California voters to decide fate of affirmative action ban

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State Sen. Steve Bradford, D-Gardena, center, raises his fist in celebration as the Senate approves a measure to place a proposed Constitutional amendment on the November ballot to overturn its ban on affirmative action programs, at the Capitol, in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, June 24, 2020. California has banned it's public universities and government agencies from considering race in their admissions and hiring decisions since 1996. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California's 1996 ban on affirmative action policies will be tested at ballot box in November as voters will decide whether governments and public colleges and universities can consider race in their hiring and admissions decisions — all against the backdrop of a presidential election and cultural upheaval over racial injustice.

California has banned affirmative action since 1996, when 55% of voters approved a constitutional amendment that made it illegal to give preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.

Wednesday, the state Senate voted 30-10 to repeal that amendment, although voters must approve in November before it can become law.

The 1996 amendment came at a time when Republicans ruled the state and was just two years removed from a separate voter-approved amendment — eventually overturned by the courts — that would have banned immigrants living in the country illegally form using public schools and other state services. Seven other states eventually followed California's lead on banning affirmative action policies: Washington, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, New Hampshire and Oklahoma.

Since then, Hispanics surpassed whites in 2015 as California's largest ethnic group and voters have booted Republicans from statewide offices and relegated them to inconsequential numbers in the state Legislature. But critics say disparities still exist in government contracting and college admissions, arguing the ban allows racial biases to continue without programs and policies designed to correct it.

That includes the offices of state lawmakers, according to state Sen. Steven Bradford, who called out some of his white colleagues who he says “have never hired a black person, and probably never will.”

“We’re race conscious in everything we do,” said Bradford, who is Black. “Quit lying to yourselves and saying race is not a factor.”

Republicans scoffed at repealing a law that they say bans racial discrimination, with Republican Sen. Melissa Melendez saying she believes “this is the least racist country on the planet" — earning a rare public rebuke from fellow Sen. Connie Leyva, a Democrat from Chino.