As the tragically long list of Black men and women shot or killed by the police grows even longer, more and more people are having to confront the fact that racism in America is not an accident or a self-contained problem. It is deep-rooted, human-made, and our nation’s most shameful legacy. Building racist systems took deliberate effort, and dismantling them will, too. This fall, voters in California have an opportunity to do just that by voting yes on Proposition 16 and ending a quarter-century-old ban on affirmative action.
When California passed its affirmative action ban in 1996, proponents argued that doing so would allow us to live in a state that was truly colorblind when it came to schools, jobs and government contracts. Instead, for the last 24 years, the ban has forced public institutions to turn a blind eye to the very real impact of racism and discrimination in our state.
Over the past several months, the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis have cast a bright light on the devastating consequences of persistent inequality in jobs, health care, education and housing. In 2020, women in California still earn less than 80 cents for every dollar a white man makes, with women of color and single moms making even less than that. While Latinx individuals now make up more than half of our state’s public-school students, they’re still just 25% of University of California undergraduates. In the years since affirmative action was banned, admission rates at UC campuses dropped by 26% for Black and Latinx students.
Today, California is one of just nine states that bans affirmative action as a tool to fight discrimination. That means we’re losing out on the chance to level the playing field by combating historic disadvantages so everyone, regardless of race or gender, can compete on equal footing for hiring, promotions, education and contracts. It’s also just bad business. Many California-based companies want to build diverse workforces that will make us stronger, smarter and more competitive with organizations across the country and world. There is simply no excuse for the most diverse and innovative state in the country to lag behind.
As President and CEO of Levi Strauss & Co., I made a commitment earlier this year to do the work necessary to get our house in order and build a more diverse, inclusive workforce. I also doubled down on our company’s commitment to doing our part to combat racist systems that harm communities we serve. Our company has always sought to promote equality and opportunity, and that work is more important than ever. That is why LS&Co. is endorsing Proposition 16. It is rare for our company to endorse a ballot initiative, but we would not be staying true to our values and our commitments to fighting for racial justice if we didn’t speak out about this crucial issue in our own backyard.
This summer, organizations all over the state similarly announced their own commitments to building more diverse workforces. So I hope other California businesses will join us in supporting Proposition 16. We all have a responsibility to see our commitments through and ensure that everyone in California has an equal shot at fair wages, good jobs and quality schools.
In the midst of a pandemic, an economic crisis and a long-overdue reckoning with racism, we’ve been reminded just how far we still have to go to build a California and an America where everyone has an equal shot at opportunity. We know better today than we did when our state voted to ban affirmative action. Now, we have to do better. Voting yes on Prop 16 won’t solve structural racism in California, but it will put us on a path to making that possible.