Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California (2010)

The first time we analyzed an election in California was in 2017, when we reviewed data from a Special Election in Los Angeles. Data for that election showed a yawning gap between the voting rates for white and non-white voters; at the close of the special election, in a city where less than 50% of the population identified as white, over 64% of mail-in ballots turned in belonged to white voters. As we noted in that article:

“Although non-white registered voters make for a combined total of 52% of votes eligible to be cast in L.A., post-election day, only 36% of ballots turned in belonged to non-white voters.”

As it turns out, the rate of return for that Special Election in L.A. was not an anomaly, or some new and strange phenomenon, but actually consistent with the history of voting in ‘liberal’ California as a whole.

In Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California, Daniel HoSang takes an analysis of California’s voting patterns one step further, exploring the way the predominantly white electorate of the state has voted negatively or against a handful of ballot issues dealing closely with racial or progressive issues in the state during a sixty year period from just after 1945 to the early 2000s.

And why should we care about a handful of ‘old’ voting issues in California? HoSang explains that ballot measures are especially useful for thinking about the state’s role in the inequalities found between its public schools, healthcare, employment and other areas ‘separating’ people of color from wealthier whites due to the way that voting publicizes a particular type of conversation on these issues:

“Ballot measures…especially those that receive widespread public attention, create public spectacles where competing political interests necessarily seek to shape public consciousness and meaning.”

Put another way: materials like campaign rhetoric, opinion articles, television commercials and other instruments which are used to support the passage of certain ballot issues, or used to defeat them, show that campaign or policy battles don’t ‘just express’ the will of an electorate, but even go as far as to create and develop certain ideals about what the state of California is, who California is, and who it belongs to.

“Because the instruments of direct democracy by definition are intended to advance the will of “the people,”…organized groups and interests must always make their claim in populist rather than partisan terms, thereby defining the very meaning of the common good.”

In other words, for HoSang, as anyone familiar with the 2016 Presidential Election should be able to recall, voting issues have a very particular–at times even “nasty”–way of telling voters about “who we are,” what our values are–or what they should be–and how we should act on such values with our votes.

HoSang further contends that the “sensibilities” or logic which the voting issues of Racial Propositions make their appeals to are voters’ “political whiteness.” The phrase “political whiteness” has layered meanings, but essentially, throughout his book it means a degree of privilege and status for white voters that’s not only maintained but also expounded on by voting issues.

From the outset, HoSang claims that “whiteness” in the United States isn’t simply a “fixed” identity, where if you’re white, you view yourself as such in a “static” or “unchanging” way; instead, he argues, “whiteness” is highly impressionable, or capable of transforming due to external factors like advertising, propagandizing, and finally, voting.

As HoSang takes readers through the first dozen or so pages of Racial Propositions, then, rather than simply restating the term, the author arrests and interrogates scores of materials left by different voting issues in California. The campaigns for Fair Employment, Fair Housing, or the effort to Desegregate Public Schools in California are just a few of the voting issues he discusses, in which he exposes the logic of “political whiteness” at play in efforts by organizations like the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Realtors Association (CREA), the Parents Associations and other groups that come together to defeat policies aimed at “leveling the playing field” between white and non-white people in the Golden State.

That’s right. Did you know that in 1946, voters in California decided against protections for workers facing discrimination in hiring? Or, did you know that in 1964, voters in California decided against protections for non-white residents looking for a home in the state? Did you know that in 1979, California voters decided against racial integration at our schools when they canceled the state’s busing program?

In Los Angeles alone, a mass of white parents voted by a margin of 73% to put an end to school busing in the city, which was only instituted in 1977 and thus barely getting off the ground.

The vote against desegregating schools was passed through an ordinance known as Proposition 1, and put an end to “mandatory” busing in 1980 (which, of course, was just a few years before my parents would arrive from Latin-America alongside many other Central-American and Asian people. Can anyone say, awkward?).

On the issue of school integration, HoSang points out that it wasn’t easy placing an end to a program whose stated goal was the integration of the races in the state’s public classrooms in accordance with Brown vs Board of Education; the formula to defeat integration required a sophisticated deployment of a language of “racial innocence,” which sought to ‘pass the buck’ or responsibility for “fixing” racism onto the desks of the state and away from the homes of ‘innocent’ [white] parents:

“[Supporters of Proposition 1] held that because white parents and students did not intentionally create the second-class schools to which most racial minorities were consigned nor explicitly support segregated schools as a matter of principle, they could not be compelled to participate in the schools’ improvement.”

In other words, in the same way that today the Trump administration likes to argue that the refugee crisis in Central-America should be some other state’s–perhaps Mexico’s–problem, opponents of the school-busing program in late seventies California argued that mixing their white children with Black and Brown kids was unfairly burdening them with a job that was supposed to be the state or federal government’s to do. That is, whenever the state or federal government would get to it. Perhaps never, even, but the point being the same: it was not the parents’ responsibility to account for or address inequality at public schools. They were “the innocent ones.”

But the gift of Racial Propositions is that no matter what the reader may make of the author’s argument on political whiteness, the book is an exhilarating page-turner for anyone interested in a political history of “The Golden State.” This is due in no small part to HoSang’s unsparingly sharp, saber-like writing skills. For his part, the author recognizes none other than James Baldwin as a key influence on his analytical framework:

“Whiteness was for Baldwin “absolutely, a moral choice,” an identity derived from and constructed through a set of political convictions. It was by inhabiting a particular political subjectivity—one that rested upon a series of destructive assumptions—that one became white. To embrace the myth of whiteness, he argued, was to ‘believe, as no child believes, in the dream of safety’; that one could insist on an inalienable and permanent protection from vulnerability.”

By the closing pages of Racial Propositions, HoSang’s analysis also makes clear why our political discussions today need to abate a conception of ‘liberal’ California which still dominates the vox populi leading up to 2020: that because California is already a “minority majority” state, it offers a glimpse into the “progressive” future of America, since the U.S.’s “browning” is asumed to lead towards ‘liberalizing’ it.

HoSang notes that if such “majority minority” or “browning” scenarios are the last frontiers for the hope of liberalism, which became the case in California nearly two decades ago, than they better take a closer look at the numbers:

“…in 2000, as California became the first large “majority minority” state in the nation, white voters still constituted 72 percent of the electorate.”

And so, as one blogger put it to his fellow readers and historians following another election where that same “majority minority” was hardly seen during election day:

“The current disparities throughout California between white voter rates and those of people of color when considering the larger voter eligibility pool of the latter is not just unfortunate, it’s something of a public safety concern.”

So let’s get on it, Los Angeles. Find and read Daniel HoSang’s book, which has full approval from The L.A. Storyteller.

J.T.

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J.T.

Born and raised in the Los. Los Cuentos. J.T.

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