“The full weight of California’s political establishment — including a Democratic governor, a long list of elected officeholders, deep-pocketed donors, business leaders, and even several professional sports franchises — are lining up behind Proposition 16,” the San Jose Mercury News reported in September. Leftists and Democratic officials spun Proposition 16 not as a measure to legalize racial discrimination, which would have been an accurate description, but as merely an anodyne adjustment that — to quote the language that appeared on the ballot — “allows diversity as a factor in public employment, education, and contracting decisions.”
Money poured into the Yes-on-16 campaign. It raised more than $19 million
and spent it all to advertise heavily for the restoration of racial preferences by the state. Much of those funds went to TV commercials in which opponents of Prop. 16 were described as “those who have always opposed equality” — a libel that was accompanied by video of white nationalists rallying in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017. The libels were freely flung about on social media, too. Democratic politicians like David Chiu, a member of the California Assembly, smeared the anti-16 campaign
— the most visible leaders of which were Asian — as “tied to white supremacy” and “to the most insidious & hateful forces in the US.”
Opponents of the ballot initiative, meanwhile, raised only $1.3 million, and were barely able to respond to the flood of attacks on their character and motivations. But while they lacked the deep pockets of the pro-discrimination, pro-preferences contingent, they had the deep sympathy of California voters, including millions who were neither white nor male. Those voters instinctively recoiled from the idea that government should be allowed to discriminate on the basis of race, sex, and color.
It was a classic David-and-Goliath contest. On Election Day, despite being massively outspent, the No campaign prevailed handily. Proposition 16 went down to defeat, 56.5 to 43.5 — a 13-point margin of victory for the opponents of official discrimination.
Have Prop. 16’s advocates accepted their defeat gracefully, and acknowledged that they were badly out of touch with California voters? Of course not. They insist that they lost not because identity politics and racial discrimination are unpopular, but because the voters didn’t understand what they were voting on.
“The ballot language itself was confusing,” said Oakland’s Eva Paterson , a co-chair of the Yes-on-16 campaign. “We just weren’t able to get through to voters. . . . People who didn’t understand the purpose of Prop. 16 didn’t get it.” The same lame claim was offered by Michele Siqueiros, another advocate of racial and ethnic preferences. “I think voter confusion was our biggest uphill battle,” she said. “We know that when folks read the ballot description that they were simply confused by it.”
What a pathetic excuse for failure. The campaign to re-legalize government discrimination sought to exploit voter confusion, by portraying the purpose of Proposition 16 as an initiative in support of inclusiveness, diversity, equity, balance, and racial justice — and by suggesting that anyone opposed to the ballot measure must be a hate-filled bigot. Rarely did advocates respond honestly to the profound moral argument against sorting people by race — the cause to which Martin Luther King Jr. devoted his life. Virtually every lever of power and every influential voice in the state was deployed in support of Proposition 16. It was backed by Governor Gavin Newsom and Senator Kamala Harris, by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, by the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Chronicle, and by hundreds of local governments, labor unions, corporations, and activist groups.
The pro-Prop. 16 drumbeat was incessant. It was depicted relentlessly as a constitutional change that no one could in good faith oppose. Everyone who was anyone was for it.
But voters saw through the propaganda and voted no.
Not because they were confused, but because they weren’t.
In a memo last week, Gail Heriot — a law professor at the University of San Diego and a member of the US Commission on Civil Rights — demolished the claim that confusion sank Proposition 16, or that the Election Day outcome was in any way a fluke.
“The polls have been consistent for decades,” Heriot wrote. “Whenever the issue is stated fairly and clearly, opposition to race and sex preferences is overwhelming.”
At least four times since 2003, she noted, Gallup has asked respondents whether they believe college students should be admitted solely on the basis of merit, or whether their racial and ethnic identity should be taken into consideration. The findings have been unequivocal:
A Pew Research poll in 2019 focused on affirmative action in employment. Pew asked respondents to choose between two choices:
Again, the results were unequivocal: 3 out of 4 respondents said employers should “only take qualifications into account.” Just 1 in 4 favored preferences for race and ethnicity.
To be clear, respondents by a lopsided margin support diversity in the workplace. But they don’t believe it should be achieved by discriminating for or against job applicants on the basis of race or ethnicity.
“I can personally attest to the fact that many left-of-center Californians opposed Prop. 16,” wrote Heriot. “Some helped out the campaign in large or small ways. I suspect that anyone who goes through our list of donors will find quite a few registered Democrats among them. They weren’t confused about Prop 16. They understood it all too well.”
Among mainstream Americans, public opinion on the question of racial preferences has changed very little over time. The MLK standard — judge people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character — continues to exert a powerful moral pull. California elites and political insiders were gung-ho for reviving racial discrimination by the state, but at the grassroots it remains a deeply unpopular position. As it should.