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No on Proposition 54, Part 1

On 7 October 2003, Californians elected Arnold Schwarzenegger as their new governor, but voted "no" to Proposition 54--the controversial Racial Privacy Initiative--authored by University of California (UC) Regent Ward Connerly. The proposition would have banned colleges and universities in the state from collecting and using most racial and ethnic information. Specifically, Proposition 54 sought to "prohibit state and local governments from using race, ethnicity, color, or national origin to classify current or prospective students, contractors, or employees in public education, contracting, or employment operations," while exemptions for "law enforcement descriptions; prisoner and undercover assignments; action taken to maintain federal funding ... medical research subjects and patients ..." would remain.1

This essay gives some background on Ward Connerly, the author of Proposition 54, and describes the results of an earlier anti-affirmative action initiative, Proposition 209. Part 2 will discuss comments from opponents and proponents of the Proposition 54 and offer a glimpse of its uncertain future. For more about Proposition 54, please see Next Wave's article The Racial Privacy Initiative by MiSciNet Advisor, Dr. Sonya Summerour Clemmons.

UC Regent, Ward Connerly

Ward Connerly is the epicenter of the political controversy concerning the consideration and subsequent relevance of race in higher education. Love him or hate him--as his droves of supporters and critics attest--no one can deny that he has changed politics in California and the nation. According to the liberal watchdog organization Media Transparency, Ward Connerly is one of the nation's leaders in the crusade against affirmative action. He is the founder and chair of the American Civil Rights Institute (ACRI)--a national, nonprofit organization dedicated to "educating the public about the problems created by racial and gender preferences." During the first 2 years of its existence, ACRI received 12 grants worth $925,000 from the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation and the John M. Olin Foundation.2 Connerly was grateful for the financial support and vowed to promote a colorblind society. He says on his Web site, "It is time for all Americans, including Black Americans, to reject the 'race matters' mentality." 3

Connerly points to his overcoming an impoverished childhood in Louisiana to achieve financial success as proof that affirmative action isn't necessary. He began his career as a land development consultant, but it was his relationship with former California Governor Pete Wilson--which some critics have stated unfairly benefited both men--that thrust Connerly squarely into the political reform arena. In 1968, Wilson, then a California legislator, chaired the Assembly Committee on Urban Affairs and Housing and appointed Connerly to serve as his chief consultant. In 1993, then Governor Wilson appointed Connerly to a 12-year term as a University of California Regent. For his part, Connerly contributed $108,000 to Wilson's gubernatorial campaigns over the years.2

Despite their close political relationship, Connerly and Wilson have sometimes clashed on issues. Connerly sees himself as a Republican with a libertarian philosophy. He voted in favor of providing benefits to the partners of homosexual UC employees against Wilson's objection.4 However, they agree on affirmative action programs. "I want to end preferences on the basis of race and the presumption that all black people are somehow disadvantaged."5

Proposition 209

Connerly believed that discrimination and discrepancies could be tracked by looking at neighborhood patterns as opposed to using race. This notion led him to successfully champion the California Civil Rights Initiative (Proposition 209) campaign which would have eliminated affirmative action programs in state or local government. Connerly reasoned that elimination of these programs would save the state money. After legislation analysts estimated that Proposition 209 would result in savings up to "$75 million in state spending on public schools and community colleges,"6 it passed by a 55% to 45% margin on the November 1996 ballot. Connerly didn't stop there. He spearheaded similar anti-affirmative action measures in two other states. In Washington, Initiative 200 (I-200) passed, but failed in Florida.

Why is California a political lightning rod?

There are several possible explanations why this particular state seems to lead the rest of the union on debatable political issues. First of all, California's wealth (the sixth largest economy in the world),6 visibility, and size cause the rest of the nation to take notice of whatever it does politically. Also, the participatory role of California voters in the passage of new laws is elevated compared to most other states; therefore, when Californians become dissatisfied, they make their feelings known. The most recent example of this is the governor's recall election held on 7 October 2003. Dick Polman sums up California's problematic political climate: "a severe recession in a state that has not recovered from the dot-com crash; the state is deemed by Wall Street to be less creditworthy than Mississippi; budgetary red ink stands at $8 billion and climbing; there is a choice of wildly unpopular solutions, ranging from big tax increases to draconian spending cuts; and a state legislature that is dominated by ideological partisans on the right and left."6 This combination of residential dissatisfaction and voter empowerment has created an environment where radical legislation is more easily passed.

The Continuing Controversy

Years after Proposition 209 went into effect in 1998, some of the results of the initiative are apparent. UC universities such as UC Irvine, Santa Cruz, and Riverside saw their minority students redistributed to other in-state universities such as UC Berkeley and Los Angeles.7 To help recruit more minorities to the UC system, campus representatives are getting involved with high schools, junior highs, and elementary schools to help minority students achieve requisite academic admissions standards. One negative result of Proposition 209 resulted in the number of enrolled minority freshmen at UC Berkeley being cut in half. In 2001, the school attempted to counter this enrollment drop by admitting over 400 students with "below average SAT scores."8 Because 90% of these students were members of a minority group, Connerly once again took the offensive and claimed this was proof that academicians may be circumventing Proposition 209. "I am withholding final judgment ... but it certainly looks as if the university is acting inappropriately," Connerly said in an e-mail to the San Francisco Chronicle. "This can only happen when there is somewhat of a conspiracy in the design and the execution of that design."8

Although many of Connerly's detractors remain confident that the defeat of Proposition 54 represents a strong mandate by the people of California, others insist that there is a place for the initiative. Please read the conclusion in Part 2 of "No on Proposition 54" next week.


  • Classification by Race, Ethnicity, Color, or National Origin. Initiative Constitutional Amendment

  • From the Media Transparency Web site

  • From the American Civil Rights Institute Web site

  • San Francisco Chronicle, 31 December 1997

  • The Olin Foundation and Starr Foundation's "Uncommon Knowledge," 22 February 2002

  • "California winner's rude awakening: The budget; The reality is, whoever leads will have to raise taxes, cut costs, or both." 8 Oct 2003, Dick Polman, Philadelphia Inquirer

  • The Class of Prop. 209, 2 May 1999, New York Times on the Web, James Traub

  • UC admissions under fire again, 10 October 2003, Tanya Schevitz, San Francisco Chronicle

  • Clinton Parks is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and can be reached at