Stanford activists remain optimistic about affirmative action despite failure of Prop 16

Nov. 8, 2020, 11:16 p.m.

California Proposition 16, a controversial measure that would have lifted the state’s ban on affirmative action for public hiring, contracting and college admissions, was defeated on Tuesday with over 56% of people voting no as of Saturday night, according to The New York Times. 

The result came as a surprise to some Stanford students and faculty, who initially expected the measure to succeed due to momentum created by the Black Lives Matter movement and support within the California State Assembly and California Democratic Party.

California originally banned affirmative action in 1996 through Proposition 209. Section 31 was added to the state Constitution’s Declaration of Rights, stating that the state could not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, anyone on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. 

As a private university, Stanford is not affected by the state’s ban on affirmative action and will continue to use race and ethnicity as a factor in its admissions process. Stanford advocates have nevertheless sought to emphasize the importance of statewide affirmative action, which impacts public universities, and they remain optimistic about efforts to reinstate affirmative action in the future. 

Emeritus law professor William B. Gould IV said that although affirmative action has historically not been “a vote getter,” various social and political movements, such as the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that grew this summer, are leading to a “greater focus upon civil rights that are going to make progress in this area possible.” He added that President-elect Joe Biden’s victory will also give affirmative action activism a “great boost.”

Students are also hopeful that activism will continue. Associated Students of Stanford University Co-Director of Undergraduate Affordability Kiara Bacasen ’21 said that the proposal’s failure will not end efforts to reinstate affirmative action, but will “continue to bring light to and carry on the conversation” about racism and classism in America.

The proposition’s failure and the blooming legal obstacles to affirmative action, however, are indicating that enacting change won’t be easy.

Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs ruled in favor of Harvard in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University, allowing the university to continue its practice of affirmative action. Stanford joined 15 other elite universities in filing an amicus brief in support of Harvard’s admissions process. The plaintiffs, the Students for Fair Admissions group, appealed the case to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in September and are expected to appeal the case to the Supreme Court. Despite the court’s historic support for affirmative action, Gould warned of the possibility that “the Supreme Court is going to be increasingly hostile” in the future. He added that he has “a good deal of pessimism” about affirmative action’s legal battles on the national scale.

Alden O’Rafferty ’23, a student advocate for affirmative action, also expressed concern about the implications of the proposition’s failure in California and whether “spillover” to other states could occur and ultimately bring the ban to a federal level, since it would appear that “the liberals in California were on board.”

Despite these challenges, advocates are reaffirming the importance and necessity of diversity considerations in college admissions. 

“The argument that we should all be seen equally so that we can be judged on our merit is true if and only if everyone has equal opportunity,” Bacasen said. “The generational wealth and racism in this country make it so that it isn’t actually merit, it’s how much money your family has, that actually plays a role in whether students get into schools like Stanford.”

Stanford evaluates applicants holistically, aiming to enroll applicants of “diverse backgrounds and experiences, talents, academic interests and ways of viewing the world,” according to the University’s undergraduate admission website.

O’Rafferty said that affirmative action was important for “making the educational system more equitable,” especially given how education is a major determinant of “upward mobility” in America. 

In 2017, former Stanford economics professor Raj Chetty published a report alongside researchers from Brown University, UC-Berkeley and the U.S. Treasury Department that analyzed admissions data from top universities. It showed that under 5% of students at Ivy League schools and peer institutions come from families in the bottom 20% of the income distribution, while over 14% come from families in the top 1%.

The report also found that there were more students from the top 1% of the income bracket than there were students from the bottom 50%, and that students from the top 1% were around 77 times more likely to attend an elite private university compared to students from the bottom 20%.

Advocates point to studies that show that the policy has the potential to address some of these inequalities.

An April report, which examined 19 public universities in states that have banned affirmative action, found that the underrepresentation gap rose over one percentage point in the years immediately following the bans, and increased another percentage point in subsequent years. The underrepresentation gap refers to the proportional difference between minority college students and minority high school students, and is calculated by comparing the percentage of college students from underrepresented backgrounds to their percentage among high school graduates.

In California specifically, the study found that the underrepresentation gap at the UC-Berkeley rose nearly 5% the year after the ban was enacted, and reached 34.4% in 2015. Other University of California campuses experienced similar increases in underrepresentation. 

In contrast, opponents of the proposition argued that allowing universities to use affirmative action would actually lead to more discrimination. Some voters believed that the measure would lead to unfair preferential treatment for some groups and discrimination against others. Some Chinese-American voters in particular worried that it would lead to racial quotas on Asian-American students, although the Supreme Court ruled that such practices were unconstitutional in Regents of University of California v. Bakke.

O’Rafferty said that this confusion over what the proposition would actually do could have led to its defeat.

“I’m curious if people completely understood what it means,” O’Rafferty said. “I don’t know if people were saying, ‘Oh I don’t like affirmative action,’ or if it was people thinking that they were voting for making sure that people wouldn’t be discriminated against based on race.”

While she praised Stanford’s use of affirmative action, Bacasen said that the University could still further improve its admissions process, suggesting that it should “double down on its investment into its local communities.” She said that some students might be overlooked for “no reason other than where they live,” due to unequal opportunities in different school districts.

Stanford pays “careful attention to unique circumstances,” considering background, educational pathway and work and family responsibilities when evaluating applicants, according to the University.

“It’s very hard for the richest people in the world to know what the poorest people in the world experience,” Bacasen said. “That’s why you need diversity.”

Contact Jessica Zhu at jesszhu ‘at’

Jessica Zhu '24 is the executive editor for Vol. 264 and 265 and was formerly head copy editor and a desk editor for news. She studies international relations, human rights and French, and can probably be found at CoHo with a quad espresso.

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