UPDATE: San Jose endorses measure to bring back affirmative action
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo.

    The San Jose City Council unanimously endorsed California Proposition 16, the divisive ballot measure that would repeal the state’s 24-year prohibition on race- and gender-based affirmative action.

    Assuming voters approve it in November, supporters on the City Council say Prop. 16 will allow the city to “revitalize” its affirmative action programs from the 1990s.

    “Eliminating racial and gender discrimination can’t be accomplished by ignoring races and genders exist,” said District 7 Councilmember Maya Esparza. “It’s ideas like Prop. 16 that will address discriminatory practices.”

    If successful, the ballot measure would “open up new avenues for the city and public universities to figure out ways to be more inclusive,” District 2 Councilmember Sergio Jimenez said. “The color-blind approach has failed.”

    California voters in 1996 passed Proposition 209 — effectively banning public policies aimed at leveling the playing field for women and people of color by a margin of less than a million votes in an election with more than 9.5 million ballots cast. California is one of just nine states in the United States to do so.

    In 2020 there are more than 20 million registered voters in California, a record high, according to Secretary of State Alex Padilla. And attitudes about racial justice have changed immensely since 1996 — especially with growing support for the Black Lives Matter movement after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis just three months ago, which sparked ongoing protests nationwide.

    “Actions speak louder than words,” said San Jose resident Walter Wilson during a public comment session Aug. 25 that lasted until the council’s midnight cutoff. “Many of you say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ so supporting Prop. 16 and restoring affirmative action is a much-needed solution to remove the barriers that have harmed and limited the potential of Black Californians.”

    Republican Gov. Pete Wilson aggressively pushed the ban and labeled affirmative action programs in the state unfair and unjust. The law prohibits the “discrimination against or giving preferential treatment to any individual or group in public employment, public education, or public contracting on the basis of color, race, sex, ethnicity, or national origin.”

    “Proposition 209 was part of a string of reactionary policies pushed through California’s ballot measure system in the 90s focused on stopping the progress made during the civil rights era,” said Councilmember Sylvia Arenas, who first proposed supporting the measure in June.

    William Armaline, director of San Jose State University’s Human Rights Institute, says that kind of “goofy, third-grade level, shallow identity politics,” still complicates the discussion around affirmative action.

    Those arguments are premised on the idea that America solved racism in the 1960s with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. But that logic doesn’t stand up to even the slightest scrutiny, Armaline said.

    “It is not racist against white people to adopt policies that favor people of color who have been oppressed in our society as a means of restorative justice,” said Armaline, who also serves on the board of the San Jose/Silicon Valley chapter of the NAACP. “White people can experience forms of bias. However, to suggest that affirmative action is racism in reverse is to ignore power and oppression.”

    Gov. Wilson, who sought the GOP nomination for president in 1996, made Clinton-era Washington wedge issues like immigration and affirmative action the cornerstones of his campaign. And although Wilson’s bid for the White House barely lasted a month, Californians are living with the consequences a generation later.

    In San Jose, Prop. 209 forced the city to stop collecting information about race and gender in its workforce — data that was ultimately used by the city’s Office of Equality Assurance to compare the diversity of the city’s payroll with that of the labor market and work to correct imbalances. After the ban on affirmative action, the city tried to continue a program that offered a leg up to minority and women-owned businesses in its procurement process, but a lawsuit put an end to that in 2000.

    “Eliminating Prop. 209 will aid the city’s newly-formed Office of Racial Equity by allowing the city to use racial and gender data to track and address inequalities within our government, so we can look like the city we serve,” Esparza said.

    The San Jose City Council joined the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and Gov. Gavin Newsom among other local and state officials who support the ballot measure. Prop. 16 is also endorsed by Democratic vice presidential nominee and East Bay native Kamala Harris.

    Prop. 16 has its opponents as well, including several people who addressed the council Aug. 25. San Jose resident Sudhir Gopinath was one of them.

    “I believe that you cannot solve the problem of racism by becoming racist in the opposite direction,” Gopinath said.

    Also among its detractors is the Asian American Coalition for Education. That group issued a statement earlier this year saying the ballot measure “pits racial groups against each other,” and “will surely result in racial discrimination against Asian Americans in California.”

    District 10 Councilmember Johnny Khamis told San José Spotlight he’s sympathetic to that point of view. But Khamis also said he sees a need for affirmative action programs in San Jose that give consideration to race and gender.

    “I understand both sides of this issue,” Khamis said. “I’m an immigrant and I struggled when I was younger so I have a heartfelt understanding of how hard it is to get opportunities as a minority. But I think there are worries among people in my district, that this is going to hurt kids who have worked hard their whole lives.”

    But Vice Mayor Chappie Jones said that’s not the way affirmative action programs are designed to work.

    “It’s not a zero sum game,” Jones said. “It’s cliché, but a rising tide really does lift all ships. If we can lift up communities that have not had advantages in life then that creates more opportunities for everyone. It can be a win-win.”

    Contact Adam F. Hutton at [email protected] or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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