Can Affirmative Action be an effective tool for improving racial inequities in higher education and the workplace?

By Cassandra Drumond

Alianza News

This is the question three veteran civil rights leaders discussed at the briefing, organized by Ethnic Media Services. They are: Thomas Saenz, general counsel of MOLDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund; Eva Patterson president and cofounder of the Equal Justice Society, a national legal organization focused on civil rights and anti-discrimination; and Vincent Pan, co executive direction of Chinese for Affirmative Action.

Thomas Saenz begins the discussion by pointing out that currently, police and sheriff departments cannot not engage in targeted recruiting and hiring of African-American, Latino or Asian deputies or officers due to prop 209.

Prop 209, which was passed in California in 1996, repealed affirmative action programs that were in place. It has been 24 years since Prop 209 was passed. Saenz adds that in the 24 years since prop 209 was passed, the demographics of our voters has changed, today voters of color represent 42-43% of all registered voters in the state of California. This proposition would be repealed by prop 16, which will be on the ballot this November to restore affirmative action.

Saenz adds that the US supreme court has also weighed in, being much more descriptive about what is permitted and required in perusing affirmative action. Contrary to common belief, quotas cannot be used and race is one of many factors considered in college admission, but not the sole or main determinant factor for admission. The Supreme Court ultimately narrowed the circumstances in which an employer can employ race or gender conscious affirmative action. Prop 209 prevented the University of California and other entities from engaging in rigorous analysis examination of racial and gender disparities. Saenz points to the benefits of having minorities represented in all areas such as places of employment and other large institutions.

Eva Patterson president and cofounder of the Equal Justice Society, a national legal organization focused on civil rights and anti-discrimination weighs in. Patterson begins by pointing out the ramifications of the murder of George Floyd: “When it occurred everyone was at home and White Americans had to take their blinders off and have this conversation about systemic racism. Prop 16 actually deals with systemic racism. How? Communities don’t have the political power, don’t have money to contribute to campaigns. Prop 16 helps by getting more people of color into educational institutions and getting more promotions at work.” Patterns adds there are overt and unconscious biases that make it harder for people of color get ahead. This proposition allows for rigorous research inside large entities that will demonstrate race disparities, if any.

Regarding the results of Prop 209, Patterns points out that at UC Berkley Law school there was only one Black student the year after affirmative action. This was 29 fewer than in 1972, when Patterson attended UC Berkey’s school of law. This points to the effects of affirmative action and how it is more difficult for students of color to not be represented in classrooms and work places; it is discouraging to be the only one as if they do not belong [refine wording] and important that races be represented.

In terms of Prop 209, Patterson states: “When people know Trump opposes affirmative action, people will come to our side. We are going on TV and running digital ads soon, to try to get information out quickly. The voters will decide on November 3rd.”

Vincent Pan, co executive direction of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a 51-year-old organization that has stood for affirmative action, when it wasn’t controversial. Pan begins by explaining how race issues disproportionately disadvantage many communities. He maintains a proactive stance, by explains: “This is an important issue for Asian-Americans right now in terms on anti-Asian hate. More than 2,500 reports of hate incidents after the president used words such as the ‘China virus’”.

Additionally, Pan maintains Prop 16 addresses public contracting. Asian-American contractors and small businesses such as nail salons, restaurants and other retailers make more money in cities where affirmative action is legal. About 90% of businesses owned by women or people of color were not able to receive government aid during COVID-19, as they were shut out of the paycheck protection program and did not have access federal support programs.

Regarding public employment, and the K-12 teacher workforce, Pan states that over 69,000 Asian American students will go to school where there are no Asian-American teachers. Despite doing well educationally, there are many glass ceilings and not represented in management for Asian-Americans as well. More race conscious programs will help this issue, along with addressing implicit bias. Pan states that contrary to popular belief, 70% of Asian-Americans do support affirmative action. Admissions to universities for Asian Americans and other minorities went down after Prop 209 was passed. Pan points out that quotas are illegal, and race is only one of many factors considered in admissions. The speakers address the ways Prop 16 can help dismantle systemic racism and simultaneously not negatively affect people of other races.