“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.
Prop 209 turned out to help, not hurt, minority representation in the public higher education system. Wenyuan Wu, the director of administration for Asian American Coalition for Education, has compiled the statistics. She found:
In the University of California system, 4-year graduation rates of underrepresented racial minorities rose from 31.3% during the 1995-97 period, preceding Prop.-209, to 36.6% during 1998-2000, then to 43.3% during 2001-03. In 2014, underrepresented racial minorities’ 4-year graduation rate rose to a record high of 55.1%. The 6-year graduation rate has fared even better: 66.5% in 1998 and 75.1% in 2013. Minority admissions at UC exceeded those of 1996 both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of all admissions.
Latino admissions went from 15.4% (5,744 students) in 1996 to 23% (14,081) in 2010; Asian-American admissions rose from 28.8% (11,085) to 37.47% (22,877), while black admissions from 4% (1,628) to 4.2% (2,624). In 1999, underrepresented racial minorities’ enrollment at the UC system stood at a meager 15%, while in 2019 this figure increased to 26%.
How did Prop 209 create this successful outcome?
The most plausible explanation is that Prop 209 helped undo the unhealthy practice of “mismatch;” namely, admitting students to schools beyond their academic levels. As Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. documented in their 2012 book, Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It, preferential treatment programs have led to low academic performance and high drop-out rates for the very students who were supposed to be the programs’ beneficiaries. Opponents of Prop 209 were partly right when they predicted it would diminish minority student enrollment. But it diminished it only in certain UC campuses. The students who were rejected by UC-Berkeley due to the elimination of preferential treatment did not simply cease to exist. They applied to and were accepted at other schools, where they could better compete and thrive. Ultimately, Prop 209 generated higher graduation rates and higher GPAs for minority students at the UC system as a whole.
In 1996, when Prop 209 was on the ballot, no one could say with certainty how its passage would pan out. But now that the results are in, and the opponents’ fears have turned out to be largely unwarranted, the question arises: why are legislators proposing ACA 5 to repeal it? If the legislators are truly concerned about the welfare of minority students, why aren’t they celebrating? Or, if not celebrating, why aren’t they at least quietly relieved?
Their website — https://opportunity4all.org/ — does not challenge the education statistics compiled by Director Wu. Instead, it focuses on the other aspect of Prop 209, the ban on preferential treatment in public contracting. It declares that repeal is necessary because women earn 80 cents for every dollar a man earns on average, and women of color and single women make only 60 cents for every dollar a white male earns. Assuming these figures are valid, they prove more than the ACA 5 advocates may intend. Prop 209 has nothing to do with private employment. It affects only California state government business arrangements. The Democrats have controlled the governorship and both legislative chambers since 2011. So if income disparity in public business is the problem, then the ACA 5 advocates seem to be accusing their own Party of discrimination.
The real reason for the campaign to repeal Prop 209 cannot be found on the ACA 5 website or in other public statements. It is more subtle. It resides in the nature of the modern progressive movement and, ironically, in the success of minorities since the passage of Prop 209. That success threatens the movement.
The modern progressive movement sees the United States as fundamentally and incorrigibly racist, and asserts that minorities cannot succeed through their own efforts. They require help. This theme resonates in academia, in the entertainment industry, in the media – in all the cultural heights controlled by the progressives. A recent and notorious example is the New York Times 1619 Project, which advances the notion that America was founded, not in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence, but in 1619 with the arrival of the first slaves. (Actually, the 1619 arrivals were indentured servants, not slaves, but that is probably the least important error in the Project.)
In the political sphere, progressives fear the success of minorities under Prop 209 because it undermines their claim to power. That claim rests on the notion that many Americans are victims of systematic discrimination of one sort or another, and that an activist government, dedicated to a progressive agenda, is their only hope. And so a deal is struck. In return for their political support, progressives promise to relieve minorities from dangers that only they, the progressives, can identify. If minorities decide that they can succeed on their own, through dint of their own hard work and dedication, the deal falls apart.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden shed light on this arrangement when he recently told a radio interviewer: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” The remark was widely viewed as a cringe-worthy gaffe, and Biden apologized. But as Michael Kinsley famously observed, a gaffe is when a politician inadvertently reveals some truth that was supposed to remain unspoken. Biden’s gaffe, however obnoxious, revealed a truthful glimpse into the progressive mentality. People like Biden really do believe that they have, or ought to have, the power to define blackness and to excommunicate those who do not fit their definition. That is their right under the deal.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused widespread fear and insecurity. Those conditions present an ideal opportunity for a movement based on the premise that discrimination and other dangers lurk behind every corner. The ACA 5 advocates intend to make sure that the opportunity is not wasted.