California has voted to uphold its decades-old affirmative action ban, which prohibits discrimination and preferential treatment in college admissions.

California Votes to Uphold Affirmative Action Ban


  • Despite heavy funding and vocal support, Proposition 16 failed at the polls.
  • The measure would have lifted a more than 20-year-old ban on affirmative action.
  • Proponents and critics argue whether the ban is discriminatory or anti-discriminatory.

California lawmakers voted by overwhelming majority to include Proposition 16 — which would have overturned a decades-old ban on affirmative action in public college admissions — on this year's ballot. Despite big funding and high-profile support, voters rejected the measure 57% to 43%.

California originally banned affirmative action in 1996. At the time, the ban was considered a civil rights victory, disbarring both discrimination and preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin. Eight other states enacted similar bans, none of which have been repealed.

”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.”

— Language Proposition 16 would have removed from California's constitution

Affirmative action supporters, however, say the ban stymies the pursuit of equity in higher education. California may be the most diverse state, but racial enrollment disparities persist at the University of California and California State University systems.

Proposition 16 would have repealed this ban, allowing admissions officers and government employers to consider applicants' race and sex in order to address diversity. But critics claim Proposition 16 itself amounts to discimination and could hurt Asian Americans who are overrepresented at California colleges.

California Proposition 16 Voting Results
Data Last Updated November 18, 2020
Yes / No Number of Votes Percentage
Yes — Repeal Prop. 209, which prohibits considerations of race, ethnicity, gender, etc., in public college admissions and government hiring. 7,099,789 42.8%
No — Leave Prop. 209 language in the state constitution that says the state cannot discriminate against or grant preferential treatment based on race, ethnicity, gender, etc. 9,477,460 57.2%

Source: California Secretary of State

Pros and Cons of California Proposition 16

California's affirmative action ban — Proposition 209 — passed at a more conservative point in the state's history. Then-Governor Pete Wilson, who supported the bill, was one of the state's last Republican leaders, between conservative celebrity politicians Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Reagan also opposed affirmative action as president.)

Today, California is a Democratic supermajority. Proposition 16 was endorsed by scores of California politicians, including Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, as well as national newspapers, Black Lives Matter leaders, and many of the biggest cities and counties in the state.

After a summer of racial reckoning, the time seemed right for Proposition 16. But election day revealed a deep divide on affirmative action, with "yes" votes highly concentrated in five Bay Area counties and Los Angeles.

Election day revealed a deep divide on affirmative action, with “yes” votes highly concentrated in five Bay Area counties and Los Angeles.

The majority of California voters, including many Asian Americans, do not want race or other personal characteristics to be considered in college admission decisions. Asian students have succeeded under the current merit-based system. While federal law prohibits race quotas, some Asian American leaders worry that Proposition 16 would hurt the chances of Asian applicants.

While Black and Hispanic students are underrepresented on California campuses, Asian students are overrepresented. California professor and politician Tom Campbell argues that if colleges reduce the number of Asian applicants they admit in order to hit enrollment goals for other racial groups, they are essentially denying admission based on race.

Asian Americans have been a vocal counterpoint to Proposition 16, but according to Pew Research Center data, Americans of all races think race or ethnicity should not be a factor in college admissions. As of early 2019, an even greater percentage of Black and Hispanic respondents than Asian respondents said colleges should not consider race.

Affirmative Action Goals Deferred

Legislators promise this won't be their last attempt to reinstate affirmative action programs in California. Indeed, another version of Proposition 16 may appear on the 2022 ballot.

In the meantime, colleges nationwide are under new pressure to enroll and graduate more students of color. High school graduation rates and college attendance rates have skyrocketed among underserved populations, indicating that education can foster equity. But low college graduation rates continue to drag down Black and brown students, with a reverberating impact on their future careers and earning potential.


Feature Image: Rodin Eckenroth / Stringer / Getty Images News / Getty images North America