poll found that when Americans were asked if they “generally favor or oppose affirmative action programs for racial minorities,” 6 in 10 had a positive response. That is a larger share than in years past.
However, the polling results are the opposite when explicit use of race in hiring and promotion and college admissions is mentioned, with 73 percent and 75 percent of Americans opposed, respectively. This suggests that while a growing share of Americans support affirmative action in name, it’s not translating into practice. Another explanation for this contradiction is that polls only capture whether race should be a factor at all, not the weight it should have among other factors. Perhaps proponents should focus on the concept of how equal opportunity in this country depends on using affirmative action in admissions as a tool to overcome 384 years of inequities in the higher education system—a tool that will not deny opportunity to others. It’s also worth noting that Americans are much more divided on whether being a first-generation college student should be a factor in admissions: 47 percent say it should be considered.
Admissions policies that address racial inequities are critical in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is exacerbating social and racial disparities. Since race-neutral policies have proved not to lead to racial equity, states should permit colleges to consider race in admissions decisions.
It’s clear that proponents of affirmative action will need to garner adequate time and resources to effectively persuade the public. And persuasion won’t be easy. While Americans agree with the value of equal opportunity, it gets more complicated when they’re given specifics. For this reason, it’s even more critical for affirmative action proponents to address messaging complexities—and perhaps even move away from the term “affirmative action” if it carries baggage that prevents voters from recognizing its true value: equal opportunity that is not zero-sum.
Lessons learned from and exit polls on Proposition 16 will be important in the coming months as proponents recalibrate the path forward. Until then—and even if the Supreme Court strikes down affirmative action—advocates for racial equity in higher education should not be dissuaded by the results in California.
Viviann Anguiano is an associate director for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress. Marshall Anthony Jr. is a senior policy analyst at the Center.
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Associate Director, Postsecondary Education
Associate Director, Policy and Advocacy