California is historically one of the most diverse states in the country.
Despite its deep roots in the Latino, Asian, Black and Indigenous cultures, diversity is also one of the most politicized and contentious topics in the state.
By all accounts, this year has been a deeply tense year that reignited anti-Asian attitudes related to the fallacious COVID-19 conspiracy theories, health and economic disparities that disproportionately harm Black and brown communities and the conversation on systemic anti-Blackness stemmed from recent killings of unarmed Black individuals.
By sheer coincidence, California voters will be voting on a ballot measure in November that seeks to reduce racial discrimination on an institutional level.
Proposition 16 is a ballot measure that seeks to reverse a 1996 bill that banned affirmative action, a practice of favoring people who belong to historically disenfranchised groups, as the Asian Journal previously reported.
Affirmative action is most commonly referred to in the contexts of hiring personnel and college admissions, but it also factors in how government contracts are allocated to businesses across the state.
Many disagree over whether Prop 16 actually helps to alleviate or propagate racial and gender discrimination, but what both sides can agree on is that discrimination against minority groups that stifles their opportunity for success is wrong.
In a virtual panel on Thursday, Sept. 10, community leaders, business owners and elected officials who support Prop 16 gathered to talk about the ways in which the ballot measure can help minority-owned small businesses.
“I really do think that it puts and creates equal opportunity for businesses and provides an opportunity for businesses that have been at it for a long time but can’t seem to get the opportunity to win contracts that allow them to do government projects,” said California Assemblymember Ash Kalra (D-District 27).
Kalra served for eight years on the San Jose City Council and was also on the Caltrain Board of Directors where he gave out hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts. He saw, firsthand, how easily big name “legacy” companies would win government contracts while minority and women-led businesses “would be locked out.”
“With these contracts, I think you will see that we’ll have the opportunity to truly build an economy that works for everyone as well,” Kalra said.
According to Pat Fong Kushida, president and CEO of CalAsian Chamber, in the San Francisco metropolitan area, Asian American-owned businesses were given only 6% of public contracts and 7% of total contracting dollars. For perspective, Asian Americans represent 33% of San Francisco’s population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau. (Numbers for the recent census survey have not been counted and finalized.)
“It’s been very, very difficult still to get contracts into the hands of minority-owned businesses and a lot of it has to do with not only historical bias in this area, but also, frankly, the ability to scale, the ability to attract the type of investment and the type of capital needed to grow your business in order to be able to compete effectively and the ability to break up contracts in such a way that folks can effectively compete,” Fong Kushida said.
Prop 16 has become one of the most divisive ballot measures on the upcoming California ballot, and a common critique among supporters and critics is the bill’s vague, nebulous language that provides very little detail about how the measure would be utilized in the private sector for small minority-owned businesses.
But supporters like Kalra and Fong Kushida believe that it’s a start in the right direction.
Fong Kushida pointed out that compliance and accountability are also key and if Prop 16 is to be passed, saying data about the businesses that are actually given contracts should be disseminated. When government agencies, like the Public Utility Commission, for example, say that they’ve met the goals stipulated by Prop 16, they need to provide receipts, Fong Kushida said.
“If Prop 16 passes, I think, to the nearest point, that aggregation of data needs to be disseminated,” she said. “If you really start to take a look at that data and dig deep, how many businesses at a certain level did they actually contract? What are the strategies that we are going to hold policymakers accountable to ensure that Prop 16 isn’t just an exercise in data?”
The ways in which Prop 16 works could be discretionary to each industry, Virginia Gomez, president and CEO of Southern California Minority Supplier Development Council said.
The nitty-gritty of each business and each sector of industries like construction and tech operate differently, and Prop 16 — while it isn’t the definitive solution — is a start to ensuring business owners of all backgrounds are given equal access to contracts, Gomez said.
“Prop 16 is just the beginning point and unless it’s going to have more teeth than just a reporting climate [in which policymakers that make out these contracts only report percentages], I want to see where the compliance piece comes in, and I really want to have a discussion about what industries we’re going to focus in on,” Gomez said.