Affirmative Action: Frequently Asked Questions


For over 25 years, Proposition 209 has prevented the state from taking active measures to prevent discrimination and ensure equality of opportunity. California legislators have a real opportunity to prioritize racial equity in policymaking, prevent discrimination, and ensure equality of opportunity with Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5 (ACA 5).

ACA 5 led by Assemblymember Shirley Weber places an initiative on the November 2020 ballot to repeal Proposition 209 and reinstate affirmative action.

See below for a list of frequently asked questions about affirmative action:

Affirmative Action programs are designed to increase access to employment and education opportunities for systemically disadvantaged and/or underrepresented populations–including women and people of color. Affirmative Action permits the use of gender and race-conscious strategies for the purpose of ensuring equal opportunity in our public education system and workforce. In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, a ban on considering race or ethnicity in higher education, public employment and contracting.

In the workforce: Affirmative Action practices include public employment and contracting practices that aim to mitigate bias by considering gender or race in employment practices. Some examples include: setting specific goals for the participation of women-owned and person of color-owned businesses on work involved with state contracts, targeted recruitment and advertising to populations not represented in certain fields; and selection for training and apprenticeship opportunities.

At Colleges & Universities: A series of Supreme Court cases have outlined guidelines for both permissible and outdated affirmative action practices that university leaders carry out in higher education admissions, recruitment and retention processes. Colleges and universities are not permitted to use racial quotas in admissions, (Regents of the University of California v. Bakke) or point-based systems where race determines points for admission (Gratz v. Bollinger) because these approaches are unconstitutional. However, as decided by the Supreme Court in 2003 (Grutter v. Bollinger), colleges can consider race as one of many qualifications when it will help to build or maintain a diverse student body. This policy encourages a fair and holistic review of applicants. Yet, in California, Prop 209 prohibits colleges from engaging in targeted outreach and extra efforts to enroll high-performing students of color. Colleges in California cannot use the following strategies: recruitment, tutoring, scholarships and resources targeted specifically toward students of color or women students.

No, Prop 16 is not a form of discrimination. Affirmative action combats the effects of structural racism and discrimination by allowing public entities to be more intentional in increasing diversity. Affirmative action is a tool to ensure opportunity for all Californians who have historically been shut out in the sectors of education, contracting, hiring and employment. Removing the prohibition of affirmative action policies would allow for the use of race-conscious and gender-conscious strategies to meet the academic needs of underserved students in order to close achievement gaps and to expand economic opportunities for all Californians.

Education experts understand that there’s much more work to be done to support students of color across the pre-k through higher education systems. That’s why the California Teachers Association, the California PTA, California Student Aid Commission, UC Board of Regents, the California Community College Board of Governors, the California Faculty Association, the California Federation of Teachers have all endorsed Prop 16, among many others.

First, if affirmative action is reinstated it will merely allow universities to take race and gender into account as one of several factors in recruitment and admissions. Notably, after Prop 209 banned affirmative action, 1998 admission rates for Asian American/Pacific Islander (AAPI) students decreased at 5 of the 8 UC campuses, especially at UC Berkeley and UCLA. A 2016 study also found that eliminating Black and Latinx students from the application pool minimally improves chances of admissions for Asian American applicants.

Second, Asian Americans are not a monolithic group. Despite opposition from a small faction, over two-thirds support affirmative action as academic outcomes for AAPI students are vastly different depending on ethnicity. For example, approximately 51 percent of all Asian Americans over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree or greater; yet, for the Cambodian and Hmong community, only 18 percent and 17 percent have a Bachelor’s degree, respectively.

The importance of disaggregating AAPI data has been a topic of discussion for some time now. Some educational entities in California such as the California Department of Education already collect and disaggregate APPI data, but do not release it publicly. While not required if affirmative action is reinstated in California, it will be important that AAPI data is disaggregated in order to fully understand the disparate experiences of the AAPI population — especially as the state develops the State Longitudinal Data System

In addition to ensuring fair opportunities, affirmative action policies also support a strong economy. Employment trends consistently show that it is more challenging to secure a job without a college degree. In 2018, the employment rate for young adults with at least a Bachelor’s degree was 86 percent, compared to 72 percent for those with only a high school diploma. By relying primarily on admissions criteria, such as test scores and grades, colleges overlook highly skilled students of color experiencing educational disparities in K-12. Affirmative action strategies help broaden college access for these students, thereby increasing access to employment opportunities and social mobility. Additionally, research finds that a diverse student population better prepares all students for work and leadership in a global economy and will ultimately benefit the state as a whole.

No. The purpose of ACA 5 is not to benefit one specific group of people. It is about having the tools to actively address racial disparities. Disparities begin early in the educational pipeline, with students of color accessing preschool at a lower rate than their white and more affluent counterparts. Disparate opportunities for high quality education continue through K-12 and into postsecondary education. Repealing Prop 209 is a significant step in addressing the systemic inequalities that exist for some communities. While affirmative action strategies cannot solve these issues alone, repealing Prop 209 is a significant step forward in helping to open the doors of opportunity for students of color and future generations to come.

No. Repealing Prop 209 is not about admitting unqualified students of color into the UC and CSU systems, but rather, it is intended to address outcomes resulting from the historic and systemic inequities that impact educational opportunities for these student groups. In fact, national data indicate a high prevalence of undermatching–a student’s attendance at a less selective college for which they are overqualified–for students of color. A recent study found “undermatching was highest for black students (49 percent), followed by white students (45 percent), Hispanic students (41 percent), and Asian students (31 percent).” Affirmative Action programs enable colleges to better target outreach to ensure that all eligible and qualified students apply to and enroll in institutions that are resourced and best positioned to support their success. They do not eliminate the minimum eligibility requirements needed to be met for whichever system Black and Latinx students are admitted to.

Merit is often connected to the belief that metrics such as grades and test scores reflect innate ability and “smarts”. Unfortunately, a student’s GPA and test scores are also impacted by inequitable policies and practices that limit a student’s academic competitiveness, disproportionately impacting Black and Latinx students. For example, in 2019, a California-based study found otherwise competitive Black and Latinx students are less likely to be placed in advanced science courses. This is often due to inadequate counseling, misaligned grading policies, and scheduling conflicts rather than due to academic preparedness. Similarly, Black and Latinx high school students are underrepresented in rigorous STEM and college preparatory courses (i.e., a-g) required for UC admissions. Latinx and Black students often lack access to these courses because they tend to attend schools with fewer course offerings. Affirmative Action programs aim to mitigate these differences in opportunity and evaluate merit in more comprehensive ways.

No. Quotas are an outdated and unconstitutional affirmative action strategy. In fact, quotas were found to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1978 (Regents of the University of California v. Bakke). A 2015 study found that some of the most widely used diversity strategies are:1) targeted recruitment and outreach to students of color, 2) enhanced recruitment and additional consideration for community college transfer, and 3) targeted recruitment to first-generation and low-income students. Importantly, these strategies tend to be outreach and recruitment strategies not quota-like strategies that determine outright whether a student will be admitted primarily or solely on the basis of race. For universities that take race and gender into account in admissions processes, these identity markers are just a few of several factors taken into account along with GPA, test scores, leadership, etc. in a holistic approach to evaluating each applicant’s fitness for university admission.

No, this would actually significantly benefit students of color in two major ways. One, it would provide increased opportunities for capable students to access higher education. Two, it would decrease the isolation students of color can experience when they are underrepresented among the campus student body. Research has shown students of color have a more negative experience when they are the lone member of their racial group in an otherwise homogeneous group. Further, campus diversity is associated with experiencing lower levels of bias and discrimation and higher levels of feeling a sense of belonging and retention for Black and Latinx students.

The state has made significant investments in race-neutral policies that have failed to level the playing field and facilitate equitable opportunities to all Californians. Despite over 20 years of income-focused programming and diversity initiatives, such as creation of the Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP), the Math, Engineering and Science Achievement (MESA) program, and the Puente Project, the UC system still has work to do to improve diversity and representation. Proposition 16 would enable education institutions to move away from race-blind strategies that have not worked and move toward race-conscious strategies that could bolster educational equity.

In public college admissions, no. This was outlawed by Prop 209 in 1996. However, private colleges and employers are free to exercise affirmative action because Prop 209 does not apply to private entities. There is also an exception in Prop 209 that allows colleges and universities to use race-conscious practices, particularly in employment, if required by federal law or to maintain federal funding. This is the case for the CSU and UC systems. Each campus develops an annual affirmative action plan detailing several factors, including workforce and job placement analysis, problem areas and targets to improve diversity in employment.

Prop 209 has not been overturned because it is very challenging to do so. Overturning  Prop 209 requires a state constitutional amendment. This means:

  1. It needs either a two-thirds vote in the legislature, or signatures of 8% of California voters to put it on the ballot, AND
  2. A majority of California voters to vote in favor of the change.

Overturning Prop 209 is well overdue. After Prop 209 went into effect, UC Berkeley and UCLA enrollment of underrepresented students of color dropped by over 50 percent and has not returned to pre-Prop 209 levels of diversity since the law was implemented. The UC system’s student enrollment does not reflect the diversity of the state. In California, Latinx residents make up almost 40 percent of California’s population while Black residents make up 6.5 percent of Californians. Yet, the UC’s fall 2019 Latinx and Black enrollment was 25 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

Repealing Prop 209 is especially important to help mitigate the disproportionate harm experienced by communities of color during the pandemic. People of color have borne the brunt of both the economic and public health effects of COVID-19. California is going to need every tool in its toolbox to restore the economy in ways that support all Californians. Employment trends consistently show college degrees protect against unemployment, when compared to holding a high school diploma. As California’s unemployment rates continue to skyrocket, growing an educated workforce will be essential to future recovery and resiliency. Further diversifying who can access and succeed in higher education, will position California to remain the 5th largest economy in the world.

There are myriad benefits to reinstating race-conscious strategies in education. The US Supreme Court has consistently reiterated that affirmative action provides the benefit of a diverse student body, which enhances the educational experience of all college students, regardless of race or gender.

Colleges and universities – and California as a whole – will benefit from developing leaders across several fields that reflect the racial makeup of our society. The US Supreme Court affirmed that a critical role of higher education institutions is to train the nation’s leaders of tomorrow, and for these leaders to have credibility among the electorate and to effectively identify and address society’s problems, these leaders must reflect society at-large. Repealing Prop 209 will give colleges and universities the ability to cultivate the leaders that reflect the diversity of all of California’s communities.

The most prevalent form of affirmative action in college admissions in California is legacy admissions, or giving preference to relatives of alumni. In fact, several of California’s private universities include legacy status as a factor in admissions including the University of Southern California, which admitted nearly 20 percent of its first-year students as legacy admits just last year. This form of affirmative action, which is legal in California, reinforces systemic inequities because it provides a leg up for applicants who already benefit from systemic advantages, like wealth and parental education. Californians should repeal Prop 209 because it will enable the government, colleges, and universities to address the types of structural inequities that legacy admissions perpetuate.

News that the University of California just admitted the largest group of Latino students is certainly a step in the right direction. While the systemwide admission of more Latinx students is definitely a noteworthy accomplishment, this is just one-piece of the puzzle. State and university leaders should also prioritize Latinx student representation across the UC system through increased student enrollment and completion, not just admissions. This includes providing the necessary academic and social support for these students to persist and succeed in completing their degree in order to eliminate the graduation gap. Removing the ban on affirmative action would allow the UC to better address the unique needs of Latinx students to ensure they persist and graduate at the same rates as their peers.

In addition, Prop 16 will support k-12 schools in addressing inequities in college and career preparation. In particular,California’s Latinx students — who attend the nation’s most segregated schools — are often tracked away from college-preparatory coursework and have insufficient access to early childhood education.

While California colleges and universities have made much progress in recent decades, students of color still remain largely underrepresented on college campuses, particularly at our most well resourced-institutions. Prioritizing racial diversity is critical for promoting access and equity in higher education. As tax-exempt, taxpayer-supported entities, public colleges and universities should advance the public interest by ensuring all residents — regardless of race or ethnicity — have an opportunity to access and succeed in obtaining their college degree. Permitting race-conscious recruitment efforts can move us closer to reflecting the ethnic make-up of the state by implementing targeted outreach and college preparation of underserved students. To eliminate inequities, college enrollment at our flagship universities should be representative of the statewide college-aged population (18-24 year olds) for each student group. In 2018, Black and Latinx individuals were 6% and 48% of California’s statewide college-aged population, respectively. However, Black and Latinx students made up only 4% and 24% of the total UC student undergraduate population, respectively. As our economy becomes more reliant on a college-educated workforce, providing opportunity for all will bolster the state’s economic security and competitiveness for the betterment of each Californian.

Reinstating affirmative action would strengthen how the state funds school districts and how districts support their students. The Local Control Funding Formula, or LCFF, provides much needed additional funding (i.e., supplemental and concentration grants) to serve English learners, foster youth, and low-income students. However, California’s inability to implement race-conscious funding leaves Local Education Agencies (LEAs) without the resources needed to support students facing some of the most severe opportunity and achievement gaps. For example, in California, performance outcomes on standardized assessments are lowest for Black students. Yet approximately 90,000 Black students do not generate additional funds that could be used to meet their unique needs.

The legislature did not designate students of color to generate or receive these funds due to Pop 209’s limitations. Repealing Proposition 209 would give the legislature the ability to make the LCFF formula race-conscious and provide clarity to districts that race-conscious solutions, such as targeted mentoring and support initiatives, may be used to support students of color and close racial equity gaps.

Having a diverse teaching force benefits all students, since students of all races report forming stronger connections and learning better when they have teachers of color. They perceive Black teachers (more so than white teachers) as holding them to higher academic standards, supporting their efforts, clearly explaining ideas and concepts and providing useful feedback. Importantly, students of color with same-race teachers earn higher GPAs, spend more time on homework, and have higher expectations for themselves attending college. Low-income Black students in elementary school experience some of the greatest benefits: after having a single Black teacher in grades K-3rd, Black students are more likely to graduate from high school and aspire to attend college. Approximately 77 percent of the students in California public schools are students of color, while 65 percent of teachers are white. Affirmative action would support broader recruitment and retention of teachers of color, allowing California’s K-12 students to reap the benefits of a diverse teacher workforce.

California’s teacher tenure and seniority policies guide educator layoff practices. Reinstating affirmative action will provide an opportunity to diversify the educator pipeline moving forward, but will in no way affect the seniority protections of already-employed teachers. Repealing Prop 209 would lift limits on using race-conscious strategies to recruit and retain Black, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Native American teachers. This includes state-funded scholarships to recruit people of color to enroll in credentialing programs and targeted funding for programs to retain teachers of color, such as race-based affinity groups and mentoring.

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Karla Fernandez

Communications Manager

Karla Fernandez (she/her/hers) joins Ed Trust–West as a Communications Manager with over 11 years of experience advancing social impact initiatives.

Karla started her career as a teacher at Chicago Public Schools and UIC College Prep. After teaching, Karla joined United Friends of the Children to support LA County’s youth in foster care as a college counselor. Through Leadership for Educational Equity, Karla also served as a Policy Advisor Fellow for the office of a Los Angeles Unified School Board Member. She solidified her interests in policy analysis and quantitative research during her time with the Price Center for Social Innovation, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, and the USC Presidential Working Group on Sustainability. Before joining The Education Trust–West, Karla was the Associate Director for the Southeast Los Angeles (SELA) Collaborative, a network of nonprofits advocating for communities in SELA.

Karla holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology from the University of Chicago, a Master of Public Policy from the USC Price School of Public Policy, and a Graduate Certificate in Policy Advocacy from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Karla is based out of southern California and is passionate about using data analysis, communications, and digital strategies for policy advocacy and social justice efforts.