What the failure of Prop. 16 means for the future of affirmative action in San Jose
San Jose created the Office of Racial Equity this year even though the idea was rejected two years ago. Photo by Carly Wipf.

On Election Day, California voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot proposition which would have reversed the state’s 24-year ban on affirmative action programs that use race or gender to decide who deserves a leg up in public employment, contracting and college admissions.

Fewer than 44 percent of voters in the state voted to approve Prop. 16 to end the ban. So, for now at least, California will remain one of just 10 states in the country to prohibit race- and gender-based public programs to benefit disadvantaged groups.

Only six of California’s 58 counties voted yes on Prop. 16 — including San Francisco, Alameda and San Mateo counties in the Bay Area. Santa Clara County voters rejected the ballot proposition, albeit by a slimmer margin, with more than 47 percent of the electorate voting yes. Ultimately Prop. 16 went down to defeat by more than 2 million votes across the state.

San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones said voters rejecting the measure came as a letdown to the city’s political leaders — who voted unanimously to support it in August. But that won’t stop the city from developing programs that offer equity to people held back by race or gender bias, Jones told San José Spotlight.

“We’re disappointed with Prop. 16 not passing,” Jones said. “It would have made it easier for us to pursue the policies we want.”

In June, the City Council voted to create an Office of Racial Equity under the City Manager to “eradicate any structural and/or institutional racism that may exist in our city government.” That’s no easy task to begin with, Jones said. And the failure of Prop. 16 won’t make it any easier.

Creating color-blind, gender-neutral affirmative action programs that actually benefit the groups left behind by discrimination is a challenge that requires fierce dedication to social justice, said Jones.

“There’s a lot of additional work and hoops to jump through,” Jones said. “We want to be able to hold our city departments accountable for diversity in their hiring and procurement practices and we can do that without taking race and gender into account, but it takes real commitment.”

Other social justice programs in the city — even those unrelated to contracting, employment or admissions —  are also made unnecessarily arcane by the state’s colorblind approach to affirmative action.

“You find yourself bending over backwards to try to meet your goals and ultimately it misses its target because it can’t be based on race, and the harms are based on racism,” said Dr. William Armaline, criminal justice chair of the San Jose Silicon Valley NAACP.

“Take for example the cannabis equity program — a perfect example of restorative justice — how do you weave the policy language for Black and brown men in East San Jose who went to prison, without saying you want the program to benefit those groups?”

“It’s ridiculous,” said Armaline, who is also director of the San Jose State University Human Rights Collaborative.

San Jose Councilmember Sergio Jimenez said Prop. 209 — which amended the state’s constitution to ban public affirmative action programs when voters passed it in 1996 — has stalled California’s progress on racial justice for a generation. But it hasn’t stopped the movement pushing for it, he said.

“The gains that have been made by women and people of color, in recent generations and throughout history, have all been achieved through struggle and we have to continue to strive towards those goals,” Jimenez told San José Spotlight.

That ongoing fight gives him hope that California voters may eventually be persuaded to overturn 209, Jimenez said.

“Progress is messy, it doesn’t happen naturally. You have to make it happen,” Jimenez said. “But I am optimistic about the future and I think that more people could see it my way when this issue goes back to the voters.”

Meanwhile with the ban in place, Armaline says there is only so far state and local governments can go to address systemic racism — and it’s not always far enough.

“If we are going to talk about making people whole, we need to acknowledge who we are talking about. This conversation is an important one because it allows us to be straight about what we want to do to address the issues of systemic racism and oppression,” Armaline said.

Still, Armaline says Prop. 16’s failure is a “good news, bad news” situation.

The bad news is a ban on public affirmative action programs prevents governments from directly addressing racism and gender discrimination even where it obviously exists.

The good news, he said, is there are universal systems available that improve equity and have the added benefit of creating class solidarity across racial lines — which is not something affirmative action is designed to do.

“We shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket,” Armaline said.

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

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