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The Dartmouth
June 13, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

The Politics of Proposition 209

The passage of Proposition 209 in California on Nov. 5 spurred a productive discussion on one of the most difficult issues in our country: racial and gender discrimination and its redress through affirmative action. I, like most Americans, oppose discrimination, believing that it is the core of most injustice in our society.

While I join the chorus, therefore, of those who oppose Proposition 209, I want to sound an alarm on another issue: dishonesty and deception in our political process.

The title of Proposition 209 is "Prohibition Against Discrimination or Preferential Treatment by State and Other Public Entities." On its face, it appeals to people who oppose the historic discrimination that affirmative action policies are designed to address.

This appeal has been borne out in polls prior to the California election and in the election itself. When voters were fully educated about the implications of the proposition, however, support dropped dramatically. The Los Angeles Times conducted polls of voters before and after a briefing by legal experts who described the import of the proposition -- the elimination of affirmative action programs designed to correct historic discrimination. Support for the proposition dropped from above 70 percent to 30 percent. In other words, once voters understood the proposition, they opposed it.

So what is going on? The supporters of Proposition 209 either oppose discrimination or they don't. If they believe affirmative action programs are themselves unjust, then they should examine recent law. The Supreme Court has set strict standards for race and gender-based differences. Affirmative action programs must be proven necessary to achieve a compelling interest.

Under these guidelines, the courts have struck down quota systems and other programs that unfairly impinge on the rights of others. Remaining affirmative action programs are largely based on efforts to find, recruit, prepare, and support qualified minority candidates who may not otherwise find their way to jobs, scholarships or schools.

If the supporters of Proposition 209 agree that eliminating discrimination is a compelling state interest, then current law is sufficient to justify affirmative action programs and to limit potential abuses. If they do not agree, then something else is going on.

The drafters of Proposition 209 crafted a statement that sounds like motherhood and apple pie. They carefully avoided explaining on the ballot the implications or the meaning of the Proposition. This is deceptive politics, not informed choice.