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Opinion: Prop. 16 gives equal opportunity a much-needed do-over

Prop. 16's passage would reduce racist barriers

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In November, California voters will be asked to vote on Proposition 16, which will allow state and local governments to use equal-opportunity policies to promote good jobs, good wages and quality schools for everyone. California has needed this for some time, but the Covid-19 crisis made it urgent, and the police killing of George Floyd this spring Minneapolis illuminated the necessity of dismantling systemic racism.

The authors of this article witnessed this issue with their own eyes. Debra Gore-Mann's daughter was born in the spring of 1996, the same year the United States hosted the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. The world could see all the strong females of color who won so many gold medals. At that time, while not perfect, the country held so much promise for a small, brown baby with hope in her eyes. Eva Paterson grew up when "separate but equal" was the law of the land. She remembers being accepted into UC Berkeley Law through an affirmative-action program, which provided her the opportunity—but she cracked the books, did the work and passed the bar exam on her first try.

Then, in November 1996, Prop. 209 was approved, amending California's state constitution to prohibit state institutions from considering diversity, specifically in the areas of public employment, public contracting and public education. The passage of Prop. 209 greatly reduced opportunities for families of color like ours.

Many attempts were made over the years to restore equal-opportunity policies. Now, thanks to years of dedicated work, the Legislature has overwhelmingly voted to let Californians consider a ballot measure—Prop. 16—to right this wrong. It's time to put race on the table. This country is not colorblind, we are not post-racial. Our country is having a reckoning and systemic racism will no longer be allowed to oppress people of color. We need Prop. 16 because too many Californians face discriminatory barriers that prevent them from getting state contracts, employment, promotions and educational opportunities because of their race, ethnicity or gender.

Covid-19 has exposed the structural inequality that communities of color face in our country. Data from the California health department show that Blacks and Latinx people are dying from coronavirus at disproportionately higher rates. Across the U.S., Black, Latinx, Indigenous and Pacific Islander Americans continue to die at a higher rate than whites. The true impact on Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, especially immigrants, is largely unknown, as diverse, disparate Asian American communities still get lumped together.

The pandemic also created an economic crisis. Blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans experience worse job losses than whites, with Black-owned businesses nearly three times as likely to fold as white-owned companies. While over $650 billion was set aside for federal small-business support, only about 12 percent of businesses owned by people of color reportedly received the help they needed. The Greenlining Institute believes that figure may be less than 5 percent in California.

Furthermore, our country has an alarming gender wage gap, with women—especially women of color—receiving less pay than their male counterparts. The upending of industries such as food service and travel put women of color at particular risk for unemployment during this crisis.

Race and gender problems can't be fixed by ignoring race and gender. California must be able to allocate resources to make sure those who are disproportionately impacted receive the resources they need. Even before the pandemic, businesses owned by women and people of color lacked access to capital and other resources, and could not be targeted directly by state agencies because of Prop. 209. The Equal Justice Society found that, as of 2015, businesses owned by women and people of color lost $1 billion in revenue and growth each year.

We are living in a historic moment. Our shared values and our diverse communities today are under attack in America. White supremacists march, Black people are murdered, Latino immigrants are demonized, Covid-19 ravages Native American communities, hate crimes against Asian Americans are on the rise, and many of us fear for our safety because of who we are. We must fight to build a California and a country where Black lives matter and where our systems of justice are free of systemic racism. This moment can only be fully answered by reinstating affirmative action. Vote "yes" on Prop. 16.

Debra Gore-Mann is president and CEO of The Greenlining Institute. Eva Paterson is president and co-founder of the Equal Justice Society. Opinions are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect those of East Bay Express.

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