Eva Paterson, President and Founder of The Equal Justice Society, a national legal organization focused on civil rights and anti-discrimination. Thomas Saenz, President and General Counsel of Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund

Voters will be asked this November to vote on Proposition 16, a state-wide ballot measure that could reinstate affirmative action.

If Proposition 16, passes, the measure would repeal the 1996 voter-approve Proposition 209, and would restore the ability for government, contracting and education systems to consider race and gender in their hiring and admissions decisions.

Since the inception of affirmative action, it has been a hard fought road to balance the playing field and keep the door open for under represented communities as opponents have consistently fought against it screaming “reverse discrimination.” The passage of Proposition 209 in California 24 years ago brought similar action in 12 states to ban affirmative action policies.

But now, with daily protests calling for racial justice amid a conservative national political climate, the outcome of Proposition 16 is difficult to predict.

At a recent news briefing held by Ethnic Media Services, civil rights advocates stressed the need for Proposition 16 and the lack of progress and damage that’s been caused by the reversal of affirmative action.

Dramatic Drop on College Campuses

“Perhaps most notoriously the immediate impact of Proposition 209 was a dramatic drop in the number of African American and Latino students in our university of California campuses,” said Thomas Saenz, president and general Counsel of MALDEF —The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“The University of California Berkeley law school ended up with only one African-American student in the first class selected after Proposition 209 and that individual had actually been admitted previously and deferred his enrollment,” Saenz pointed out.

The numbers of Black and brown students doesn’t come close to reflecting the overall population which in turn impacts local communities. “Today in California, African American and Latino students make up 60% of 12th graders in our public schools statewide. And yet at our University at California, system-wide, African Americans and Latinos are only 29% of undergraduates at all campuses,” Saenz said.

By providing opportunity to people of color through affirmative action, civil rights leaders maintain it begins to level the playing field, brings diversity to the work place, and builds and improves the financial health of families and communities.

Without it, it is profoundly difficult to break through a culture of systemic racism in upper education and employment.

“One of the ways our communities get the bad impacts of systemic racism is that we don’t have sufficient political power,” said Eva Paterson, president and founder of The Equal Justice Society, a national legal organization focused on civil rights and anti-discrimination issues.

“We have the numbers, but we don’t have money to contribute to campaigns, to have lobbyists, so we don’t get our interests adequately taken care of by the political system. This is part of systemic racism.”

Rooting Out

“What affirmative action based on gender and race does — it looks at the totality of African Americans, or Latinos, Asian Americans, women, or Native Americans, and brings us all along. But empirical work has been done to demonstrate that class-based affirmative action or affirmative action based on poverty, does not desegregate based on race,” Paterson said.

Los Angeles in particular, as the nation’s second largest city, has a majority population that is made up of people of color and Proposition 16 would “move boldly forward to achieve equity and fairness for all residents,” said Saenz. Proposition 16, he believes, would take the additional steps to root out gender and racial biases in public education, employment and business.

Los Angeles Councilmember Monica Rodriguez agrees. She recently introduced a resolution asking the City Council to support Proposition 16. She referred to Proposition 29 that is currently in place as “a racist and divisive policy that delivered on its promise to hold communities of color back.”

Rodriguez said the passage of Proposition 16 would help end wage discrimination against women, who still make about 80 cents on the dollar compared to white men. For Latinas, it’s worse — just 54 cents compared to white men, and they are often relegated to low wage industry jobs.

Beyond employment, advocates for Proposition 16 also point to small business and contracting. According to a 2015 study commissioned by the Equal Justice Society, small businesses owned by women and people of color lose an estimated $1.1 billion each year because of the ban on affirmative action in public contracting.

“Discrimination has costs, for all of us — economic costs,” said Saenz. “If you don’t address inequities, your ability to grow the pie for everyone is severely limited.”