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OPINION

The success of Prop 209

California’s colorblind mandate was a noble landmark, but some lawmakers want to tear it down.

Students on the University of California at Los Angeles campus.
Students on the University of California at Los Angeles campus.ROBYN BECK/Photographer: Robyn Beck/AFP via

In 1996, Californians approved Proposition 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative. By a 55 percent majority, voters amended California’s constitution to put an end to state-sponsored discrimination on the basis of race or sex. Proposition 209 required state government to get out of the business of quotas and preferences — to stop judging citizens by the color of their skin, and focus instead on the content of their character and the level of their ability.

The organizers of Proposition 209 were mostly political amateurs linked by a principled commitment to colorblindness. The opponents of Proposition 209, on the other hand, included some of the savviest political operators in California, from then-Mayor Willie Brown of San Francisco to the California Teachers Association. Foes of the ballot initiative were often vicious in their opposition.

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But the proposed amendment was written in language so straightforward, voters could judge it for themselves: “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” Most Californians agreed, and the principle of equal opportunity for all, quotas for none, was added to the state constitution.

Now some California legislators are pushing to repeal Prop 209. They have introduced legislation to re-legalize racial preferences in college admissions, government hiring, and public contracting.

The repeal bill, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5, dubbed ACA-5, contains a lengthy preamble that paints a doleful portrait of life under Proposition 209, especially on campus. The ban on racial preferences, it says, “reduces the graduation rates of students of color” and has had “a devastating impact on minority equal opportunity and access to California’s publicly funded institutions of higher education.” Because universities stopped recruiting by race, claims ACA-5, “diversity within public educational institutions has been stymied.”

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But Gail Heriot, a University of San Diego law professor and a member of the US Commission on Civil Rights, counters that Prop 209 “has been good for Californians — of all races,” and that ACA-5’s proponents are misstating the data. By eliminating racial preferences, Heriot wrote last week, the 1996 amendment did away with the pressure to admit minority students to competitive institutions their credentials hadn’t prepared them for. As a result, the number of underrepresented minority students at Berkeley, the most demanding University of California campus, decreased. “But those students didn’t just disappear,” Heriot observed. “Most were accepted at other campuses of the prestigious UC system, based on their own academic records rather than their skin color. On several UC campuses, their numbers increased. More important, their performance improved dramatically.”

The University of California at San Diego illustrates the effect.

In the year before Proposition 209 was adopted, only one Black freshman at UC-San Diego was an honor student. But 20 percent of Black freshmen became honor students the following year, noted Heriot, while the number of underrepresented minority students in academic jeopardy fell dramatically.

Improved academic performance has been accompanied by steady improvement in enrollment and graduation rates, as Wenyuan Wu of the Asian American Coalition for Education recently documented in the Orange County Register:

“In the University of California system, four-year graduation rates of underrepresented racial minorities rose from 31.3 percent [before Proposition 209] … to 43.3 percent during 2001-03. In 2014, underrepresented racial minorities’ four-year graduation rate rose to a record high of 55.1 percent.”

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And what is true of graduation rates is equally true of enrollment. Both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of all admissions, there are more minority students on University of California campuses than ever before. The charge that Proposition 209 “stymied” diversity in California’s public higher-education system, Wu says flatly, “is simply untrue.”

Last summer, the University of California system admitted the largest and most diverse class of freshmen in its history — without resorting to racial quotas. Fully 40 percent of the new undergraduates, reported the Los Angeles Times, were Black, Hispanic, or American Indian.

The enemies of Proposition 209 have tried several times to get it overturned through litigation, but the California Supreme Court has twice upheld the constitutional ban on racial preferences. In 2012, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held the amendment as well.

California paved the way for the adoption of similar colorblind mandates in Michigan, Nebraska, Washington, Idaho, and Arizona. Truly, Proposition 209 was a landmark: In the nation’s most multiracial, multiethnic state, voters 24 years ago directed their government to stop preferring some citizens over others because of their physical characteristics. ACA-5 would undo a noble achievement. Don’t let that happen, California.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. This column is adapted from the current issue of Arguable, his weekly e-mail newsletter. To subscribe to Arguable, go to bitly.com/Arguable.

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