Affirmative Action Showdown

ward connerly
Ward Connerly is the main supporter for Prop 54, which would make it illegal for the government to collect or track racial data.

"SI SE PUEDE!" shouts Rocio Nieves to a group of about two hundred adults. She stands at the top of the San Francisco City Hall's white stairs in the middle of California doctors, lawyers, professionals, politicians, and social justice advocates who have come together in the boiling sunshine to hold a press conference with the message: No on Prop 54. The same dramatic showdown of resistance is being held simultaneously at L.A.'s City Hall. Rocio demands, first in Spanish then in English: "How many of you are going to go out in the street and educate our voters who can't be here right now? We all know how bad this is. I want each and every one of you to volunteer." Rocio is 20 years old, and she reminds the audience that Proposition 54 is most detrimental to California's youth of color.

In case you hadn't noticed, this was the summer of sequels: "X-Men II," "Charlie's Angels II," "Matrix Reloaded," "Legally Blonde II," Operation Desert Storm by Bush and Cheney II, and Proposition 209 II. Prop 209 dismantled affirmative action in the California public schools in 1996. Its sequel is Prop 54, which forbids state-sponsored collection of data based on race or ethnicity. Prop 54 means that you will no longer check off a box stating what race you are on any public document.

This might sound good because your race shouldn't determine the type of services you receive from the government. In an ideal world, we would be living in a colorblind society where everyone is treated equally. The problem is, we don't live in an ideal world and according to opponents of Prop 54, people of color routinely face discrimination. Eliminating racial categorization doesn't mean discrimination on the basis of race will go away. It will, however, mean that you will no longer be able to prove that there is a pattern of discrimination in everything from healthcare and education to voter access. Marisol Melendrez, a high school junior opposed to Prop 54, says, "No matter what, people respond to one another by physical appearance. We're not treated equally."

Some people feel that the government's racial categories simplify their identity. The American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI), official sponsor of Prop 54, states that Prop 54 will "junk a 17th century racial classification system that has no place in 21st-century America." When I called up the ACRI, Diane Schachterle's cool voice answered my questions like an advertisement. "Youth will not learn to categorize themselves any longer," she told me. "Teachers have called me and they say that their students don't know who they are. Now they'll all be Californians!"

"Prop 54 is being brought forward to erase racial identity so that it's not obvious that people of color are the majority." -- Rocio Nieves, Youth Force Coalition

Identity, however, is not something many people want to throw away. Marisol believes that Prop 54 would lower people's self esteem. She tells me, "I'm proud of who I am. I'm not an American, I'm Puerto Rican." Rocio believes that it deeply frightens the Republicans that "minorities are not the minority population anymore in California," and so it is in their interest that Prop 54 is being brought forward. "Prop 54 is being brought forward to erase racial identity so that it's not obvious that people of color are the majority." Many of those that Prop 54 claims it is trying to save -- youth of color -- are organizing to defeat it.

On the other side of Prop 54 is Ward Connerly, University of California governing board member (regent), housing businessman, and the proposition's main supporter. He introduced Prop 209, which has flung open the door to challenges to affirmative action policies all over the country since 1996. He then founded the ACRI, a non-profit that has heavily funded Prop 54 and Connerly's promotion of California's anti-affirmative action stance. The ACRI itself is funded by various extreme right-wing organizations, such as the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation of Milwaukee. As explained on the Media Transparency website, "Bradley is the largest, richest, and most politically influential of the conservative foundations." In addition, Connerly has become a multi-millionaire since he introduced Proposition 209 because his salary from the ACRI has grown exponentially as he spins out more proposition campaigns, in and outside of California (conscious of the debt, he has even affectionately named a race horse that he owns a share of "Two-O-Nine").

Since 209's passage, the University of Michigan and other Midwestern universities have seriously considered terminating their affirmative action policies. Now that the Supreme Court has upheld affirmative action in the recent lawsuit against the University of Michigan, Ward Connerly has burst into Michigan with fiery determination and a beefy bankroll to send the affirmative action decision to a state referendum. He's sponsoring a Prop 209 twin in Michigan and investigating the possibilities for the same action in a few other states. Bill Bielby, president of the American Sociological Association, said at a conference in Atlanta that, "If it's successful in California, then it will be coming to Georgia... Ward Connerly is part of a well-funded and aggressive social movement."

From the work that these coalitions are doing, word about Prop 54 is getting out.

There is a massive coalition to defeat 54, which includes students at the University of California, both graduate and undergrad; Californians for Justice (CFJ), a statewide organization which has a long history in grassroots youth organizing for racial and economic justice; and the Youth Force Coalition at the Youth Empowerment Center in Oakland whose sole full-time staff member is the dedicated, articulate, multi-tasking Rocio Nieves.

Californians for Justice

On a recent Thursday evening, CFJ youth leaders organized a training on Proposition 54 in the CFJ office in downtown Oakland. Marisol stood at the door and greeted me. She and her peers, fresh out of CFJ's Summer Leadership Academy for high school juniors, are fully aware of the dramatic impact Prop 54 will have on their lives and have committed to educating and organizing within their communities -- not easy if you and those you chill with are not allowed to vote.

"CFJ depends on racial data. They need statistics to show evidence [of racial injustice]." -- Marisol, high school student with CFJ

Carmen, one of the adult leaders in CFJ, approached Marisol and the other CFJ youth last December with statistics on the California high school exit exam. You have to pass the exit exam in California in order to graduate, and CFJ's campaign attacked the exam for unfairly punishing students of color by denying them a diploma when the state had failed to provide an equitable, high-quality education. Marisol was one of the speakers at the July 9th rally against the exit exam in Sacramento, and she tells me that "it really felt good. I was a part of the delay." For her, there is a clear connection between the two campaigns: "I want to be in a school where I can succeed. CFJ depends on racial data. They need statistics to show evidence [of racial injustice]."

At the training, KP, a tall young high school student in shiny red, spoke easily to the 25 people in the small rows in front of them about past CFJ campaigns to defeat California propositions since 1995. The white board they had set up displayed the obvious ancestry of Prop 54 in multicolored marker:

Prop 187, which denied all public services (such as education and health care) to immigrants; Prop 209, which struck down affirmative action in the California public schools; Prop 227, which outlawed bilingual education; Prop 21, which increased punishment for "gang-related" crimes and required that more juvenile offenders be tried in adult court; and Prop 38, which allowed voucher distribution. If Proposition 54 passes, it will be impossible for CFJ to prove the damage that those past propositions have done, further silencing those communities.

Near the end of the training, Marisol asks those in the audience if this law will have an impact on our communities. An older man rises and says rather softly that this initiative will deal a huge blow to American Indian rights; he points out that without recognition as an ethnic group, their sovereignty will be even more precarious. Native Americans, he says, like every other community, won't be able to prove discrimination, environmental injustice, juvenile injustice... as KP says solemnly, "This affects every single body."

UC Berkeley

Meanwhile in Berkeley, UC students, inflamed by the passage of 209, are launching their own anti-Prop 54 campaign. They refuse to allow the chapter to be closed on affirmative action, and claim that if this measure passes, the impact that the absence of affirmative action has had on students in and out of the UC system can't be determined.

The meeting that I attend at UC Berkeley's Senate Chambers is not a presentation, but rather a window into a skillful college campaign. The group is very diverse in race, sex, even level of education, though everyone is in their early 20s or younger. Anu, an undergrad in round glasses is facilitating expertly, surrounded by bright colored posters big as blackboards. My contact Peter notices me and waves, though we've never met before. He also has pert glasses, a beaming face and a sweet, enthusiastic voice. He scribbles down ideas as they occur to him on a piece of poster board. September is speaking rapidly. She is a young woman in a denim jacket with a pin that reads "No on the Information Ban" in bright orange. She is describing the outreach they did at the Omega film festival.

The meeting that I attend at UC Berkeley's Senate Chambers is not a presentation, but rather a window into a skillful college campaign.

Peter, Anu, September and many others in the room work at the Bridges Multicultural Resource Center in Berkeley, which is, naturally, a group that is very experienced in building coalitions. An exact group of people, they are the only ones I've run into who enjoy referring to Prop 54 as the Classification of Race, Ethnicity, Creed and National Origin Initiative (CRECNO). Peter excitedly tells me about the Students Supporting Affirmative Action at U Michigan, who are also fighting Connerly three time zones away.

The group discusses action plans while Peter frantically hops from huge list to huge calendar, marking down everything. "There's going to be a Law School spoken word anti-CRECNO fest in September," announces Guy, the eager-faced young law student, and it's hard not to laugh. He also wants to throw a big block party outside Connerly's house. Jessica, Chairman of the Student Government at the Grad School, who is typing relentlessly on her icy white I-book (which matches her manicured toes), says "we should bring Barbara Lee to campus, no matter what."

"It's not we," says the vocal white guy in the corner, who has been interrupting constantly, "The Campus Democrats are bringing her if she comes." "Ooooooooooooooooooooooh" the rest of the room responds. Close to the end of the meeting, Peter demands that we pass a clap around the room. That is this coalition, he says, we are just going to keep spreading the word and double our numbers.

By the end of the meeting they have triumphantly planned a press conference, an activist training, regular voting blitzes, tee shirt designs, several concerts, many, many outreach events and two big teach-ins (one of which was accidentally scheduled for September 11th before the vocal Dem flew out of his seat, grabbed Anu's pen, and changed the date). Much of their on-campus outreach is planned for events like the Raza-sponsored welcome for Latino parents and students, or at the Minority Graduate Student Orientation. Post-209, the regents tried to change the latter to the "Diversity Student Orientation" but the students fought it and won. In the post-Prop 54 era, I think, these student groups might not be allowed to exist at all.

Youth Force Coalition

I finally get to meet Rocio Nieves one afternoon at the Youth Empowerment Center, a converted warehouse near the West Oakland BART station. Standing outside the door to her tiny office, I hear her talking to someone on speakerphone. It turns out she's on the phone with Carmen, the adult organizer at CFJ. Suddenly I'm watching a play, where on one side of the stage, Rocio is furiously emailing Youth Force Coalition members to tell them about the Week of Action she and Carmen have just planned, and on the other side is Carmen telling BJ, Marisol and the others that Youth Force has just signed on to their hardcore street-walking voting initiative for the week leading up to October 7th. At Youth Force those kinds of phone calls are happening all the time.

"This affects me directly," she told me, smiling directly. "I speak truth to the heart."

Youth Force Coalition (YFC) is made up of youth representatives from social justice organizations all over the Bay Area who meet once a month because they've agreed that, as Rocio says, every issue is tied to the Prison Industrial Complex. The YFC was founded when Prop 21 (the juvenile incarceration initiative that CFJ also fought) was proposed, and has continued to fight. For the Prop 54 press conference, Rocio, the only young adult to speak, prepared her first ever draft of a speech. When she got up there, she threw it away. She has been organizing since she was 12 years old. "This affects me directly," she told me, smiling directly. "I speak truth to the heart."

Rocio and the YFC were not the only ones at the August 7th's press conference at San Francisco's city hall which blew up the news about Prop 54. Though the CFJ youth were preparing their presentation all day in Oakland, other CFJ members came out to pass around information on Connerly's shady financing. Certainly the L.A. chapter of CFJ was out at the press conference in L.A. UC Berkeley students were happily networking. The coalition that crowded the staircase were almost all people of color, with what appeared to be the youngest among them holding up the biggest signs ("We need to WARD off discrimination").

"The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce," declared a man as skinny as his tie, "is inexorably opposed to this dumb proposition. Philosophically, business institutions rely on data." "Niche marketing," whispers a young African American woman to her 50-year-old, weathered white activist friend standing next to me. Dr. Michael Sexton, chairman of the trustees of the California Medical Board, tells the story of his recent nightmare of having patients strewn all over the emergency room with breast cancer to tuberculosis, not being able to treat them effectively because Prop 54 had "robbed [him] of critical data used to diagnose" his patients. Barbara Lee shouted louder than any other speaker that "this is the beginning of the end of Republicans and extremists and they will not steal California," and managed to squeeze in that "we will stand together against the Recall," while everyone screamed and clapped for her previous statement.

The Republicans dropped $2.5 million on Connerly to promote Prop 209. The Democrats dropped only one-quarter of a million on the opposing coalition.

That was nothing next to Eva Patterson, San Francisco civil rights attorney, who said, "Excuse me while I hijack this press conference to announce that I'm running for governor" to wild applause. She reminded the old 209-guard that just before Election Day in '96, there was a statistical dead heat of whether or not 209 would pass until the Republicans dropped $2.5 million on Connerly to promote the initiative. The Democrats dropped only one-quarter of a million on the opposing coalition. "You expect people of color and progressive people to vote for you," she addressed the Democratic party, "then we need something back. If you want us to vote against the Recall, vote against Bush, don't leave us in the wind." She demanded $1 million dollars. "The Republicans support their activists. SHOW ME THE MONEY."

It was uplifing to hear and see so many people come out against Prop 54. Hearing Lee and Patterson speak, it felt like it was possible to defeat the well funded campaign of Connerly. When I turned to leave the press conference, I walked straight into a group of 14-year-olds who were just learning about the issue for the first time. They told me they were going to tell their parents to vote against 54. For a moment, we were all sure that we were going to win.

Ironically, the October 7th election itself had come into question by U.S. District Court Justice Judge Jeremy Fogel, as reported in the California Contra Costa Times on August 16th. The Times reported that The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in San Jose had filed a lawsuit under the federal Voting Rights Act demanding that federal officials examine the recall election process before it moved forward. They claimed that Monterey County had consolidated polling locations to the disadvantage of people of color and had hired very few Spanish-speaking poll workers. The Times explained that the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to protect minority voters primarily in the South who faced discrimination at the polls.

Although federal judges ruled on September 5th that Monterey County had not violated the Voting Rights Act, this is an excellent example of the kind of civil rights violations that would not be investigated if Prop 54 were passed. If Prop 54 were currently in place, such a lawsuit could not even exist because there would be no official record of where people of different races or ethnicities lived in California. CFJ's BJ Victor says simply, "Without the data, we can't prove that institutionalized racism is alive and kicking."

Zoe Chace, 21, is a WireTap intern.

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