California Democratic Leaders Are “Shook” that Voters in Their “Liberal Bastion” Prefer Merit Instead of Affirmative Action

(p. 1) The 2020 campaign to restore race-conscious affirmative action in California was close to gospel within the Democratic Party. It drew support from the governor, senators, state legislative leaders and a who’s who of business, nonprofit and labor elites, Black, Latino, white and Asian.

The Golden State Warriors, San Francisco Giants and 49ers and Oakland Athletics urged voters to support the referendum, Proposition 16, and remove “systemic barriers.” A commercial noted that Kamala Harris, then a U.S. senator, had endorsed the campaign, and the ad also suggested that to oppose it was to side with white supremacy. Supporters raised many millions of dollars for the referendum and outspent opponents by 19 to 1.

“Vote for racial justice!” urged the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

None of these efforts persuaded Jimmie Romero, a 63-year-old barber who grew up in the working-class Latino neighborhood of Wilmington in Los Angeles. Homelessness, illegal dumping, spiraling rents: He sat in his shop and listed so many problems.

Affirmative action was not one of those.

“I was upset that they tried to push that,” Mr. Romero recalled in a recent interview. “It was not what matters.”

Mr. Romero was one of millions of California voters, including about half who are Hispanic and a majority who are Asian American, who voted against Proposition 16, which would have restored race-conscious admissions at public universities, and in government hiring and contracting.

The breadth of that rejection shook supporters. California is a liberal bastion and one of the most diverse states in the country.

. . .

(p. 12) Valerie Contreras, a crane operator, is a proud union member and civic leader in Wilmington, where half the voters were against the referendum. She had little use for the affirmative action campaign.

“It was ridiculous all the racially loaded terms Democrats used,” she said. “It was a distraction from the issues that affect our lives.”

Asian voters spoke of visceral unease. South and East Asians make up just 15 percent of the state population, and 35 percent of the undergraduates in the University of California system.

Affirmative action, to their view, upends traditional measures of merit — grades, test scores and extracurricular activities — and threatens to reduce their numbers.

Sunjay Muralitharan is a voluble freshman and a leader of the Democratic Party chapter at the University of California, San Diego. A Bernie Sanders supporter, he favors universal basic income, a higher minimum wage and national health care.

In 2020, as a 16-year-old, he joined the campaign against race-conscious affirmative action in California. Afterward, he and friends applied to elite private universities outside California and were often surprised by the rejections, reaffirming his view that Asian students need higher grades and scores to gain admission.

“There were lots of students of Indian and Chinese descent who had to settle for schools not of their caliber,” said Mr. Muralitharan, who grew up in Fremont, a predominantly Asian middle-class suburb of San Jose.

. . .

Kevin Liao, a consultant and former top Democratic Party aide, . . . was not surprised, . . ., that many Asian Americans balked. “The notion that you would look at anything other than pure academic performance is seen by immigrants as antithetical to American values,” he said.

For the full story, see:

Michael Powell and Ilana Marcus. “The Affirmative Action Vote That Divided California Democrats.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, June 11, 2023): 1 & 12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated June 5, 2023, and has the title “The Failed Affirmative Action Campaign That Shook Democrats.” The online version says that the print version had the title “California Vote Exposed a Divide Amid Democrats” but my national print version had the title “The Affirmative Action Vote That Divided California Democrats.”)

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