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 ballots turned in belonged to white voters. As we noted in our article:

“Although non-white registered voters make for a combined total of 52% of votes eligible to be cast, post-election day only 37% 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 just consistent with the history of voting in ‘liberal’ California.

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–the student may ask–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 used to support the passage or defeat of certain ballot issues can show the way voting doesn’t ‘just express‘ the will of an electorate, but how the process leading up to election day can actually create and develop certain perspectives about what a place like California is, and more importantly, about 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 those 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:

[Racial Propositions] draws from and extends both George Lipsitz’s observations about the ‘possessive investment in whiteness’ and Cheryl Harris’s critical account of ‘whiteness as property.’ Whiteness, Lipsitz argues is ‘possessed’ both literally in the form of material rewards and resources afforded to those recognized as white as well as figuratively through the ‘psychological wages’ of status and social recognition detailed by W.E.B. Du Bois.

Stated more simply, HoSang claims that “whiteness” in the United States isn’t simply a “fixed” identity, where if you’re white you view yourself as white in a “static” or “unchanging” way, but that “whiteness” is highly impressionable, that is, capable of transforming due to external factors like advertising, propagandizing, and 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 the 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 these measures.

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, 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 placing an end to a program whose stated goal was the integration of the races in the state’s public classrooms was not easy; it required a sophisticated deployment of a language of “racial innocence” which sought to ‘pass the buck’ or responsibility of “fixing” racism onto the desks of the state and away from the children 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 through, since the country’s “browning” is supposed to ‘liberalize’ it.

HoSang notes that if the “majority minority” or “browning” scenario, which became the case in California nearly two decades ago, is what progressives are hinging their hopes on for a more liberal future in the United States, they better 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 throughout election day:

…the current inequality between white voters rates and those of people of color when considering the larger voter eligibility pool of the latter group in Los Angeles and California is more than 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. Then, send me your book recommendation to see if I can review it next!

J.T.

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California Primary Elections: June 2018 Recap

According to the Washington Post, just over 6.9 million people in California cast a vote for the state’s June 2018 Primaries–the largest recorded in the state’s history for a primary election–out of a total of over 19 million registered voters, to make for a 36% ‘return’ rate.

However, when considering the total number of all potential voters in the State’s Registrar, listed by Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s records as being at 25 million eligible voters, the turnout rate becomes 27%, or just over a fourth of the possible turnout.

To make things more interesting, when considering the total population of California, the most recent census records show that the Golden State is comprised of over 39.5 million people. To be sure, the census also counts people who are imprisoned, undocumented immigrants, and other non-voting citizens such as youth under eighteen years old. Nevertheless, if the total population is considered, it makes the Primary’s ‘turnout’ rate even smaller, at 17% of all the citizenry in the state, or less than a fifth of the ‘democratic’ or participating possibilities.

In contest for June 2018’s primary elections was the state’s Governorship, a seat for one U.S. Senator’s position, various seats for the U.S. House of Representatives, local courtroom positions, measures or ordinances varying from county to county, and more, like the recall of Judge Aaron Persky in Santa Clara County, for one.

Now, a quick glance at which groups comprise the California population:

From the U.S. Census Bureau’s ‘Quick Facts’ online:

At 15.4 million, Latinos account for 39% of California’s population.

At 14.6 million, Whites hold 38.8% of California’s population.

At 5.9 million, Asians maintain 15% of California’s population.

And at 2.5 million, Blacks constitute 6.5% of California’s population.

At 633,000, Native Americans compose 1.6% of California’s population. And at 198,000, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders form 0.5% of California’s population.

My favorite data for this election, however, is Political Data, Inc’s Absentee Vote Tracker (AVT), which tracked the early return of ballots on both the day before the Primary election as well as the day of, tracking up to 2.8 million returns of the 6.9 returns overall.

We’ll take a look at some of the numbers, particularly the following about which groups were mailed a ballot for the primaries, and which groups actually submitted those ballots.

According to the AVT, the day before and the day of the election, the percentage of ballots held by the states voter’s along ethnic lines were:

Latinos: 2.2 million (25% of the total)
Asians: 1.05 million (12% of the total)
Blacks: 312 thousand (4% of the total)
Whites: 5.2 million (59% of the total)

What the numbers suggest is reason for pause: similarly to L.A. County’s Special and Municipal Elections, voting at the State level is still the matter of a huge disparity between the White and Non-White populations who make up California.

Remember our Census data: at 15.4 million of the overall population in California, Latinos outnumber Whites, even if by only less than a percentage point. When it comes to ballots held between Latinos and Whites before election day, however, there are more than two White voters for every Latino voter, and nearly five times as many White voters for every Asian voter. This is what inequality in the democracy of the Golden State looks like.

On the day of the Primary election, the numbers are more startling.

Latino returns: 367,000 (13% of the total)
Asian returns: 295,000 (11% of the total)
Black returns: 75,000 (3% of the total)
White returns: 2.04 million (76% of the total)

Of course, one should also note that these numbers are from just the day before as well as the day of the vote, which obviously makes them incomplete. But in midterm elections like these, which are usually less popular and thus more predictable, the probability that early returns are indicators of a normal distribution is usually higher than not. In other words, after counting the total overall, the 76% rate of Whites who voted in this last election is probably off by only a few percentage points in one direction or the other.

The implications are that the current inequality between white voters rates and those of people of color when considering the larger voter eligibility pool of the latter group in Los Angeles and California is more than just unfortunate, it’s something of a public safety concern; if recent trends in U.S. politics show us anything, it’s that very few groups feel adequately represented by the country’s current institutional makeup. Just as relevant: although the state and its officials certainly like to claim they welcome immigration and the diversity of the land, when it comes to the distribution of power between its various groups, California’s white population is as much in control of the state as whites are in places like Tennessee or Arkansas, both states that overwhelmingly voted for the current administration.

It was in 2014 that the PEW Research center identified Latinos as the largest ethnic group in California, which is considered a preview for the overall direction of the U.S.’s ‘majority-minority‘ poised to arrive in the next twenty-five years or so. But if the current trends in California’s voting disparity between whites and non-whites here continues, one can only reasonably calculate for an even more radical inequality at the national level in terms of power and policy between the groups than what we’re seeing today.

J.T.

Voting in Los Angeles: Municipal and Special Elections 2017

Less than 18% of registered voters in L.A. County cast ballots for the Municipal and Special Elections of Tuesday, March 07, 2017. But in the election postmortem, when L.A. County’s Voting Registrar and KPCC discuss the paltry turnout of voting in The City, the key point is how they talk about it: they neglect to mention the demographics of Los Angeles. Yet the turnout or lack thereof for voting has much to do with ‘identity politics.’

If we’re going to talk seriously about the turnout, that is, to make an impact on it going forward, discussing “the voters” in purely abstract terms is not helpful. We have information at our fingertips, and it’s meant to be used; below, for example, is a telling info-graphic on voters identified before the election on March 7th, 2017, either by registration or vote by mail submissions.

As a note, these graphs are incomplete. They do not account for people who identify as mixed, Native American, or Pacific Islander as the 2013 Census does. However, the graphics nonetheless offer valuable assessments for a comprehensive look at the patterns we’re dealing with when it comes to voting in Los Angeles.

Returns

Based on the data, we can see that elections start early through the registration of voters. In terms of eligible voters, whites outnumber their non-white counterparts by considerable margins at 47%, or nearly half of all registrations. However, the combined population of non-white registered voters is slightly larger at 52%.

Assuming that each of these voters hold a place on the vote-by-mail list –as is standard procedure– the potential for at least a reasonable turnout of the vote either by mail or on election day is there.

When it comes to ballots returned from those registered voters, the number of returned ballots from 18 – 24 year olds is exceptionally low at 3.4%, while the number of returned ballots from 25 – 34, 35 – 44, and 45 – 54 year olds is spread more or less similarly across the board at 10%, 10.4%, and 12.9%, respectively.

The highest number of returned ballots from registered voters, however, comes from 55 – 64 year olds and those 65 years and over, who make for 19.3% and 44% of returned ballots, respectively.

When it comes to the racial makeup of ballots returned after election day, according to the data, white voters make up for more than half of all returned ballots at 64.7%; the non-white population on the other hand, makes up for 35.7% of returns.

There is a considerable dropoff, then. Although non-white registered voters make for a combined total of 52% of votes eligible to be cast, post-election day only 37% of ballots turned in belonged to non-white voters.

Is there a way to be more specific, however, or to see more about L.A. voters besides their age and racial category? Sure. The three categories for the large numbers below as set up by the samplers are ‘registered’, ‘has ballot’, and ‘returned’, respectively. This data more or less corroborates the aforementioned, but also tells us about voters’ living situations.

Screenshot 2017-03-13 at 3.25.25 PM - Edited.png

From here, since we already know that Senior white voters make up for more than half of all returned ballots of the share, we can also see from this second graphic that these folks are overwhelmingly a group of homeowners, outnumbering apartment renters by essentially 58%.

Finally, we can also see that a sizable portion of vote-by-mailers registered or re-registered for November’s general election, and that hardly any new voters entered the game in 2017.

Based on the information presented by these graphics, then, what’s clear about politics in Los Angeles is that while most of its constituents, or the 52% of eligible voters are stuck in traffic somewhere, a swath of mostly Senior white homeowners are electing the city’s officials and policy-making decisions.

What a fascinating dynamic. At a time when the 2011 Texas legislative session has just been indicted for drawing district lines discriminating against Black and Latino voters in favor of Republican Anglos, we might say that L.A. is a 2011 Texan Republican’s perfect empty vessel, a dreamland of political opportunity for white identity politics.

Isn’t that something?! But of course there’s more the story; again soon.

For POC Today,

J.T.