Proposition 209—Twenty Five Years Later

John David

CounterCurrent: Week of 7/19


When I last wrote to you on the subject, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5 (ACA-5) was up for a vote in the California state legislature, a measure written to pave the way for an affirmative action bill to make it on the ballot this November. Since then, the amendment passed the State Assembly and State Senate in landslide victories, with the “ayes” in both houses comprising at least 75% of the votes cast. That in turn gave birth to Proposition 16, a new bill that, if passed by California voters, will overturn Proposition 209 and reinstate race, sex, and ethnicity preferences in the state's government, colleges, and universities.

Proposition 209 passed in 1996 with 54% of voters approving the measure. Supporters saw it as a way to protect equal opportunity hiring and admissions in the state’s public sector, while opponents claimed it would further entrench the various forms of social inequity that held minority groups back. 

The National Association of Scholars and our regional affiliate, the California Association of Scholars, were instrumental in helping convince Californians that state-sanctioned racial discrimination should be outlawed.  Those arguments pushed Prop. 209 into law. Remarkably, it has survived the nearly twenty five years since passing and has led the way for other states to follow suit, including Washington, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, and Oklahoma

California voters considering Proposition 16 in November must ask: what effects has Proposition 209 had on higher education since it was approved in 1996? Did it hurt ethnic minorities and women as critics claim? Or did it actually help these groups?

In 2008, NAS went about answering these questions and published an extensive study by Dr. Charles Geshekter, professor emeritus of history at California State University, Chico, titled “The Effects of Proposition 209 on California: Higher Education, Public Employment, and Contracting.” At the time, Geshekter found that: 

Despite the temporary declines in enrollments that were noticeable only at the state’s two most elite public universities, the overall population of underrepresented minority students rose steadily as more entered and more graduated from the institutions for which they were fully qualified. …

Ending racial preferences and gender double standards in California has produced none of the social traumas that Proposition 209 opponents swore would occur. … 

This week’s featured article is an expanded update of Geshekter’s research, compiled and revised by NAS Research Director David Randall. The study now contains data from 1996 to 2019 and further confirms Geshekter’s original conclusions. Indeed, Randall writes that: 

from 1999 to 2018, the number of black students who earned baccalaureate degrees from the UC and from the CSU systems increased from 3,856 to 5,919, a 54% jump in 19 years. Over that same 19-year period, the number of Hispanic students who earned a baccalaureate degree from both systems combined grew from 14,330 to 54,420, a 280% increase. [up from 19% and 38%, respectively, in Geshekter’s original 1999-2006 numbers] …

Gender differences that persist among college majors or in occupational concentrations anywhere in America primarily reflect individual differences in career choices, not discriminatory barriers to women’s advancement. In 2005–06, women earned 66% of all doctorates in both education and the health sciences, and 59% of those in the social sciences. ...

In the years since Proposition 209 was enacted, the gaps in California public employment rates between men and women, and between whites, blacks, and Hispanics have continued to narrow. Racial favoritism and gender preferences are not the reasons for the redistribution of public employment jobs, as the magnitude and nature of those shifts remain small.

NAS stands by the fact  that Proposition 209 helps the very groups it was accused of hurting. Over twenty years of data proves that merit, not state-sanctioned racial discimination, promotes equity. If passed in November, Proposition 16 would return California to a racial spoils system, one that time and time again has hurt minorities.


CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’  weekly newsletter, written by Communications & Administrative Associate John David. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Kaldari, Public Domain

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