Even before the campaign for Proposition 209 began two years ago, it was a foregone conclusion that divisiveness would be the result of the electoral battle over the measure, which bans affirmative action in state programs. Now, as Proposition 209 is transforming everything from university enrollments to public works contracts, "The Color Bind" examines how this radical proposal became state law.
But it did not have to be so vicious, so destructive to a state where race relations are always teetering on the edge of confrontation, a place where many ethnic groups must live and work together. The campaign was nasty because nastiness suited the purposes of Democratic and Republican strategists. More interested in getting out the vote for 1996 presidential, congressional and legislative elections than they were in promoting racial peace in California, they pounded away with inflammatory commercials.
A description of this exercise in cynicism is one of the most interesting revelations in "The Color Bind," a carefully reported and clearly written account of one of the state's most important recent political campaigns. Lydia Chavez, a former Times reporter who teaches at UC Berkeley's School of Journalism, has produced a model of political reporting in a time when political campaigns, with their hype and phony commercials, have become increasingly difficult for journalists to follow.
She did it the old-fashioned way. Armed only with curiosity and a strong sense of fairness, Chavez asked the right questions, interviewed all the sources, read all the documents and memorandums and came up with an invaluable account of voter initiative politics as practiced in the '90s.
Chavez, as she admits, is a beneficiary of affirmative action. "I continue to see the importance of affirmative action for all of the students I teach," she says. "There are, however, many books that argue for or against affirmative action. This is not one of them. . . . Instead, in writing this book, I wanted to understand why a linchpin of the civil rights movement became unpopular and politically vulnerable."
And she wanted to show the inner workings of the ballot measure campaign, a political tactic that now dominates California policymaking. Her book accomplishes this, revealing the feuds, the alliances, the courage, cowardice and heartbreak that make political campaigns incomparable dramas.
Proposition 209 was written by two obscure San Francisco Bay Area academics who believed that state affirmative actions discriminated against white males and were hurting their careers. Glynn Custerud and Thomas E. Wood resembled, as Chavez notes, "the kind of citizens California Gov. Hiram Johnson of the Progressive Party had in mind in 1911" when he gave the state the initiative. That section of the state constitution invests citizens with the power to enact laws by collecting enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot and persuading their fellow Californians to vote for it.
These two amateurs came up with a strategy that was crucial to Proposition 209's victory. Wood studied polls and concluded that, although voters tended to support affirmative action, they strongly opposed quotas and preferences. The two men also studied an important case, the U.S. Supreme Court's Weber decision, in which Justice William J. Brennan ruled that although the 1964 Civil Rights Act permitted affirmative action, it also bars the government from requiring employers to give preferential treatment.
Preferential treatment, rather than affirmative action, was the target of Proposition 209, which its authors called the California Civil Rights Initiative. It said California state and local governments are forbidden from using "race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against or granting preferential treatment" in government operations. The words had the solid, positive ring of a law that would ban discrimination and sound sympathetic to the civil rights movement.
No matter how hard opponents of Proposition 209 tried, they were never able to overcome the positive tone of these words. Nor could they contend with the weight given 209 by the chairman, Ward Connerly, an African American. "Even if the great majority of African Americans opposed Proposition 209, Connerly's black face blunted charges that the initiative was inspired and driven by white males," writes Chavez. "He gave whites looking for solace the embrace of a successful black American."