Opinion: California voters have the opportunity to vote for racial justice by voting ‘yes’ on Proposition 16

Restoring affirmative action is a much-needed solution to the barriers that have harmed and limited the potential of women and people of color

As white supremacy was put under a national microscope this summer, Berkeley residents and elected officials have voiced support for the Black community. But as we know, actions speak louder than words. In this election, California voters have the opportunity to vote for racial justice by voting Yes on Proposition 16—a repeal of the state’s antiquated ban on affirmative action programs (Proposition 209, 1996). Restoring affirmative action is a much-needed solution to the barriers that have harmed and limited the potential of women and people of color. That’s why every person with a Black Lives Matter sign on their front lawn should be supporting Proposition 16.  With endorsements from all major civil rights groups, the California Legislature’s Black, Asian American Pacific Islander, and Jewish caucuses, and many others, Proposition 16 is a top priority reform to alleviate systemic discrimination in our state and city.

Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) has an abysmal achievement gap between students of color and white students. According to the 2018 Berkeley Health Status Report, Black students in BUSD are 1.4 times more likely to drop out of high school than their white peers. Though this is in part due to issues within Berkeley High School, this inequity takes root long before students enter a secondary school classroom. Income inequality and poverty disproportionately impact BUSD’s students of color. Many Black and brown students at Berkeley High enter the educational system at a disadvantage and it is our job, as a community, to ensure that all students succeed in our district, regardless of their race or economic background.

During our time at Berkeley High, the student body of the BUSD was less than 40% white, yet 70% of teachers were white (2018 Data). Between the two of us, we spent 20 years in the district, but we had a combined total of only three Black teachers. This is more than an issue of optics. Having one Black teacher in elementary school makes Black children more likely to graduate high school and significantly more likely to enroll in college. Moreover, white students also benefit from a diverse teaching staff. There are no downsides to inclusivity. Proposition 16 would allow the BUSD to create programs focused specifically on the recruitment and retention of underrepresented teachers and staff members. This change would increase the rate at which students of color graduate Berkeley High and head towards higher education.

Prop 16 will also help to level the playing field for college admissions so all California students have equal access to higher education – undergraduate and beyond. Since Prop 209 banned affirmative action in California public schools in 1996, underrepresented minorities as well as Asian American students, have seen a decline in enrollment rates. For 20 years, campuses have attempted to improve diversity by focusing on socioeconomic status rather than race but these race-neutral policies have failed to facilitate equitable opportunities to all Californians.

Nowhere is this failure more apparent than our own UC Berkeley. Transitioning from Berkeley High School to UC Berkeley, it was blatantly clear that the University does not reflect the Berkeley community or the Bay Area community at large. Eight percent of Berkeley residents are Black, but Black students make up only 1.9 percent of UC Berkeley’s student body. The number one public university cannot represent the public with this disparity. Diverse classrooms have also been shown to increase the critical thinking skills and problem-solving abilities of students. Prop 16 will allow universities to include race and gender as one of the many factors involved in admissions, allowing the UC system to better represent and educate the state that it strives to serve.

Beyond education, Proposition 16 will also offer more opportunities for businesses owned by women and people of color through equitable public contracting and mentorship programs. Research estimates that Prop 209 causes an annual loss of $300 million for minority and women-owned businesses in San Francisco County and $30 million in the city of Oakland. Sexism and racism impact minority and women-owned businesses under normal economic conditions, and the COVID-19 crisis adds another disproportionate burden. It is no secret that many Berkeley businesses are struggling to stay open during COVID-19. The heart-breaking list of restaurants in the Bay Area forced to close due to the pandemic includes many of our Berkeley favorites like Lalime, Famous Bao, Cafe Ohlone, Taste of Pakistan, and La Cocina Cantina. These eateries were not only treasures to the city, but also small businesses run by women and people of color that demonstrate the beautiful diversity of our city. As we recover from the COVID-19 crisis, Prop 16 will help us build the equitable economy that our city needs and deserves.

Despite our reputation as one of the most liberal states in the nation, California is one of only nine states that currently bans affirmative action. Proposition 16 is a choice between a regressive past and an inclusive future. It will make an unequal playing field more equitable, from Berkeley’s elementary school classrooms to higher education to high-level public contracts. It is an opportunity to back our chants and signs asserting that Black Lives Matter with tangible change that will benefit our entire city and state. The answer is clear: vote YES on Proposition 16.

Alecia Harger and Jane Hood are both raised in Berkeley, graduated from Berkeley High School (class of 2019 and class of 2017), and are now undergraduate students at UC Berkeley. They are part of Students for Prop 16.