New Poll: Californians, Like Most Americans, Oppose Race Preferences

The Public Policy Institute of California has just released a poll on Proposition 16, which would re-introduce affirmative action in the state by repealing the provision in the California constitution (put there by Proposition 209 in 1996) prohibiting state agencies, including colleges and universities, from preferential treatment based on race or ethnicity. The results may come as a surprise, at least to those not familiar with the history of polling on this issue.

When read the Proposition 16 ballot title and label, 31 percent of likely voters would vote yes, 47 percent would vote no, and 22 percent are undecided. More than four in ten Democratic likely voters (46%) would vote yes; majorities of Republicans (72%) and independents (58%) would vote no. Fewer than half of likely voters across all regional, demographic, and racial/ethnic groups (41% Latinos, 40% other racial/ethnic groups, 26% whites) say they would vote yes.

As various polls on affirmative action — many discussed in the link above — make clear, by substantial margins people do not support affirmative action when they realize it requires preferential treatment. Perhaps judges, such as those on the First Circuit now considering the appeal of SFFA v. Harvard, should take judicial notice of this fact.

In its article about the PPIC poll, the San Jose Mercury writes that “Proposition 16 is down by double digits, surprising many observers amid growing calls for racial justice.” One of those surprised observers quoted is PPIC president Mark Baldassare, who commented that “People aren’t making a connection between the racial justice issues that have certainly surfaced in the last few months and this particular ballot measure. To me that says a lot of people don’t know what it is. The proponents probably need to provide a bit of a history lesson around Prop 209.” And Baldassare is not alone.

Proposition 16 backers thought they might benefit from recent nationwide protests calling for an end to systemic racism. While the poll found that six in 10 Californians agree race relations in the U.S. has gotten worse in the last year, up 14 points from January 2019, residents don’t feel strongly about repealing a ban on affirmative action.

“I’m surprised by that,” [San Jose State emeritus Professor of Political Science Larry] Gerston said. “The state has turned so much on that issue in 30 years … and the demography of the state is considerably different today, so I’m scratching my head.”

To me, unlike Baldassare and Professor Gerston, the poll results say that a lot of people who should know better don’t realize that a) demanding that everyone be treated without regard to race is itself a call for racial justice; b) that the respondents who voted No to Prop. 16 understood perfectly well that it would bring back preferential treatment and don’t need a history lesson from the Baldassares; and c) that the state treating some better and some worse because of their race, i.e., racial discrimination, is no way to fight “systemic racism,” whatever that is.


In an article the next day, the Mercury News reported that “proponents of affirmative action are once again facing vocal resistance from some Asian American families — in particular, from more conservative recent Chinese American immigrants — who fear it will mean fewer spots for their children at top University of California schools.”

No surprise there, right? Wrong! There is a big surprise there, at least to those who have not followed this closely and/or are not familiar with my City Journal essay, “Merit, Contested.” Many of those active in the No on Proposition 16 campaign, the Mercury News noted, “downplayed the importance of college admissions in interviews.”

“Everyone knows that in the Asian community, that their kids have to be very, very good to get into a good college — that’s an open secret,” said Frank Xu, a San Diego IT consultant and member of the No campaign who came to the United States from China in 2005. “Proposition 16 will make it worse, but that’s not the biggest concern.”

Instead, Saga Conroy, another member of the opposition who immigrated to the United States from China in 2009, said she and other first-generation immigrants oppose affirmative action because it offends their more traditional notions of America as a land of equal opportunity, where anyone can make it if they work hard. The proposition’s supporters say that has never been the American reality and that systemic racism means that a level playing field is a myth. Conroy and others in the No campaign, which calls itself Californians for Equal Rights, disagree.

“California is so diverse, and we (treat) everyone equally,” she said. For immigrants, “Prop 16 doesn’t fit into their American journey.”

Readers of my City Journal essay, included here with some additional quotes, will be familiar with this argument that recent Asian immigrants, especially Chinese, are the most outspoken advocates of old-fashioned, traditional American values. From that essay:

Kan Qiu, a leader of the effort to preserve I-200 [a Washington state version of Prop. 209], had come to the United States after participating in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. “The reason I came here,” he told an interviewer, “is because people in America are treated equally. If we are seeing people segregated or discriminated against, based on race and skin color, that’s not right.”

Qiu was also inspired by the traditional American idea that success must be earned through hard work. “The government shouldn’t be passing over people who earn a place at school or a contract on merit,” he told the Bellingham Herald. “Are you going to punish the people who work harder?”

Linda Yang, another leader of the successful effort to save I-200, said in a radio interview that “people know if we are allowed to use race as a factor, our kids are going to be discriminated [against] . . . . We come here, we don’t have roots, we build everything from scratch, if we can do it, I think everybody can do it.”

Indeed, as I quoted from “The Rise and Fall of Affirmative Action” in the New Yorker, “it’s possible that immigrants are the only ones who speak about meritocracy and fairness without a trace of irony.”

In fact, it’s Baldassare and the proponents of racial preference who need a history lesson. They’ve forgotten that, until they came along, a traditional American core value was that Americans should be treated by the state “without regard” to race, religion, or ethnicity.


See also Ron Unz, “Will California Restore Affirmative Action?” Probably not, he says. (Thanks to Roger Clegg for the tip.)

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