Prop. 209 Is a Fraud and Business Knows It


There’s only one thing voters need to remember about Proposition 209: It’s a fraud. It would not achieve the noble goal that it purports to accomplish, which is to end gender and racial discrimination in state education, hiring and contracts. Instead, its passage would make it harder for women and minorities by eliminating affirmative action.

Proposition 209 is not unlike the intentionally confusing, deceptive and ultimately failed ballot measure pushed by the tobacco industry two years ago. That so-called anti-smoking initiative was, in fact, an attempt to weaken every effective state anti-smoking law. Similarly, 209 would actually throw out one of the most effective civil rights tools available to open the doors of opportunity.

That’s not to say that affirmative action could not be improved. Many Californians know of someone who felt that a job or a college spot had been given to a less qualified woman or minority member. But bear in mind: A ban on discrimination based solely on race or gender--which Proposition 209 claims to achieve--already is state and federal law. Quotas also are illegal except in rare court-ordered circumstances. Affirmative action, properly implemented, merely opens opportunity to a broader range of qualified people. It’s needed because Americans know that although 97% of top corporate jobs are held by white men, they are not the only ones qualified for those positions. Something else is at work, and affirmative action breaks down that “something else.”


Affirmative action hasn’t been a cure-all but it has helped tremendously--and no group has benefited more than women. Six million working women wouldn’t have their jobs today without affirmative action, according to a 1995 study by a Rutgers University law professor. Women hold nearly 48% of all professional and managerial jobs, up from an estimated 25% two decades ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Women now earn on average 72% as much as men, compared to 60% in the mid-1970s.

Despite the progress, barriers persist. Elizabeth Dole’s 1995 federal bipartisan Glass Ceiling Commission report documented that 75% of women are clustered in the fields of education, health care, nonprofit organizations, finance, real estate, insurance and retailing.

Voters might assume that because 209 is aimed at banning affirmative action in the public sector, it would not adversely affect the private sector. That’s not necessarily so.

The measure, which is offered as a state constitutional amendment, poses indirect risks to business. Many high-tech firms are worried that 209 would jeopardize the nationally acclaimed public-private partnership called Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement. MESA has been, since 1970, a major instrument for grooming women, Latinos, African Americans and Native Americans for studies and careers in math, science and engineering. The program, which currently serves more than 21,000 inner-city and rural students, brings school districts, community colleges and California universities together with industry and foundation partners, such as the Ahmanson Foundation, Arco, Bechtel, Hewlett-Packard, Pacific Gas & Electric, the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, Southern California Edison, Walt Disney Imagineering and many others statewide. Why put such a successful program at risk?

Business, by and large, remains on the sidelines, perhaps fearful because Gov. Pete Wilson attacked Pacific Gas & Electric for opposing 209. Most major firms, like PG&E;, value voluntary affirmative action programs because qualified female, Latino, black, Asian American and Native American employees help them reach different customers and capitalize on the state’s fast-changing demographics. In short, affirmative action helps the bottom line. The California Business Roundtable, which represents 75 of the state’s largest corporations, has taken no position on 209 but stands behind the organization’s strong pro-affirmative-action statement of last year. “It is our belief that affirmative action, properly implemented, is neither a system of mandatory quotas or set-asides. It is not about employing unqualified people; it is about opening up the system to all and providing a climate where everyone has a chance to succeed according to their efforts and abilities. And, opening the system to all may require recruitment and training efforts, especially for those historically denied opportunity.”

In California today, women own nearly 1.1 million businesses, or 38% of all firms. California ranks first among the 50 states in the number of women-owned firms and is first in employment and sales for such firms. California businesses owned by Latinos, Asian Americans and African Americans account for about 25% of all firms in the state. Yet women and minority-owned businesses still struggle to get public contracts. In Los Angeles, for example, women-owned construction companies received about 6 cents of every county construction contracting dollar in fiscal 1992-93. Latino contractors received about 4 cents, blacks less than a penny and Asian American and Native American contractors combined received about half a cent.


As Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who opposes 209, describes the initiative, “It takes one of our greatest assets, our diversity, and tries to turn it into a liability.” When Arizona voters rejected a state holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it created a liability for the state; the National Football League yanked the Super Bowl, and many conventions refused to meet in Arizona. Might California be shunned if it repudiates the nation’s 30-year commitment to keeping its doors of opportunity open to all?

California is grappling with the challenges of being the nation’s most diverse state. These challenges are hard ones. But Proposition 209 would only exacerbate divisiveness--without reducing discrimination. Vote no on 209.