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An effort to undo a California ban on racial discrimination is floundering.

By William McGurnSept. 21, 2020 7:10 pm ET

It was supposed to be a rout. Yet only six weeks from the election, a progressive piety is now withering on California’s November ballot. The Los Angeles Times summed up the startling news in a headline: “New poll finds shaky support for Proposition 16 to restore affirmative action in California.”

Proposition 16 would excise from California’s constitution the 1996 ban on racial discrimination in public employment, contracting and education. Only a few months ago the stars seemed aligned for a “yes” vote: Its backers enjoy a massive advantage in fundraising and high-profile endorsements from California Democrats such as vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris and Gov. Gavin Newsom, as well as support from teachers unions and professional sports teams. Even coronavirus contributed by helping the measure sail through the Legislature and onto the ballot without the more robust debate it might have received in normal times.

Meanwhile, the No on 16 campaign may be outgunned but it is long on energy and principle. Astoundingly for deep-blue California, it appears to be winning the argument. A Sept. 13 Public Policy Institute of California poll reports only 31% of likely voters saying they would vote for Proposition 16, while 47% would vote against it. That left 22% undecided.

“Some explaining needs to be done if the proponents have any hopes of seeing this passed in November,” says Mark Baldassare, the institute president. But Gail Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego who sits on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and co-chairs the No on 16 campaign, isn’t so sure: “The plainer the issue is made to California voters, the more they will oppose it.”

Maybe that’s why Team Yes has opted to obscure what Proposition 16 really does. Start with the initiative itself. Here’s the language in the constitution it would repeal: “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 choosing a title for the measure, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra could have made it clear that Proposition 16 would cut this provision from the constitution. Instead, the official title is deliberately vague: “Allows Diversity as a Factor in Public Employment, Education and Contracting Decisions.” As if banning racial discrimination somehow forbids diversity.

So what explains the people’s resistance? Certainly much of it comes from California’s Asian-American community, some of whom have become politically active for the first time. But Asian-Americans account for only 15% or so of the state’s population. The Public Policy Institute of California poll suggests many non-Asians also have strong doubts about returning to race preferences in state decisions.

As dubious as Proposition 16 is on its face, it is especially noxious in California given the state’s history of anti-Asian bias. In the late 19th century the Golden State was an early champion of the Chinese Exclusion Act and passed other discriminatory legislation targeting Chinese workers.

At this time California was also home to the Workingmen’s Party, a labor organization whose leader was famous for his slogan “The Chinese must go.” And only this year did the California Assembly pass a resolution apologizing for its discrimination against Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Affirmative action, promoted in the name of diversity, is nowhere near as intentionally malicious as any of these historical anti-Asian efforts. But its effects are nasty and unfair. Just ask the family of the Chinese-American high-school grad who doesn’t get into a top university, for which she is more than qualified, because of her skin color. What could be a clearer example of “systemic racism”?

In the lack of tolerance for Asian-Americans asserting themselves, moreover, today’s progressives can be as indelicate as any 19th-century pol. According to Politico, after a newly awakened Asian-American community rallied in 2014 to beat back an earlier effort to repeal the constitution’s prohibition against racial preferences, California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia told her Democratic caucus, “This makes me feel like I want to punch the next Asian person I see in the face.” Ms. Garcia, re-elected since her comments surfaced in 2018, is today a proud “yes” vote.

So what’s the strategy going forward? A fundraising email from Yes on 16 acknowledged dispiriting poll results but said that “support surges” once Californians learn that Proposition 16 is supported by Ms. Harris and Mr. Newsom while “opposed by Donald Trump and white supremacists.” Never mind that Mr. Trump has nothing to do with Proposition 16 and hasn’t said a word about it.

Even so, given the president’s deep unpopularity in California and that 1 in 5 voters remain undecided, such a campaign may work. But it requires California voters to buy the new progressive argument that Asian-Americans fighting for equal treatment are in fact agents of white supremacy.

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Main Street: Civil-rights champion Ward Connerly has joined Asian-Americans in their fight against efforts to repeal Proposition 209, which makes it illegal for California to consider race in deciding who is admitted to state universities. Images: AP/WSJ Composite: Mark Kelly

About this article

Main Street

“Main Street” aims to bring home the radical strengths and beauty of the American experiment, most keenly for those without wealth or connections. The column appears each Monday night online, and in Tuesday’s paper.

William McGurn

William McGurn is a member of The Wall Street Journal editorial board and writes the weekly “Main Street” column for the Journal each Tuesday. Previously he served as Chief Speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

Mr. McGurn has served as chief editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal in New York. He spent more than a decade overseas — in Brussels for The Wall Street Journal/Europe and in Hong Kong with both the Asian Wall Street Journal and the Far Eastern Economic Review. And in the mid-1990s, he was Washington Bureau Chief for National Review.

Bill is author of a book on Hong Kong (“Perfidious Albion”) and a monograph on terrorism (“Terrorist or Freedom Fighter”). He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, holds a BA in philosophy from Notre Dame and an MS in Communications from Boston University.+ Show MoreLearn more about WSJ Opinion here