Proposition 209

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PROPOSITION 209, a California initiative constitutional amendment, was a November 1996 ballot measure to end affirmative action in state programs. This measure was part of a national debate in the 1990s and of a Republican Party drive to end all affirmative action programs in California. Officially the "Prohibition Against Discrimination or Preferential Treatment by State and Other Public Entities" measure, it was the handiwork of Ward Connerly, a conservative African American businessman on the University of California Board of Regents, together with Governor Pete Wilson and Attorney General Dan Lungren. Preferential admissions practices at the University of California were annual targets for critics of the system, particularly Connerly.

The public campaign was well funded. Supporters raised 5 million mostly Republican dollars, and opponents filled their chest with a similar amount from Democrats, unions, and feminists. The battle line between conservatives and liberals was clear. Although big business did not play a significant role in the campaign, national politics did. This was a presidential election year and the Republican candidate, Bob Dole, needed California. He came to California and spoke in favor of Proposition 209, a reversal of his prior support for affirmative action. The supporters of the Democratic candidate, Bill Clinton, and liberals called for the preservation of affirmative action as part of a civil rights ideology. The national rhetoric had a distinctly California twang with Protestants decisively in favor, Roman Catholics in the middle, and Jews slightly on the other side. African American and Hispanic voters decisively opposed Proposition 209, but 55 percent of the voters put it into law, at least for a day.

One day after the election, a federal civil rights suit on behalf of female and minority contractors, labor unions, and students found its way into court. Governor Wilson moved quickly to petition the federal judge to stay proceedings to allow the state courts to rule on the proposition. The court denied the governor and issued a temporary restraining order against the governor and attorney general because of the strong probability that the initiative was unconstitutional. The Clinton administration joined the suit against Wilson and Proposition 209, but in April 1997 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the trial judge, ruling Proposition 209 to be constitutional. In November 1997 the U.S. Supreme Court let stand the Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.

The correlation between the votes in favor of Proposition 187, the measure designed to drive illegal immigrants out of the state, and Proposition 209 was later manifested in the votes for Proposition 227 to end bilingual education in California's public schools. Research has demonstrated that increased wealth, increased education, and urban residency made one most likely to support such sociocultural measures. The old progressive politics designed to minimize the impact of political parties and make direct popular government possible came home to roost in urbanizing Eden.


Allswang, John M. The Initiative and Referendum in California, 1898–1998. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Chávez, Lydia. The Color Bind: California's Battle to End Affirmative Action. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Gordon MorrisBakken

See alsoAffirmative Action ; California Higher Educational System .