Hiding Race

Daniel HoSang traces the rise (and fall?) of yet another racist California initiative.

By Daniel HoSang Dec 15, 2001

Like bottles of merlot and silicon chips, statewide ballot initiatives have become a leading California export. Successful initiatives have banned services to immigrants without documents, terminated bilingual education, and increased youth crime penalties in the Golden State and have been replicated across the country. Indeed, their respective ballot numbers (Propositions 13, 187, 209, 227, 21, and others) have come to represent a political shorthand to describe the ascendance of conservatism in the state, and the waning of public commitments towards combating discrimination and supporting equity.

The highest profile figure backing the most recent ballot efforts is surely Ward Connerly, the self-appointed African American representative of the anti-affirmative action movement that culminated in the 1996 approval of Proposition 209, which bans affirmative action programs by state and local governments. More entrepreneurial than most of his conservative peers, Connerly has parlayed his role in the 209 victory into appearances on the national college lecture circuit and authored a book on the subject while backing similar statewide initiatives in Washington and Florida.

For several years, rumors of a potential "son of 209" initiative have circulated through progressive California circles, so Connerly surprised few when he recently announced his latest political foil this April. Dubbed the California "Racial Privacy Initiative" by its authors, the three-page proposed amendment to the state sonstitution would prevent state and local government agencies from collecting data on race, ethnicity, color, or national origin with limited exceptions.

The initiative’s campaign argues that "racial classifications" themselves–rather than racist institutions and bigoted beliefs–were the foundation, rather than the consequence, of every racist atrocity from chattel slavery to South African apartheid to Japanese American internment during World War II. Connerly suggests that building a "colorblind" society requires the government to stop recognizing the categories and the concept of race.

If a majority of California’s 12 million regular voters approve the initiative next year, by the 2005 implementation date, no one would have an official count of the racial or ethnic composition of 8 million California students who attend public schools, state universities, and colleges (or their drop-out, achievement, or graduation rates, or faculty composition). Police would no longer be required to report the race of those they stop or arrest, and the attorney general would be prohibited from analyzing and reporting hate-crime trends. When the state fully implements the initiative in 2012, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing could no longer investigate claims of discrimination. Racial discrimination in lending, housing, and real estate would be almost impossible to prove.

"This would cripple our efforts to organize for racial justice in public education," says Abdi Soltani, executive director of Californians for Justice (CFJ), a statewide group that led much of the grassroots organizing against Proposition 209. Recent research by CFJ has revealed that high schools across the state suspend black and Latino students at rates many times higher than their white peers, yet provide them with fewer opportunities to graduate and attend college. "Connerly’s initiative deliberately keeps this information out of the public eye so that no corrective action can be taken," he says.

Heading Off at the Pass

Even before Connerly’s April 11 announcement of his intention to gather nearly 700,000 valid signatures in six months to qualify the initiative for the November 2001 ballot, opponents began mobilizing a response. Civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, Asian Law Caucus, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund decided that the soundest opposition strategy was to keep the initiative off the ballot in the first place. "Once it gets on the ballot, Connerly gets a platform for his ideas and we have to spend our time raising money to fight it," explains MALDEF senior attorney Maria Blanco.

Blanco says that because the California electorate is still nearly 70 percent white (compared to less than 50 percent for the state as a whole), racialized ballot initiatives can be difficult to defeat once they qualify.

MALDEF and others scored a major victory when they successfully lobbied state officials to prevent Connerly from using the misleading "Racial Privacy Initiative" moniker to describe the measure when gathering signatures. (The attorney general’s new official title for the initiative became the cumbersome "Race, Ethnicity, Color, or National Origin Classification.")

Connerly’s foes also sought to deprive him of the big Republican money that has financed so many recent conservative triumphs. "These are not popular initiatives that spring from grassroots," says Blanco. "They are orchestrated by a small number of well-funded advocates who have the money to pay for the signatures (up to $2 per valid signature) needed to qualify."

Blanco and others met with key California Republicans urging them to distance themselves from the signature-gathering effort and its official backer, Connerly’s "American Civil Rights Coalition."

"Our basic message to them was that California does not need another divisive political initiative that diverts our attention from more fundamental issues," says Blanco. She also reminded them that the California Republican Party, stung by a string of recent statewide electoral losses attributed mainly to a backlash of voters of color for the party’s support of Propositions 187 and 209, could dig itself into an even deeper hole by backing Connerly’s play.

State Republican leaders seemed to agree with Blanco’s assessment. By early May, party secretary Shannon Reeves, a young and ambitious African American from Oakland who is considered a rising star nationally, sent an email to more than 1,000 party activists asking them not to support Connerly. Reeves, president of the Oakland NAACP for the last four years, warned in his letter that the initiative will "hurt the party’s image during this crucial period of rebuilding."

Connerly did not hide his disgust towards the party’s ambivalence, calling them "stupid" in a news interview. But in late May, he felt compelled to send a letter to supporters announcing the cancellation of the signature-gathering effort as the organization attempted to regroup. Describing the decision as a "tactical" reaction to a mistaken determination to qualify the initiative before raising adequate funds, he promised to launch a renewed effort in September in time for the November 2002 ballot.

Opponents are hopeful that Connerly will be sufficiently discouraged by this unlikely setback and let the issue die. But Soltani sounds a realistic note on the future of the initiative. "Connerly only needs 15 to 20 donors supporting him to qualify the initiative. He doesn’t need the entire Republican Party’s backing to get on the ballot, only a small percentage of them. The odds are in his favor." And Connerly’s connections to conservative donors outside of California, acquired through his anti-affirmative action efforts, give him a range of potential backers.

A New Racial Calculus

Whether or not Connerly qualifies the initiative, the effort still surfaces important trends within the public discussion on race and racial justice.

Connerly’s continued plea to end those "silly little boxes," that he claims artificially divide people by race, captures his rhetorical strategy. By divorcing tools like collection of racial data from their historic purpose and context–to assist the government in protecting against overt racial discrimination–he hopes to render them irrelevant and intrusive.

Such claims would have little traction in the public discourse if there were a popular understanding of how race functioned and mattered in everyday life. But to the extent that the public in general and the electorate in particular associates concepts of "racial justice" with 50-year-old measures intended to open access to otherwise fair institutions, Connerly’s pleas seem to be a reasonable if not logical extension of a "colorblind" (read racism-free) society.

This traditional calculus suggests that if you as an individual did not face racial discrimination in applying for a bank loan or trying to get into school, then racism does not directly affect you. Church bombings, cross burnings, racist epithets and hate crimes constitute the only widely agreed-upon evidence that racism remains at all in today’s society.

Yet most research suggests that race plays a strong role in determining where you live, what kind of school you attend, what job options you have available to you–even your health. A cursory review of arrest and incarceration rates, home-ownership rates, the siting of toxic dumps, childhood poverty and dozens of other indicators reveals that, even after accounting for geography and income, race very much matters.

To more fundamentally remove the wind from Connerly’s sails would require a new understanding of how racism is exercised and enforced–one that goes beyond a framework of legal discrimination towards an understanding of endemic racism. Such a framework would expose, for example, how the racialization of both crime and poverty within California has resulted in the inane and unprecedented expansion of prisons and police at the expense of education and social services. This titanic shift has hurt all but a tiny elite within California. Yet few California voters believe that the crumbling condition of their children’s public school or the lack of affordable health care for their family could be explained by racist budgetary policies. If they did, initiatives like Connerly’s would seem irrelevant.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?

The quick reaction of Connerly’s opponents, coupled with the ongoing retrenchment of the state Republican Party, may have kept the initiative from the ballot at this time. But if and when Connerly’s larger assertions make it back into the public debate, the response must build a specific and compelling description of the way racism and discrimination continues to shape the contours of all of our lives, and why we cannot afford to close our eyes to its impact.

Otherwise, even a defeat of the initiative at the polls will result in the "one step forward two steps back" refrain that has typified the progressive political experience in the past 20 years. And with California’s penchant for shipping its most regressive public policy eastward, few communities will be immune from its impact.

Multiracial Activists Follow Connerly’s Lead

The 2000 Census reported that nearly 7 million people–almost 3 percent of the U.S. population–took advantage of a new option that allowed respondents to indicate multiple racial and ethnic ancestry. Until recently, most of the organizations of self-identified multiracial people resided on college campuses and rarely ventured into policy debates.

But many of the activists who sharpened their teeth around the lobbying effort to end the Census’ "check one box only" approach have gravitated towards Connerly’s initiative. Some, like Susan Graham, the executive director of the Tallahassee-based advocacy group Project RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally) have focused their attention on adding a distinct multiracial box to various Census and application forms. Others, like Charles Michael Byrd, editor of the Interracial Voice website, argue that the root cause of racism is the "belief in ‘race’ itself" and have become staunch supporters of the Connerly initiative.

Interracial Voice, Project RACE, the Association of Multiethnic Americans, and the Multi Racial Activist are among a half-dozen national organizations, almost entirely based online, seeking to either eradicate the collection of race and ethnicity data or to challenge the current collection system.

Like Connerly, they tend to quote liberally from JFK and the abolitionist Fredrick Douglas about the evils of racism and discrimination. But they adamantly eschew any relationships with civil rights or racial justice organizations, often dismissing them like Connerly does as seeking only to profit from a "racial spoils system." And importantly, they have gained access to editorial pages and talk shows across the country as spokespersons for what some describe as a new multiracial movement.

Connerly cites the growing numbers of multiracial families as evidence of the extinction of racism. He points to the fact that in California today there are more children born to interracial couples than to two black parents as evidence of the declining significance of race.

This attempt by conservatives to enlist the growing multiracial population in California and across the country in the effort to undermine civil rights protections has met little progressive response. But Connerly’s effort may force some progressive-leaning multiracial organizations that have focused mainly on identity concerns to take stronger public positions on racial justice issues.