California Revives Affirmative Action

On May 5, just a day after the California Legislature reconvened, an assembly hearing was held for the controversial Assembly Constitutional Amendment NO. 5 (ACA-5) in the Committee of Public Employment and Retirement. With a long session of contested public comments over the phone, ACA-5 was passed with a 6-to-1 vote under the moralistic appeal of “hope for all.”

While purporting to increase diversity and representation, ACA-5 fails to meaningfully address structural issues behind achievement gaps and racial discrepancies for both political and philosophical reasons. Instead, the bill proposes a statewide reinstitution of government preferences in public employment, education, and contracting along rigid racial lines. The utopian and myopic scheme, wrapped around feel-good rhetoric with a steep price tag, will not only fall short of establishing long-lasting diversity, but can further compromise true equality and the merit-based principle, both of which are bedrocks of American democracy.

ACA-5 Patches a Political Band-Aid over Deeper Socioeconomic Issues

ACA-5 seeks to repeal Section 31 of Article I of the California Constitution, which was established by Proposition 209 in 1996 to prohibit the state from “discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin” in its public institutions. In essence, the bill is aimed at advancing upward mobility and pay equity for the state’s “marginalized groups” by abandoning equal treatment in public institutions.

While data used in the bill to support claims of educational inequity and dwindling diversity is debunked by my previous commentary on CalMatters, a more serious fallacy lies within the bill’s substantive overtone mistaking Prop-209 as the root of all evil. Such a convenient causation creates a straw man that hides complex issues of inequalities and discrimination that existed long before 1996. These systematic problems, rooted in both national and global history as well as contemporary contingencies in communities and culture, will persist long after 2020 as long as we opt for easy fixes without tackling the source problems.

Empirical evidence, on both national and state levels, invalidate the effectiveness of race-conscious affirmative action in closing the gaps. A 2017 New York Times report compared race-specific enrollment data at top U.S. universities and found that “even with affirmative action, blacks and Hispanics are more underrepresented than 35 years ago.” The proxy of race is also called into question in a study by Richard D. Kahlenberg that identifies achievement gap by income twice larger than racial gaps. In California, even with ambitious reforms to provide more resources for underserved schools and disadvantaged students, there has been little progress in terms of academic outcomes for high-needs students. Rather than Prop-209, wider socioeconomic and cultural reasons such as inefficient spending, unequal access, lack of parental involvement, community segregation, and a shortage of qualified teachers, are at play.

Educational deficiencies then translate into stagnant wages for low-skill workers who are most vulnerable to automation. While one-third of working Californians make less than $15 an hour, these jobs are disproportionately held by blacks and Latinos. The problem here is not blatant racism, but interlocking factors of low educational attainment, a changing economic structure, and the state universities’ lags in improving STEM training. 

Reinstituting Racial Preferences Erodes the Fundamental Principle of Merit

None of the aforementioned issues can be redressed by simply bringing back preferential treatment in public institutions sanctioned by ACA-5. The prerogative of government preferences will only accelerate our deteriorating public education, a cultural de-emphasis on education and excellence, a shrinking middle class with hollowing productivity at its core and unrelenting demands of the global economy. Enshrined in the political agenda of social justice,

ACA-5’s fixation with equal outcomes will drag everyone, including its intended beneficiaries, down.

Moreover, ACA-5, with its explicit race-baiting to stir up tensions, has no respect for the merit-based principle as it replaces rigorous standards with social engineering and attacks the integrity of merit with an obsession to affirm rigid racial lines instead of real-life disadvantages. Specifically, the amendment treats “gender, racial, and ethnic diversity” as central objectives of state public institutions and national life, thereby mistaking our means to a better future as its end.

Notably, public support for racial considerations in education and work has declined in recent years and positive attitudes toward meritocracy have intensified, despite ACA-5’s insistence on racializing California’s public space. A March 2019 Pew study finds that the majority of Americans (73%) say colleges and universities should not consider race or ethnicity in admissions. A 2016 Gallup poll concludes that 63% of Americans oppose race-based affirmative action and 70% support strictly merit-based college admissions. A 2016 statistical study, based on the US Religious Landscape Survey (RLS), concludes that “lower-income individuals living in localities with higher levels of income inequality tend to be less likely to reject the meritocratic ideology.”

Meritocracy, or the belief in the ability to get ahead through hard work, is a founding tenet of American democracy. Despite intellectual criticism regarding its interactions with social inequality, meritocracy is still superior to other systems of identifying talents, especially if we apply an expansive view of merit to include all transparent and objective measures of human worth. Granted, the idea of merit is not a panacea to all social ills and human sufferings. But it is a viable option for upward mobility and has facilitated numerous American success stories. Unfortunately, ACA-5 can weaken the meritocratic spirit by obsessing over group victimhood and downplaying individual agency.

In conclusion, the constitutional amendment to undo Prop-209 lacks empirical support and workable mechanisms to make California more equitable in a sustainable way. What is also problematic was the manner in which ACA-5 passed the committee hearing on May 5. For a bill of enormous implications for all Californians, the California Assembly gave the public a short notice of less than 24 hours prior to the hearing. While the decentralized opposition scrambled to kickstart a campaign to counter this unexpected development amidst a historic public health crisis, the well-organized and abundantly financed proponents put together an emotional performance at the state capitol. Never waste a good crisis, they think.