Home Finance How a ban on affirmative action shaped this California councilwoman’s life

How a ban on affirmative action shaped this California councilwoman’s life

by CoinNews

As she sat on the California reparations task force for two years and heard story after story about stolen property, dashed hopes and lost opportunity, San Diego Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe thought about how her own story had been shaped by anti-Black policies and the very issues the task force was responsible for addressing.

Specifically, the councilwoman realized more fully how Proposition 209, which in the late 1990s banned race- and gender-based affirmative action in public education, public employment and government contracting in the state, had affected the course of her life.

Her parents had a successful construction business, and as African Americans, they’d been helped by affirmative action in securing contracts they otherwise wouldn’t have, she said.

“They were very well-qualified and knew their craft,” Montgomery Steppe said in an interview with MarketWatch this week. “They worked together as a married couple to build the business. They wanted to pass something on to us. It was their dream.”

But as she was going off to college, California voters approved Prop. 209, which she said cut off her parents’ access to contracts and devastated their business. They weren’t the only ones: Studies of Prop. 209’s impact have shown this is a common occurrence in the construction industry, where the hiring of women and people of color has decreased when there are no affirmative-action programs in place.

Since its implementation in 1997, the ballot proposition has resulted in businesses owned by people of color and women losing out on at least $1 billion in potential contract money a year, according to some estimates, not to mention impacts on education in the form of decreased college enrollment by Black and Latino students.

Among the many recommendations of the country’s first state-level reparations task force is to repeal Prop. 209, which its proponents presented as a battle against what they deemed to be the unfairness of affirmative action, and a step toward a race-blind society.

Monica Montgomery Steppe, president pro tem of the San Diego City Council and California reparations task force member, said the repeal of affirmative action deeply affected her life.

Monica Montgomery Steppe

As part of the effort to communicate to the public the state law’s effects and why it’s important to repeal it for equity’s sake — the reparations task force’s final report shows plenty of evidence of persistent racial disparities in wages, education, wealth and other areas — Montgomery Steppe recognizes the power of getting stories like hers told.

“So many people in California who are descendants of enslaved people can make these connections in our lives to show why this work is so important,” she said. “We have to tie [these stories] into a larger theme: that we still have a racist system. … We have to not blame that on individuals, but the system.”

Montgomery Steppe said that as her parents’ business was going under, she went to Spelman College “as a healthy 18-year-old,” but had to work and go to school full time. “I was in Atlanta, thousands of miles away from my parents, who were also struggling,” she said.

The stress must have caused her health to deteriorate, she said, and at 20 years old she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. She had to return to San Diego, where her parents and extended family were, while trying to finish college. Remote learning was not common in that pre-pandemic time, and there wasn’t necessarily an infrastructure in place for it, she said. Still, her professors accommodated her needs and she finished her degree.

Montgomery Steppe continued to deal with illness for years, but she went on to finish law school as well. After stints serving at the American Civil Liberties Union and working for other elected officials, she is now San Diego City Council president pro tem. Her “resilient” parents have since rebuilt their business, she said, and her brother is about to take it over.

Her and her family’s story could have been worse. But “a lot of [people in the] African-American community, we have to dust ourselves off and keep going,” she said.

As a city councilmember, Montgomery Steppe has pushed for a study on disparities in city contracts and established a race and equity office. She also plans to continue to do her part in trying to repeal Prop. 209, and in pushing for the implementation of the task force’s sweeping reparations recommendations, which include monetary compensation and policy changes related to health, education, the justice system and more.

Like many of the other eight appointed task-force members, she said in June at the group’s last meeting — held the same day the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions — that it is her most impactful work.

See: How college admissions will change in America after the Supreme Court knocked down affirmative action

“[Reparations could mean] that my nephews and my stepchildren, and their children, may not have to suffer the way I have had to,” she said, adding that she knows her suffering was less than that of members of previous generations of her family, including her enslaved great-great-grandmother. “That’s what this fight is about.”

From the archives (March 2023): Reparations proposal in California will include a new ‘Freedmen’s Bureau’

From the archives (January 2023): How to pay for reparations in California? ‘Swollen’ wealth could replace ‘stolen’ wealth through taxes.

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