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In this June 1, 2011 file photo a group of students walk through the Sather Gate on the University of California, Berkeley campus in Berkeley. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File) ORG XMIT: FX101

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD | |PUBLISHED: August 28, 2020 at 7:02 p.m. | UPDATED: August 28, 2020 at 7:02 p.m.

Diversity truly is California’s strength. From Californios and indigenous communities to Americans of all backgrounds who’ve settled here to ongoing rounds of Mexican, Latin American, African, Asian and European immigrants, the multitude of backgrounds and cultures make the Golden State what it is.

With every passing year, California’s civil service and public university systems reflect the diversity of the state. From 2014 to 2018 alone, the proportion of California’s state civil service that was non-White increased from 53.9 percent to 57.5 percent.

Likewise, the California State University rightfully boasts its status as one of the most diverse education systems in the country, with more than half of its students being students of color.

Similarly, the state’s prestigious University of California system reflects California’s incredible diversity. From 2015 to 2019 alone, the system saw significant increases in enrollment from students of African American, Latino and Asian backgrounds.

Both the UC and CSU systems have majority female enrollment, serve a large proportion of first generation college students and see continued gains in traditionally underrepresented minority enrollment. These are accomplishments to be proud of and to be built upon.

Despite this progress, Californians are presented with the argument that not only is California not doing enough to ensure diversity in public institutions, but is actually hindering it. The problem, according to state lawmakers and activists, is Proposition 209.

In 1996, California voters approved Prop. 209, which placed in the state constitution the following language: “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”

In doing so, voters affirmed the principle that government should judge people on equal terms and not on the basis of immutable characteristics. Preferentially treating members of some groups over others, purely on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin, has rightly been banned for over two decades in California thanks to Prop. 209.

Proposition 16, placed on the ballot by the Legislature, seeks to overturn Proposition 209 and by extension the principle that government should not preferentially treat certain groups over others.

But simple fact that both public employment and public university enrollment have continued to diversify even after passage of Prop. 209 contradicts the idea that Prop. 209 is an impermeable barrier to diversity and opportunity.  Public agencies and colleges alike have found ways to outreach to underrepresented groups without resorting to preferential treatment.

Supporters of Prop. 16 counter that Prop. 209 may not have suppressed the overall trend of increasing diversity, but that repealing Prop. 209 would make it easier to boost, for example, African American or Latino enrollment at CSUs or UCs. But this gets to two key points.

First is the core question of whether government should be in the business of advantaging some applicants over others simply on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin. Doing so necessarily means disadvantaging others on those same grounds. Should government be involved in advantaging some over others based on demographic information?

Second is whether doing so is the best way of achieving more diversity. We already know it’s not necessary for government to engage in preferential treatment to achieve diversity. As we’ve already noted, public employment and public colleges alike have seen continued gains in diversity.

To stick with higher education, if the goal is to boost enrollment for Black and Latino students in CSUs and UCs, there is no better starting point than ensuring that Black and Latino students graduate high school eligible to attend them. It’s no secret that poor students of all backgrounds, and especially poor Black and Latino students, are less likely to less likely to graduate high school having met the requirements for UC and CSU admissions.

Underprivileged and underrepresented Californians would be far better served by a more robust focus on improving K-12 education and ensuring more students graduate college-eligible, which in the long-run would greatly improve access to the CSU and UC system. Such an approach would deliver much better outcomes, without requiring government or public institutions to engage in preferential treatment.

Finally, supporters of overturning Prop. 209 argue that it disadvantages minority-owned businesses from receiving state contracts. However, this argument wrongly racializes state contracting. The purpose of state contracting is to deliver quality services to Californians at the best available cost, not to reward or disadvantage companies for having owners of particular backgrounds.

With or without Prop. 209, we can count on public institutions continuing to reflect the diversity of the state and continuing to provide opportunities to Californians of all backgrounds. California can continue to build on its reputation as a wonderfully diverse state without government judging people based on their race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.

Ultimately, we don’t think the case has been made for scrapping Prop. 209 and the fundamental principle of treating all people on equal terms.

Vote “no” on Prop. 16.