By Arleana Waller

In 1996, the passage of Proposition 209 banned affirmative action in California and began to roll back the progress of the Civil Rights Movement. The effect of Prop. 209 has been a full generation of lost educational opportunity for diverse students in science, business, law, education, and medicine. At the same time, minority and women owned businesses lose out on more than $1 billion each year from lost public contract opportunities.

In November, we can reverse these losses by voting “Yes” on Proposition 16, which would allow state and local governments to again use affirmative action. But last month, the Bakersfield Californian encouraged a “No” vote on Prop. 16, suggesting that there are “better ways to achieve educational and economic diversity than affirmative action.” The reality is that the education and economic achievement gaps that we have seen have been a direct result of Prop. 209.

Contrary to what the Bakersfield Californian argues, affirmative action is essential for promoting equal opportunity for women and minorities. In a world without affirmative action, women and minorities receive less pay, get fewer chances to attend top colleges, and have scarce job opportunities. With affirmative action, we can level the playing field by allowing decisionmakers to consider race and gender–without the use of quotas–when making decisions about public contracts, employment, and college admissions

California desperately needs to change course. In the past 24 years, we have seen Black and Latino enrollment at California’s universities remain flat as the population has increased. However, Prop. 209 has hamstrung California in not being able to generate concerted action to roll back these inequities. On the other hand, Prop.16 would allow state and local governments to identify racial and gender disparities and develop programs to directly address discrimination. This is not a hand out, but a hand up.

The Bakersfield Californian calls for piecemeal solutions that aren’t enough to deal with the systemic problems that got us here. The paper cited “innovative minority recruitment strategies” as “a more effective way to increase diversity on university campuses, public workforces and in public contracting.” But the clever initiatives cited have only worked in one-off situations and are ill-equipped to reverse problems resulting from generations of deliberate choices. To solve a statewide problem, California can’t rely on a random collection of programs to solve systemic issues. Indeed, these same piecemeal approaches have led to underrepresented Latino populations at seven of nine University of California campuses and Black underrepresentation at all nine. This is a real problem.

The editorial neglects to mention that California is 1 of only 9 states that bans affirmative action. And that ban has led to minority-owned businesses only receiving 57% of the contract dollars that they would if opportunities were equal, and women receive only 29%. Right now, nearly all public contracts in California and the jobs that go with them are given to large companies run by older white men. Annually, economists believe that minority

and women-owned businesses lose out on over $1 billion in state contracts since Prop. 209.

In states that allow affirmative action, women and minorities earn higher wages and can compete on equal footing for state contracts. It hurts California families when women must choose between having a child and keeping her job, when she’s passed up for promotions because of caretaking responsibilities, or they aren’t paid equally to men. With Prop. 16, we can start to knock down the barrier’s women face, so we can all have opportunities to succeed.

We all do better when we all have equal opportunities to succeed. Some would have you believe that we can only heal the ills of our past by creating a color-blind society. After 24 years under Prop. 209, it is now clear that curing a lack of opportunity from color-based discrimination is impossible without affirmatively acting to help the disenfranchised.

The wealthy and well-connected in California continue to control access to lucrative careers, top universities, state contracts, and other opportunities for success, and they keep picking people just like them over well-qualified people from diverse backgrounds. With Prop. 16, we can start to knock down the barriers for women and minorities, so we all can have opportunities to succeed.

Arleana Waller

The ShePower Global Ambassador

Founder of The MLKcommUNITY Initiative, Visionary of ShePower