The Defeat of Prop 54

Against the Current, No. 107, November/December 2003

Malik Miah

IN A STUNNING outcome on October 7, California’s voters rejected by a five-to- three margin (63 to 37 percent) the so-called “Racial Privacy Initiative.”

“We are delighted,” said Eva Patterson, executive director of the Equal Justice Society. “The people of California rejected being blinded to race. They recognized there were health implications. It is a great day for civil rights.”

While most people in the country — and world — focused on the recall of Democratic Governor Gray Davis, and the election of Republican actor-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger, the most important political issue facing voters, the one that would have the most impact long-term, was Proposition 54.

Drafted and aggressively promoted by University of California Regent Ward Connerly, the Initiative would have prohibited city, county and state governments from gathering racial and ethnic data about residents. As Patterson noted, its biggest immediate impact would be on health care providers.

Connerly, an African-American conservative and opponent of affirmative action and any programs seeking to end racial discrimination by recognizing that racism is still prevalent in society, pledged that he would rewrite the initiative and seek a new vote in the future. Connerly said, “You must frame the issue the right way.”

Why Prop 54 Lost

One central reason the so-called “colorblind” proposition failed was a decision by all the major recall candidates, including Schwarzenegger, to oppose the initiative. Heath organizers also took the lead to explain how the lack of racial and ethnic data would undermine health care.

Moreover, the center of political discussion was the real economy and failures of Gray Davis in office. Proposition 54, as a wedge issue, would have undermined Schwarzenegger’s ability to win more liberal voters. Only the ultraright wing of the Republican Party actively backed the proposition.

The political arguments were so transparent that most voters didn’t believe them. Take for example supporters’ claim that the only way to end discrimination and bring about a “colorblind” and “race neutral” society is to stop collecting racial data.

Almost every American, including African Americans, favors a colorblind and fair society. Indeed racism so permeates U.S. history that Blacks, more than any ethnic group, wish the color of their skin was not a 24-hour reality in their lives.

But without data, progress in ending discrimination is impossible to measure. Affirmative action programs are still needed today because of racism. The vote in the 1990s to end affirmative action in California didn’t change those realities.

Nor did Prop 187, which limited the rights of immigrants, stop “illegal” immigration.

Youth Take the Lead

Not surprisingly, young people were the most opposed to Prop 54. At college campuses across the state, the proposition was the hottest topic, not the recall election. Before the vote one eighteen-year-old San Francisco State student explained her opposition to the San Francisco Chronicle:

“This is not a `pretend’ life where we can just say we’re colorblind. This is about attitude, about experiences. There’s no amount of `pretending’ that can change that.”

The trump card for opponents of Prop 54 was the issue of health care. One graduate student said it best: “Disease is not colorblind.”

White women have the highest evidence of breast cancer, while Black women have a higher mortality rate than their white counterparts. Doctors need information on race to fight diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s and AIDS. Medical providers would be blindfolded by the initiative.

Connerly and others replied that federal laws would allow heath care providers to continue to collect data. But that begs the question: His ultimate goal is to make Prop 54 a national law. From racial profiling by the police to prosecuting hate crimes, it becomes nearly impossible to monitor without statistics to follow trends.

Hypocrisy and Dishonesty

Then there is the hypocrisy and dishonesty of Prop 54 supporters. Connerly repeatedly refers to the civil rights movement and South Africa’s fight against apartheid to defend his positions against data collection, affirmative action and dealing with other vices of modern day racism.

Historically, however, racists didn’t need to collect data based on race — because racial and ethnic minorities never seriously threatened their white privileges. That only began to change with the victory of the civil rights movement in the 1960s that ended legal segregation.

Civil rights leaders called for data in the heyday of the movement to prove that both legal (de jure) and unofficial (de facto) discrimination existed. Data had to be collected and used to help prevent unjust laws and policies.

The counterattack against data collection–the scientific method–is at best a naive belief in how equality is achieved. To declare a colorblind society, however loudly, doesn’t make it so.

Worse, laws like Prop 54 can open the door to ultraright forces to attempt to further roll back civil rights gains by eliminating effective tools, from affirmative action to fair housing and equal opportunity laws.

The backlash against Prop 54 on the college campuses is the most positive sign that young people are seeing the demagogy of the so-called colorblind initiative supporters as nothing more than a political ruse to turn back the civil rights clock.

That’s another reason why most mainstream politicians opposed the Initiative during the recall–and why Prop 54’s defeat is a big victory for all Americans, not just Californians.

ATC 107, November-December 2003