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Four California initiatives from the 1990s are hobbling Latino and African American progress, says UC Berkeley professor
09 April 2001

By Patricia McBroom, Media Relations

Berkeley -Four propositions passed by the California electorate in the 1990s were orchestrated to hobble the social and economic progress of the state's growing minority population, according to a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

All four propositions, including Proposition 209, which rolled back affirmative action, were heavily financed by the California Republican Party, and three were directly launched by Republican Party leaders or candidates, said Jewelle Taylor Gibbs, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of social welfare. She believes the propositions were aimed at preserving long-standing advantages of the white population.

The cumulative impact of these propositions, said Gibbs in a new book, "Preserving Privilege: California Politics, Propositions and People of Color" (Praeger Publications, 2001), has been to impede the progress of many people of color, even as, together, they emerge as the new California majority. The greatest impact has been on Hispanic and African American populations, she said.

Her book provides a first look at the collective outcome of the four initiatives: "Three Strikes and You're Out"(Proposition 184), passed in 1994; the "Save Our State" initiative (Proposition 187), also passed in 1994, that withheld education and medical care from undocumented immigrant children and their families; the California Civil Rights Initiative (Proposition 209), which dismantled affirmative action in 1996; and "English for the Children" (Proposition 227), passed in 1998 to severely limit bilingual programs in schools.

"We maintain," wrote Gibbs and her co-author Teiahsha Bankhead, a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley's School of Social Welfare, "that these initiatives were not random, spontaneous movements of the state's electorate to address a series of voter concerns, but rather they were carefully conceived and orchestrated measures to manipulate voters to adopt reactionary public policies."

The California Republican Party funded all but Proposition 227 at more than $400,000 each. Proposition 227 was launched and largely funded by Ron Unz, a Republican candidate for governor. The party also drew in more than $1 million for Proposition 187 and more than $5 million for Proposition 209 from conservatives and right wing organizations around the country, said Gibbs.

"What was their intention? Why are conservatives in New York and Florida giving large sums of money to sway voters in California? I want people to think about this," said Gibbs, who on Wednesday, April 11, will receive in New York the Black Leadership Forum's Lamplighter Award for Equity and Justice, along with three other awardees including Mary Frances Berry, chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

Gibbs believes these four propositions arose in the wake of demographic predictions in the mid-1980s that the combined populations of ethnic minorities in California would soon outgrow the English-speaking white population. This did happen, according to just-released Census 2000 data.

She said none of the propositions was generated by voters to seriously address social issues - except for the Three Strikes law which initially was launched by Mike Reynolds and Mark Klass, who both had teenaged daughters murdered. After that, Proposition 184 joined the other three initiatives as "wedge issues" in an effort by former Gov. Pete Wilson and other conservatives to disempower minority populations, said Gibbs.

Because the laws were designed for divisive political reasons, they violated good social policy research, resulting in disastrous consequences for the state, as well as for many California citizens, she said.

The Three Strikes law, for instance, produced 5,000 life sentences by September 1999. Half of these defendants were non-violent offenders; one is now in jail for 25 years because he stole a pizza, said Gibbs.

She said California counties have huge disparities in how they administer the law. Some of the more conservative counties use it for non-violent crimes that should not be punished with more than a year in jail. Others use the law hardly at all.

There is no relationship, said Gibbs, between the level of crime in an area and the use of the Three Strikes law. There is a relationship, however, between prisons and lack of educational resources in the state.

Since 1998, California has spent more money on building new prisons than it has on higher education, mainly due, Gibbs said, to the growing political power of the California Correctional Peace Officer's Association. It contributed more than $1 million to conservative candidates for the state legislature in 1992 and subsequently has contributed millions to advance its law and order agenda.

Those most likely to pay the price for this law are poor Hispanic and African American young men who are arrested and incarcerated in higher numbers than white men, for similar crimes.

"This removes potentially productive males from these communities, reduces the number of male-headed households and destabilizes the communities economically and socially," said Gibbs.

Added to this is the impact of Proposition 209, which removed race, sex, ethnicity or national origin as a consideration in public education, public contracting and public employment.

"The impact of this law is to make minorities in California feel unwanted and excluded," said Gibbs. "Many feel they cannot bring suit to protest discrimination because the law is no longer behind them.

She said school counselors will tell young African American or Hispanic students not to bother to apply for the best education at California's top public universities because "they wouldn't get in anyway."

Combined with Proposition 209, the "English for the Children" initiative further depresses the spirit and hampers the educational progress of children of color. Proposition 227 has been "terrible for kids whose families don't speak English," depending on their age, said Gibbs. She said much greater flexibility and a variety of bilingual programs are needed to teach children with different language needs.

As for Proposition 187, Gibbs said that, as warned from the beginning by state medical experts, the initiative would have cost California more than it saved in health services had its provisions not been largely overturned by a 1995 District Court decision. Its passage, however, has scared immigrant families away from getting health care and education and has fueled Latino anger, resulting in a surge in voter registration by Hispanic people.

"We are impeding the progress of the very people who will become California's future labor force," Gibbs pointed out. "When these young people become adults, they may not have the education they need, and then what do we do?

"If we are going to be a model for a multiethnic state, we must begin now to develop policies that are inclusive and proactive."

Not only should these four initiatives be repealed, said Gibbs, but California's leaders "must rise to the challenge of preparing non-white youth for productive roles. We have to educate them. Otherwise we are endangering all of our futures."