Student representatives from the University of California, California State University and California Community Colleges systems gathered together on Friday in an online town hall to discuss Proposition 16, which will be on the ballot this November.
Proposition 16 would repeal Proposition 209, an amendment to the California state constitution that currently bans any preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, national origin and ethincity in public employment, contracting and education.
Student leaders spoke in support of Proposition 16 and the benefits affirmative action would bring for historically marginalized communities by increasing access to opportunities within the economy and education.
Laphonza Butler, the regent on the University of California Board, moderated nine student leaders who guided the questions and discussion.
Butler opened the town hall by asking each student leader why Proposition 16 is important to them.
Stephen Kodur, a student senator for the California Community Colleges, said the proposition would push for equity for all Californians. Kodur said he works with underprivileged kids and has seen how they have to work twice as hard to achieve the same results.
“Prop 16 is really going to address what we want to focus on within our system,” Kodur said. “And [one] of the things in there is more diverse faculty hiring, we want to go into a situation where faculty and the staff look like this, they walked in our shoes.”
Maryana Khames, a student representative on the CSU Board of Trustees, said that as an immigrant, her mother raised her with the mindset that education was going to be the “oxygen” to her success in life.
Khames also referenced research that has shown achievement gaps and she’s hopeful that Proposition 16 can open dialogue.
“This is a mechanism and this passage is going to be a mechanism or a tool for all of us to create intentional policy,” she said. “There are disparities, but this will actually allow us to tackle that head-on.”
Alexis Zaragoza, the regent-designate for the University of California, said she felt that affirmative action plays a role beyond higher education.
“People could not create grants or scholarships or anything for those businesses that were hurting due to xenophobia,” she said of Proposition 209. “The [proposition] was written out in a way that makes it seem like we’re protecting people when we’re not, when it was an outright attack on people who are just trying to get equity in our state.”
Butler moved on to ask panelists about the history of Proposition 209.
Colm Fitzgerald, a student member of the California Community College Board, provided the historical framework of Proposition 209.
“The campaign to support Prop 209 was backed by huge big money and special interests,” Fitzgerald said.
He pointed to the 1996 Los Angeles Times exit poll that found 61% of Asians, 76% of Latinos and 74% of Blacks opposed Proposition 209.
“Prop 16 is our chance to solidify our commitment to equity and justice,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s our chance to right the wrongs of Prop 209.”
Jamaal Muwwakkil, a graduate student serving as a regent member of the University of California, added that affirmative action is rooted in the 1960s Civil Rights movement, which sought to address historical harm and loss of opportunities to minorities in the United States.
“There needed to be remedial action taken in the affirmative term,” he said. “Actively do something as opposed to not doing harm.”
Muwwakkil pointed out that California is one of 10 states that have banned affirmative action. Being one of the most liberal states, he feels “this is the opportunity for [Californians] to put our vote where our mouth is.”
Butler asked panelists about their concerns with Proposition 16 and whether affirmative action is another form of discrimination.
In response, Fitzgerald said that claims of reverse racism were founded on misinformation.
“The idea of special chances is about the difference between equality and equity,” he said.
“When [the Declaration of Independence] was written, women, the poor, enslaved and, broadly, the non-white were left out of critical decision-making processes.”
Proposition 16 intends to “expand opportunities,” Khames said, and feels that “we shouldn’t necessarily be individualistic towards opportunity.”
“This is not to say, ‘this race is better than the next,’” she said. “I have privileges in areas that some of you all may not, and you have privileges in areas and in areas that I may not, but it’s recognizing that [together].”
Butler turned to opponents Proposition 16, some of whom feel that race-blind admissions policies could be used to close gaps.
Aidan Arasasingham, president of the University of California Student Association, said that despite California’s strong diversity, he’s concerned with the lack of correlating representation in public higher education.
“The data over the past 25 years has shown us that [race-blind admissions policies are] only effective to a certain point,” he said. “There’s a ceiling that you reach, and no policy is as strong or as representative as race-conscious policies.”
Zahraa Khuraibet, president of the California State Student Association, said she believes that applications were never race-blind to begin with.
“There are so many different identifiers,” she said. “Your home address, whether you’re an in-state or out-of-state student, the school you attended and your biggest identifier is your name.”
Butler asked the student panelists why they feel Proposition 16 should matter to California citizens who may not be as invested in the diversity of higher education.
Krystal Raynes, a student board member on the CSU Board of Trustees, discussed racial conflict and called to individuals who felt politically motivated following the death of George Floyd.
“You always want to be this good ally,” she said.
Voting for this proposition, Raynes said, is a way one can “be a champion to bring these voices forward.”
Arasasingham said that Proposition 16 would allow for government contracts to prioritize minority and women-owned businesses.
“[Public contracts are] awarded to these big transnational corporations,” he said. “That doesn’t benefit you and your local community. Prop 16 would change that.”
Butler then asked how the panelists saw Proposition 16 playing a role regarding the benefits of diversity.
“Diversity is the greatest check on the possible tyranny of the majority,” Fitzgerald said. “Diversity [is] necessary to adequately represent the interests of those people from which such power is vested.”
He said that staying competitive in the global economy requires “a diverse round of new innovators, new leaders, a new generation of Californians, ready to take the reins.”
Khuraibet said that as an Arab and a Muslim, she has felt the burden of being the “first” in many of the roles she’s been in higher education.
“How am I supposed to want to achieve these dreams if there is no reflection of me that’s up there?” she asked.
This need for inclusivity not only applied to her own marginalized identities but also, she said, to those in LGBTQ communities who don’t identify with a gender binary or who struggle to find places that are accepting and open.
Muwwakkil brought in an administrative perspective on the value of diversity.
“We have a mission to educate the citizens of California,” he said. “[If] institutional structure does not reflect the composition of the citizens of the state of California, we lose our legitimacy.”
The areas of the public sector that have been historically homogenous were not coincidental, he argued.
“This is an effect of a policy that was intentional, strategically enacted,” he said. “We need to do something proactively to change what is currently happening.”
As the future of affirmative action remains in the air, Butler asked students their hopes and visions on whether or not the proposition passes.
Kodur referenced data in the community college system that demonstrates the lower levels of transferring for Latinx and Black communities, deeming these issues “barriers to their success.”
Raynes added that the importance of diversity starts with public education before college, recalling feeling encouraged in high school having an Asian American immigrant as her teacher.
“Every kid in California should have to be able to point out that faculty that inspired them to go to college,” she said.
Butler then asked about how Proposition 16 would affect the LGBTQ community.
“[If] we don’t have enough language in here for the LGBTQ community, we can infuse that into it,” Zaragoza said. “We can better advocate for communities.”
Khames also noted that the LGBT caucus, as well as the Latino caucus and Black caucus in the California state legislature, have all shown support of the measure. Shared governance would also play a role in how Proposition 16 would affect marginalized communities.
When prompted with the concern that Proposition 16 would legalize discrimination, Fitzgerald referenced the history of slavery, the Jim Crow era and the current moment of racial reckoning.
“We are so few generations removed from societal structures that oppressed so many Americans,” he said.
Fitzgerald said that Proposition 16 would secure the promise of the American Dream that “everybody has a shot at greatness.”
According to Arasasingham, there were safeguards to prevent preferential discrimination, including when the Supreme Court determined that quotas based on race were banned in Regents v. Bakke.
If Proposition 16 passes, an individual’s race would only be one factor among many others to be taken into consideration for admission into a California public university.
Muwwakkil addressed concerns from the Asian American community that affirmative action would hurt their admission into prestigious universities.
“We have to really consider what we mean when we say Asian American population,” he said. “That’s a very diverse group of students and people.”
He pointed out that in disaggregating the data, there are populations of Asian Americans, like Chinese and Indian Americans, who are overrepresented in higher education to their relative population size in California.
Other Asian Americans, like Hmongs, Cambodians and Vietnamese, have had historically lower levels of college degree attainment.
In closing, Khames encouraged audience members to consider that this proposition would be shaping California’s future.
“Thirty years from now, when things don’t look like the way we want them to look, it’s because we collectively did not fight as hard as we should have,” she said.
This sentiment was echoed by Arasasingham.
“There’s a long rich history of young people and students leading these changes,” he said referring to the current movement striving toward racial equity. “This is the fight of today, and you can make a difference if you vote.”