To Dismantle Systemic Racism, Here's Why We Must Start With Affirmative Action In California
Proposition 16 is a California ballot measure that will restore affirmative action to better address discrimination against women and people of color.
September 24, 2020 at 5:29 pm
“It’s up to us to carry on the fight for justice. Our actions will be their legacies.”
Those are the words of George Floyd’s family during the Democratic National Convention, and they were ringing in my head as I started writing this article. Before I could even finish, police had shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back, then chained him to a hospital bed.
Floyd’s murder rallied millions of Americans to declare that Black lives matter, many of them for the first time. The attempt on Blake’s life reminded us that America has a long way to go before our deeds match our declarations.
It’s not enough to say Black lives matter. To honor the memories of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; of Ahmaud Arbery and Armando Guardado, and Sandra Bland, and so many others, we have to dismantle the systems that devalue not only Black and brown lives, but our education, our opportunity and our equality. We have to let our actions be their legacies. And it starts with voting this fall — not just in the Presidential race, but up and down the ballot.
Let’s be clear: no single policy or politician will come close to reversing centuries of structural racism. But in my home state of California, we have a chance to erase one of its repulsive vestiges by passing Prop 16 to end the state’s ban on affirmative action.
Despite its progressive image, California is one of just nine states in the country that prohibits affirmative action as a tool to level the playing field for women and people of color. The ban was passed in the 1990s along with attacks on bilingual education and the rights of undocumented immigrants. While the other measures have been reversed, the affirmative action ban stands tall, a monument to an era of ugly, race-baiting politics that some wish to rekindle today.
A quarter-century later, the ban is a blindfold, forcing our policymakers and institutions to ignore the reality that race matters. In truth, the shadow of systemic racism follows students of color, especially Black and Latinx students, from before they set foot in a classroom to the day they graduate college — if we give them the chance — and beyond.
Black students who have a Black teacher between kindergarten and third grade are 7% more likely to graduate from high school and 13% more likely to enroll in college. Yet more than half our public schools don’t have a single Black teacher. Latinx students are 54% of California public high school seniors but just 25% of University of California undergraduates. Black women earn 61 cents on the dollar compared to white men, and it’s even worse for Native women and Latinas.
I’m not naive. I don’t believe we will solve any of this overnight. But I know we can’t fix problems we refuse to see. Prop 16 is a concrete policy step we can take to combat structural racism. It’s a chance to recruit and retain teachers as diverse as their pupils; to direct funding to the classrooms that need it most; to open the doors of college opportunity to every student; to put another crack in the glass ceiling.
It’s also a chance to put action behind the credo that we are all created equal and equally deserving of a chance to live out our dreams. That, fundamentally, is what the Black lives matter movement is about to me — the simple desire for a recognition of our humanity.
It’s why we feel such rage when we see Jacob Blake chained to a bed while donations pour in for the white supremacist who murdered two people protesting in his memory. And it’s why losing Chadwick Boseman last month hurt so much. Each of his performances was a small act of revolution, forcing millions to acknowledge Black humanity.
In the wake of Boseman’s death, Black Panther director Ryan Coogler recounted their conversation just before the blockbuster’s premiere. “We’re about to make history,” Coogler said. “No,” Boseman replied. “We’re about to change the world.”
Boseman understood that ordinary people can do extraordinary things; that simple acts of humanity can alter the course of history. And that’s what we can do this year in California.
Elisha Smith Arrillaga is the Executive Director at The Education Trust.