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Social justice without fairness

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By Jason Lim

Over 56 percent of California voters rejected Prop. 16 in a state that voted overwhelmingly (65 percent) for Joe Biden. This was a resounding defeat for a supposedly "progressive" ballot box initiative that would "allow diversity as a factor in public employment, education, and contracting decisions."

According to California's voter guide webpage, "A YES vote on this measure means: State and local entities could consider race, sex, color, ethnicity, and national origin in public education, public employment, and public contracting to the extent allowed under federal and state law." To support, the argument states that Prop. 16 "expands equal opportunity to all Californians, increasing access to fair wages, good jobs and quality schools for everyone. Prop. 16 fights wage discrimination and systemic racism, opening up opportunities for women and people of color."

A little history helps us to understand the context better. Back in 1996, California became the first state to pass Proposition 209 that banned the consideration of race and sex in public employment, contracting and education. Prop. 16 sought to overturn Prop. 209, in effect reinstituting affirmative action.

The Prop. 16 argument directly resonates the social justice themes that became one of the biggest issues of 2020 after a series of high-profile police brutality incidents against Black men. So, its defeat was certainly a surprise, especially in a Democratic state in which, according to the Pew Research Center, 78 percent of the Democrat-leaning voters have expressed their belief that America still hasn't gone far enough to address Black people having equal rights as whites. This was up from 66 percent in 2019.

Proponents for Prop. 16 have been expressing their disappointment and suggesting reasons for its defeat. Some rue the fact that California isn't as progressive as they thought it might be. Others blame the lack of time to properly educate voters on what Prop. 16 means and how it would be good for them. Still others point to the plethora of competing ballot initiatives that crowded out the limited attention bandwidth of the voters, especially the noise surrounding the proposition that would determine whether gig workers were employees or not.

Without going into the actual merit of Prop. 16, let's examine these excuses that are put forward. It isn't difficult to note a common theme: a certain undercurrent of condescension and disdain for the voters by the proponents. Basically, it's either, "you're not woke enough," "you're too stupid to understand that this is good for you" or "you're easily distracted by other shiny things." It's like an artist dissing an indifferent audience for being incapable of appreciating the real genius that the artwork represents. Forever victimized by everyone else's lack of taste and idiocy. It smacks of clueless and privileged elitism. It's hubris.

Now let's apply the smell test to the substance of the proposition. Cast aside all the euphemisms and noble language, it basically asks voters to permit a discriminatory practice ― based on race ― to address systemic racism. It's circular logic. Let's racially discriminate in order to end racial discrimination.

I know that I am simplifying for the sake of the argument, but I am not trying to be facetious. I am also not blind ― as I am sure that California voters aren't ― to the racial disparities in the economic and health strains that have been highlighted by the pandemic. Most people in California and other states would agree that systemic racism exists, mostly due to the sins of omission in which the foundational structures that undergird how Americans are nurtured, educated and cared for were originally designed with only the whites in mind.

But recognizing that the problem exists and asking people to agree to solve it via what looks like an attempt at social engineering are two different things. Voters have a right to be suspicious of bureaucrats and administrators tilting the playing field, even if it tilts toward them. Further, Prop. 16's argument runs smack against one of the most sacred values that drives American society: fairness. In other words, the belief that if you work hard enough to win out against competition, then you deserve the prize. Prop. 16 seems to want to punish well-earned success, especially against Asian American students.

Sure, there are structural barriers for specific demographics to even enter the competition. However, addressing who gets the prize by gaming the results rather than working to dismantle the structural barriers feels both superficial and lazy. It also denigrates the hard work that Californians of all color have put in to overcome their own barriers and earn the prize. If it passed, Prop. 16 could potentially have addressed the social justice goals by rebalancing the racial makeup in California's most competitive colleges, but it wouldn't necessarily be fair. We know that the ends don't justify the means, because an unfair means will not lead to a sustainable end.

Jason Lim ( is a Washington, D.C.-based expert on innovation, leadership and organizational culture.


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