California political and media elites overwhelmingly favored ending race neutrality by passing Prop 16. It was endorsed by Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein; former Senator Barbara Boxer; at least 30 Democratic members of the U.S. House, including Nancy Pelosi; and Governor Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, State Controller Betty Yee, State Treasurer Fiona Ma, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, Speaker of the Assembly Anthony Rendon, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, and hundreds of other local officials. It was also supported by many of the state’s newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, The Mercury News, the San Francisco Chronicle, The San Diego Union-Tribune, La Opinión, the East Bay Times, The Sacramento Bee, The Fresno Bee, and The Modesto Bee. And proponents of Prop 16 raised nearly 20 times more money than its opponents.
Nevertheless, California voters rejected Proposition 16. Indeed, as of Monday, 56 percent of voters had rejected the measure, defeating it by a slightly bigger margin than Proposition 209 was passed in 1996. Why did California voters diverge so sharply from the position of the officials they elected, reaffirming race neutrality as the only democratically legitimate way forward in the state?
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Many Californians believe that treating people differently on the basis of their race, ethnicity, or national origin is wrong. Others have concerns about the validity or adequacy of existing racial and ethnic categories and the attendant complications of shaping decisions on their basis. If Proposition 16 had passed, California officials would have been forced to decide, for example, whether African American descendants of slaves should be treated the same as Nigerian immigrants, whether Hmong, Chinese, and Indian Americans, or Spaniards, Argentines, Peruvians, and Salvadorans, were in the same category, or whether Latinos, the state’s largest identity group, should benefit from preferences historically reserved for minorities.
Even if those problems were ultimately resolvable, California today does not resemble the state where an all-white class at the UC Davis medical school prompted calls for an urgent remedy. Last year, with the state’s ban on racial preferences in place, the flagship UC system admitted the most diverse class in the state’s history. “First-generation students made up 44% of those admitted and low-income students 40%,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “Asian Americans remained the largest ethnic group at 35%, followed by Latinos at 34%, whites at 22%, African Americans at 5% and American Indians at 0.5%.” While California’s K–12 education system fails too many students of all races, with Latino and Black students suffering disproportionately in ways that warrant urgent and sweeping reforms, white supremacy has been vanquished in California’s higher education system, which remains free to factor class into admissions.