By Mella Bettag
SACRAMENTO – The California Senate followed calls for racial justice Wednesday, and passed a bill that, if the voters approve in November, could eventually allow for affirmative action again.
The California Act for Economic Prosperity, or ACA 5 for short, is a piece of legislation that repeals Prop. 209, a California constitutional amendment that has acted as a “barrier to employment and access to higher education for women and minorities” for 24 years, according to a statement from office of Assemblymember Shirley N. Weber (D-San Diego), author of the measure.
The measure, which was first introduced in January 2019, came to the Senate floor at a pertinent time for racial justice. Calls for reform and action have grown exponentially in response to the murder of George Floyd a month ago. ACA 5 joins a growing number of legislation that is being passed during this time of protests.
Affirmative action began in the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement. Many people believed legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on gender, race, color, religion, or national origin, wasn’t enough, and the concept of affirmative action was born. Affirmative action refers to the consideration of protected categories in order to ensure proportionate representation when hiring.
In California, all public universities and many private ones began to use affirmative action within their admissions, along with many businesses and public enterprises.
Prop. 209 went into effect in late 1996; its purported goal was to ensure equality under the law, prohibiting the consideration of gender, race, or nationality in university admissions or public employment. Its effects were clear—equal protection under the law did not equate to equal representation in public work spaces or in higher education.
During the debate Wednesday, Assemblymember Weber detailed some of the negative effects of Prop. 209 on underrepresented groups, noting “Proposition 209 has cost women—and minority-owned businesses—$1.1 billion each year, perpetuated a wage gap wherein women make 80 cents on every dollar made by men, and allowed discriminatory hiring and contracting practices to continue unhindered. Far from being colorblind, the bill has set up barriers to women and minorities to share in the economic life of California.”
Senator Holly Mitchell (D- Los Angeles), a co-author of the bill, referenced the current political upheaval in her statement, saying “the collective actions against inequality and injustice that we’ve seen around the world represent an urgent call for systemic change. We must be affirmative in our actions we take to bend the arc towards justice. It’s time for a new generation of California’s voters to stand up and advance equity.”
Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) also weighed in her support, saying “ACA 5 will ensure all communities have a level playing field to compete for these opportunities.”
Senator Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) explained that because of the continuing history of oppression of African Americans within the United States, “bringing African-Americans into the mainstream of American Life should be a state interest of the highest order,” and without this action, we would “ensure that America will forever remain a divided society.”
The bill was co-written by the California Legislative Black Caucus, and is widely supported by the California Legislative Women’s Caucus, the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, the California Legislative Asian & Pacific Islander Caucus and over 300 business, civil rights, education and labor organizations.
The main opponents to ACA 5 are small Chinese-American organizations concerned about possible “racial” quotas that would be permitted under ACA 5. In the University of California, Asian Americans make up the majority of the student body.
But many first-generation Asian Americans are concerned that, if affirmative action were to be allowed, their children would have less of a chance to get the education that they had hoped for them when they came to the U.S. These groups are very active in their opposition, said Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Campbell), who reported receiving 3,000 opposition calls, more than he has ever received on any other measure.
Affirmative action’s future “will now be in the hands of the voters,” said Assemblymember Weber. The measure will be on the ballot in November this year. “It’s time to give voters the chance to right this wrong,” she added.
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