Why is California’s Prop 16 so confusing?

Prop 16 is on the ballot and it’s confusing as heck. Ensuring racial equality shouldn’t be this twisted. Here’s my breakdown.

In a few weeks, California will be voting on Prop 16, a repeal of Prop 209 which banned discrimination or preferences “on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”

Since Prop 209 passed in 1996, California has been 1 of 9 states that ban “affirmative action”, a reference to a 1961 executive order from JFK ordering federal contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated during employment without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin”

Well, this is easy, I’m against discrimination so why would I vote “yes”?

Like most things in the world, nothing is ever as easy as it seems. This is no exception.

1996, when it all started

Since we’re considering repealing Prop 209, let’s dive into how we got Prop 209 passed in the first place.

Prior to Prop 209, California set goals for how many contracts they awarded to women-owned and minority-owned businesses, as well as evaluated race as a contributing, but not an exclusive factor to university admissions.

Quota systems were not part of the original nor current proposition, they have been banned by the supreme court since 1978, and won’t be making a comeback regardless of the outcome of this vote.

Prop 209 was passed in 1996 with the support of 54.5% of that year’s voters, nearly three-quarters of whom were white and voted for it 63% to 37%.

Understanding both sides

CalMatters.org is an excellent resource to understand both sides of a given ballot measure. They have summarized the arguments for Prop 16 below:

Supporters of Prop 16 say:

Structural racism exists and to preach a color-blind philosophy is to be blind to the impacts of racism. Instead, for example, principals should be able to specifically seek to employ qualified Latino teachers in a school where most teachers are white but most students are Latino. Public universities should be able to consider a student’s race as one of numerous admissions factors, including grades and school work.

Opponents of Prop 16 say:

Allowing schools and government offices to make decisions based on race, ethnicity or sex is its own kind of prejudice. Equal rights mean everyone is treated equally. The claim that America is systemically racist is a false narrative that “fuels racial paranoia, division and hatred.” The state already has made strides in diversity. And it’s legal now to give preference to students who really need it — those who grew up in low-income families. As for who gets into the public universities, the fault lies with inadequate K-12 schooling.

Prop 16 boils down to a vote on how you recognize and want to solve systemic discrimination based on race and gender.

Systemic racism and discrimination are not comfortable, easy, nor straightforward topics.

Systemic racism is a form of racism that is embedded as a normal practice within society or an organization. I would hope we can agree that throughout America’s history, there have consistently been laws, policies, and regulations meant to keep groups of people at a disadvantage, whether that’s women, African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, or any other minority group. To varying degrees throughout history, every non-white group has had to overcome challenges that were a direct result of white men wanting to stay in power.

Tying this back to Prop 16, the naive argument to vote no usually goes something like these comments pulled from an educational video on Prop 16.

You should be hired on your qualifications not the color of your skin

I’m voting NO. I say to the best qualified individual. It motivates all people to try harder to get what they want rather given a hand me down or pass for race.

The only systemic racism taking place is that towards white people.

If you don’t recognize that systemic discrimination has played a large role in America’s history and that the ramifications are still being felt today, then each of these arguments makes perfect sense.

It is indeed much simpler and easier to imagine the world being fair to everyone and that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed in America, it certainly feels American to say that.

Is Affirmative Action the right response to Systemic Discrimination?

Frankly, to me, I find the naive arguments of “Vote No because everyone has an equal opportunity, they just need to work harder” relatively easy to counter by pointing out simple, indisputable facts about how groups have been systemically discriminated against.

It does get more nuanced once you do recognize that systemic racism exists and we look to the possible solutions to reconcile those imbalances.

To me, this issue has two main options:

Option 1: Do not leverage Affirmative Action and trust that those in power today will, on their own, introduce policies and initiatives that correct the historical discrimination women and minority groups have faced — and within a timeline competitive with other options seeking to right these discriminations.

Option 2: Allow the possibility of Affirmative Action to level the playing field by considering more minority contenders for university admissions and government contracts. — Affirmative action isn’t a slam dunk, repercussion-free option. By definition, it would raise the bar for white men to compete for opportunities and it’s a bit of a “fighting fire with fire” approach that can feel uncomfortable to some.

To me, Affirmative Action is not an amazing choice, but it is better than the alternatives. With Affirmative Action, it in no way addresses the heart of the issues, say, quality K-12 education that gives everyone an equal opportunity to compete during and after their high school years, or the myriad other causes of systemic discrimination.

You don’t want discrimination to be legal, do you?

Like many things in our political system today, there’s a game to play when introducing laws and policies. Efforts to codify the intent and ensure things at the surface-level seem great have been used over and over again, it’s practically in the playbook.

In this case, it manifests itself as “You don’t want discrimination to be legal, do you?” - Then vote “No”.

And sure enough, it seems successful.

Watching a focus group with Black voters from Los Angeles, they all said no we won’t vote for this as it was read to them,” said Eva Patterson, who co-chairs the Yes on 16 campaign. “Then we explained that it was in favor of affirmative action and equal opportunity, and they all said, ‘Of course we’ll vote for this.’
(ABC News)

The team introducing Prop 209 back in 1996 expertly knew how to word this to kill affirmative action in California and ensure that efforts to bring it back would be extremely difficult. They seem to be counting on an uneducated voter base.

Who’s voting “Yes” on Prop 16?

  • Governor Gavin Newsom
  • Mayors of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego
  • Many Democratic senators, representatives, and other legislators
  • ACLU, Anti-Defamation League, California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, California Teachers Association, many other groups
  • Kaiser Permanente and PG&E

Who’s voting “No” on Prop 16?

  • 2 Republican State Senators
  • Ward Connerly, the person who introduced Prop 209 in 1996.
  • Organizations helping Asian students get into California’s premier schools, like IvyMax.

Where can I get just the facts, no opinions?



It took me a really long time to unpack what was going on with this proposition and to get to the heart of the issues we’ll be voting on.

My goal in writing this is to provide a breakdown of the issue as I’ve learned about it in hopes that you’ll be able to form a more educated and precise opinion on the matters at hand.

Do your own research. I don’t have all the answers myself. I’d love to understand your perspective.

Field Engineering Manager at Scale AI | At the intersection between Customers and Code

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