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Affirmative Action Slammed Shut Behind Me: Prop 16 Reopens Opportunity

Thursday, October 1, 2020

By Crispin Delgado, Public Policy Director, Northern California Grantmakers

 

The places we call home, their streets, smells, sounds, and sights, shape our opportunity for a fair shot at a long and healthy life. I grew up in the shadows of greatness, in the city of pride and purpose, Richmond, California. During WWII, it was a busy port between San Francisco and Sacramento, home to the Kaiser shipyards. It was also home of Rosie the Riveter, the female empowerment icon. Over time Rosie became Rosa, and her wrenches were switched for cleaning supplies. There was a demographic shift in the community. White families moved to newly formed suburbs taking their wealth with them, and, by the time I grew up, the buildings that once produced sounds of industry had become an urban cemetery of abandoned buildings adorned with graffiti and dilapidated metal fencing. The supporting infrastructure, including investments in schools and parks, drained away, as local funding priorities shifted to policing the war on drugs. 

I graduated among the top students in my high school without plans for college. My teachers, however, insisted I pursue higher education, something no one in my family had done in the United States. I sent just one application. It went to a nearby public university, the University of California, Davis. The year was 1996, and I did not yet know that I would be different from nearly everyone I met there: poorer than many and darker than most. Soon after my arrival, Proposition 209—a measure to disassemble affirmative action—came up in our classes. It was new to me; I hadn't learned how policies passed through the Civil Rights movement applied to Latinx communities. Nothing prepared me for the racial hostility that would come my way in this new environment. Academic discourse quickly hardened into political stances, and I found myself fighting for rights I didn’t even know I had. That November, despite using my first vote to oppose Proposition 209, it still passed. I was discouraged but hoped we would have a chance to undo this action. 

In the 24 years since Proposition 209's passage, the policy had its intended effects: admission rates for Black and Latinx students into California’s top public institutions dropped immediately, and women bidding for government-backed contracts suffered setbacks. This November, we have an opportunity to finally undo this policy to reinstate affirmative action in public education, government employment, and contracts. As our communities rise up for systems change and social justice, this proposition would create new pathways for the next generation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color leaders. As my father always says, “No one can take your education away from you.” We must fight to ensure children across California, including those of us who hail from dis-invested communities, have a pathway to higher education and eventually wealth-building opportunities for ourselves, our families, and our communities. The day the faces in our best public schools, all levels of government, and government contractors mirror the state population will be the day we can question the need for affirmative action. Until then, we must reinstate affirmative action in the State of California. 

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