“Never allow a crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel, former Chief of Staff to President Obama, said in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown. He repeated the quip last March, in the wake of the coronavirus economic meltdown. In both cases, Emanuel saw these disasters as opportunities to advance the progressive agenda.
The same opportunistic spirit has surfaced in Sacramento, where, in the midsts of the Covid crisis, a group of Democratic legislators have introduced ACA 5, a bill to repeal Prop 209, the California measure which outlawed racial and gender-based preferential treatment in public education and contracting.
Prop 209 was added to the California constitution by a ballot initiative in 1996. It won by a decisive 54.6 to 45.4% majority, despite the fact that nearly every major corporation, institution, and celebrity in the state lined up against it. Even the Republican Party kept its distance, which turned out to be a tactical error: Bob Dole garnered only 38% of the state popular vote that year, meaning that Prop 209 was almost 17 points more popular than the GOP ticket.
Why did Prop 209 pass? The simple answer is that most people, regardless of race, agreed with its fundamental message. A poll conducted on the eve of the election by the UC Berkeley Institute of Government Studies found that majorities of all four major racial groups – 69 percent of whites, 64 percent of Asians, 63 percent of Latinos and 59 percent of blacks – preferred that job advancement and college admissions be based solely on merit rather than on a system considering race and gender.
Of course, those numbers did not reflect how the members of those racial groups actually voted. Some people probably voted against Prop 209 because they saw government-sponsored racial and gender-based preferential treatment as a necessary and temporary evil. Discrimination designed to help the poor or socially disadvantaged is one thing. But the poll numbers confirm that discrimination on the basis of race or gender has never been popular, whether that discrimination is used to help or hinder a particular group.
Following the passage of Prop 209, opponents predicted that minority representation at California’s university system would plummet. The actual results, however, have been very different. Continue reading