BY MALIK MIAH
SAN FRANCISCO — In a referendum that coincided with the election for California's governor, voters rejected Proposition 54 — the "Racial Privacy Initiative" — by an almost two-to-one margin. Drafted and aggressively promoted by University of California Regent Ward Connerly, the RPI would have prohibited city, county and the state government from gathering data on racial and ethnic groups.
While most people around the world focused on the recall of Democrat Governor Gray Davis and the election of Republican actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the most important political issue facing voters in California was Proposition 54.
Connerly, an African-American conservative and an opponent of affirmative action, rejects all programs to end racial discrimination that recognise that racism is still prevalent in society.
A central reason why the so-called "colour-blind" proposition was defeated was the decision by all the major candidates in the race for governor, including Schwarzenegger, to oppose it. Health organisers also took the lead to explain how the lack of racial and ethnic data would undermine health care.
Only the ultraright of the Republican Party actively backed the proposition. The mainstream Republicans avoided the issue because, since the election focussed on the economy and Davis' performance in office, open support for Proposition 54 would have undermined Schwarzenegger's ability to win the votes of liberals.
In addition, RPI supporters' political arguments were so transparent that most voters didn't believe them. For example, they claimed that the only way to end racial discrimination and bring about a "race neutral" society is to stop collecting racial data. While Americans, including African Americans, overwhelmingly favour a colour-blind and fair society, they realise that without collecting data, progress in ending discrimination is impossible to measure.
Affirmative action programs are still needed today because racism is widespread. A vote in the 1990s to end affirmative action in California did not change that reality. Nor did Proposition 187, which limited the rights of immigrants, stop "illegal" immigration.
Not surprisingly, young people were the most opposed to Proposition 54. At college campuses across the state, the proposition was the hottest topic of debate, not the recall election. Before the vote, an 18-year-old San Francisco student explained her opposition to the San Francisco Chronicle: "This is not a 'pretend' life where we can just say we're colour-blind. This is about attitude, about experiences. There's no amount of 'pretending' that can change that."
The trump card for the opponents of Proposition 54 was the issue of health care. As one graduate student said, "Disease is not colour-blind." White women have a highest incidence of breast cancer, yet 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 have been blindfolded by the initiative. From racial profiling by the police to prosecuting hate crimes, it becomes nearly impossible to monitor these without statistics related to race and ethnic background.
Connerly repeatedly referred to the US civil rights movement and South Africa's fight against apartheid to defend his opposition to data collection and affirmative action. However, during civil rights movement in the 1960s, which ended legal segregation is the US, civil rights leaders called for data to prove that legal and de facto discrimination existed.
The backlash against Proposition 54, especially on the college campuses, is a positive sign that young Americans are seeing the "colour-blind" demagogy of RPI supporters as nothing more than a political ruse to turn back the clock to pre-civil rights days. Proposition 54's defeat is a big victory for all Americans, not just Californians.
[Malik Miah is a San Francisco-based socialist and trade unionist.]
From Green Left Weekly, October 22, 2003.
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