Avalanche Against Prop 54

The message cut across all the hoopla of recall election day, banding together teachers, health officials, police officers, political leaders, and voters of all racial and ethnic categories. The message was simple: Voting against Proposition 54 will help save your life. And its success was resounding.

Defeated by a 64-36 margin, the so-called "Racial Privacy Initiative" would have banned California from collecting data on race and ethnicity in all but a few exempted areas -- restricting, among other things, information crucial for identifying and containing public health epidemics. The defeat of Prop 54 has cheered on civil rights advocates, who believe that the campaign's success may mark a turn toward a more progressive, pro-diversity agenda in California and across the country.

"Prop 54 got more 'no' votes than Arnold Schwarzenegger got in support. The Prop 54 vote wasn't a landslide, it was an avalanche," said People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas in an October 8 press release. "California shouted down this attempt to erode civil rights, eviscerate health research, block hate crime enforcement and undermine school accountability."

Prop 54 was the brainchild of Ward Connerly, a conservative businessman and member of the California Board of Regents. In 1996, Connerly had spearheaded Prop 209, the ballot initiative that banned the use of racial and ethnic preferences in California's public hiring and university admissions. Dubbed by some as the "Son of 209," Prop 54 was another one of Connerly's attempts to create a "color-blind" society by removing all racial and ethnic classifications from the public sphere.

But, as the initiative's opponents pointed out, Prop 54 would have effectively eliminated any quantitative evidence of racial disparities, crippling the state's ability to track or remedy discrimination. Prop 54 would have barred state agencies, the University of California, public hospitals, and law enforcement officials from gathering data on citizens' race or ethnicity in all but a few -- and, according to Prop 54's opponents, poorly described instances. Rather than creating a color-blind society, the initiative would have simply turned a blind eye to discrimination.

Forming a broad-based, ever-expanding coalition, the opponents of Prop 54 ran a focused and pragmatically minded campaign. They explained that schools would lose accountability, no longer being able to track whether some groups of students were improving more than others. Local police would no longer be required to collect data on victims and suspects, hindering hate crime enforcement. And -- in what proved to be the most compelling argument -- public health officials would be severely hampered in their ability to identify and prevent diseases, as certain health problems have a disproportionate effect on different racial and ethnic groups.

It was the potential threat to public health that ultimately won the public over. "Nobody thinks you get better advice from your doctor when they have less information on you," Jay Ziegler, co-director of the No on 54 Campaign, told the Sacramento Bee. Bringing together hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals across social, racial, and political lines, the coalition opposing Prop 54 was unprecedented for a ballot initiative. Exits polls indicated that three-quarters of blacks and Hispanics and a majority of whites voted against the initiative.

Ziegler compares last week's victory to the passing of Prop 209 in 1996. Back then, civil rights groups and progressive leaders were taken aback when the advocates of Prop 209 appropriated the language of the civil rights movement itself to support their campaign. Prop 209's opponents then attempted to demonize the supporters of initiative as racists, running an infamous television ad featuring former Klansman David Duke as a supporter of Prop 209. The move backfired, alienating white suburbanites who were incensed at the KKK comparison.

"We really learned some important lessons from 209 that we applied this time around: You can't make it personal or make it look like it's a negative campaign," said Ziegler. "Diseases aren't colorblind," says Paul Turner, senior project manager of the Greenlining Institute. "That message resonated with the bulk of the electorate -- we didn't make it about affirmative action."

The proponents of Prop 54 once again tried to use civil rights-oriented rhetoric, comparing the existing racial categories to those that slave owners and Nazis used and placing the words of Martin Luther King Jr. alongside those of former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. But this time, the television ad the opponents aired featured former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who simply declared that Prop 54 was "bad medicine" and that the public was making a "life-and-death decision."

Turner also credits the campaign's success to its organization and strategic outreach to the public, media outlets, and politicians. "We put pressure on the Democratic Party early on -- it wasn't enough for them just to be opposed to campaign. They had to prove it through fundraising and getting others on board."

In contrast to 209, Prop 54 attracted a significant degree of bi-partisan support. "Some might have declared that the recall election part of a Republican conspiracy, but Prop 54 was actually a product of the right-wing agenda -- it came straight out of the Federalist Society," says Turner.

Aside from the conservative right-winger Sen. Tom McClintock, nearly all of the major gubernatorial candidates openly opposed the initiative. Democratic candidate Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, under fire for the contributions he received from Indian tribes, transferred $3.8 million to the campaign opposing Prop 54. And, in early September, Schwarzenegger announced on a Spanish-language television station that he opposed the initiative.

Schwarzenegger's open opposition to Prop 54 fell in line with the socially inclusive and moderate platform that gained him votes on election day. His open embrace of diversity and progressive social positions have not only put conservative Republicans on the alert; they have also sparked some liberals' hope that Schwarzenegger will follow through on his promises and use his new prominence within the party to influence the national debate over divisive issues like affirmative action.

"Arnold has the opportunity to lead the Republican Party back to moderation -- to shed its image as a party that is hostile to minorities, a stance that has allowed California to be a one-party state," says Turner. "The new competition will help minority groups."

The defeat of Prop 54 will lead to "positive change on the state level," affirmed Mary Ann Mitchell, chairwoman of the National Black Business Council, and John C. Gamboa, executive director of the Greenlining Institute, in the San Francisco Chronicle last week. While racial and ethnic preferences remained barred under Prop 209, Mitchell and Gamboa see Prop 54 as paving the way for future pro-diversity initiatives that would actively recruit minority students and employees.

Mitchell and Gamboa go so far as to project that Schwarzenegger's openly embracing diversity will prompt change on the federal level; that President Bush will move to ensure equal opportunity within federal agencies, and that Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan will encourage economic growth by gathering data on race, ethnicity and gender within bank-lending practices.

But all of this, of course, is still the stuff of dreams. Whether Schwarzenegger will step forward and push for a socially inclusive and progressive agenda remains to be seen -- or, given the state's budgetary concerns and his conservative economic positions, whether he will even be able to afford to.

It's clear, though, that the opposition to Prop 54 maintained its focus and broad-based appeal in spite of Arnold, and the pro-diversity movement may continue to gain support regardless of what happens in Sacramento. For while the anti-Prop-54 movement played up the public health card to widen its base of support, many believe that the success of the campaign can only strengthen future pro-diversity proposals.

Whatever people's reasons for opposing Prop 54, its defeat has clearly re-affirmed the importance of tracking and preventing discrimination in the public sphere. While affirmative action was not the key issue, Turner believes that the campaign's success will prompt the public "to go back and revisit 209 and realize its unintended consequences on university admissions and state-sponsored contracting."

Prop 54's defeat was, moreover, a resounding repudiation of Connerly himself. While Connerly has announced that he intends to return with a new version of Prop 54 -- with greater attention to public health concerns -- many believe that he has lost his public credibility and legitimacy. Even aside from his political future, Connerly is clearly on the down, if not the down-and-out: He is currently being sued by the Fair Political Practices Commission for failing to disclose the source of $1.9 million in funding for his campaign.

Celebrating last week's victory, the opponents of Prop 54 are optimistic that their message will continue to resound with the public: that ignoring race is dangerous -- for people's health, for public safety, and for the education of their children.

As Justin Pritchard of the Associated Press wrote: "Those who said Proposition 54 would help unify California's racial group and create a colorblind society turned out to be right in one respect: Voters of every race united to defeat it."

Freelance writer Suzy Khimm is an editorial intern at AlterNet.

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