Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Just Disserts

June 9, 2008

How Apartheid Came to California

Racist propositions and a "colorblind consensus" are keeping California more segregated than many of its less progressive peers.

J. Michelangelo Stein

Though institutionalized racism may seem like a vestige of the 1960s South, Professor Daniel HoSang claims it is alive and well in that paradise of great weather and liberal thinking: California. HoSang's dissertation confronts a highly segregated housing environment that in turn segregates primary and secondary education and ripples into startlingly low minority enrollment at the state's public universities. It is a clarion call for recognition.

Daniel HoSang
"Many people who consider themselves quite liberal nonetheless condone these kinds of inequalities."

Daniel HoSang

While working on his Ph.D. at USC's American Studies and Ethnicity Program, HoSang, 36, studied the racist effects of California's post-WWII ballot initiatives and uncovered an insidious pattern that he calls "genteel apartheid." Theoretically, California's referenda gave a great deal of legislative power to the people because of the ease with which items can get onto a ballot. But in actuality, demagogues with deep pockets can easily harness that power by bankrolling ballot initiatives. The racist effects (and intentions) of these can be glossed over easily with euphemistic titles like the "California Civil Rights Initiative" and an unhealthy dose of manic TV ads selling their political tonics with saccharine hopefulness or hysterical fear.

HoSang found that two of these initiatives in particular have had a profound impact on California's racial politics. The first, 1964's Proposition 14, was spearheaded by real-estate developers and conservative anti-desegregationists, and legalized discrimination by giving homeowners and real-estate agents the right to refuse home sales with "absolute discretion." In a state that voted overwhelmingly for Lyndon Johnson—champion of the Civil Rights Act though he was—it passed with 65 percent of the vote. More than 30 years later, in a supposedly more race-less future, 1996's Proposition 209 forbade public universities from using racial preferences. Fully 54 percent of Californian voters supported it, and black and Hispanic enrollments plummeted at schools like UCLA and Berkeley. For his research, HoSang was awarded the 2007 Ralph Henry Gabriel Dissertation Prize.

Now an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, HoSang spoke with Gelf about his research, the "colorblind consensus," and how Obama's race speech might change the landscape of racial politics. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Gelf Magazine: It's becoming the traditional first-question on Just Disserts: What is the cocktail-party distillation of your dissertation?

Daniel HoSang: Why we have dramatic racial inequality in California in an age when no one is racist.

GM: Give us some historical background—what are the most important race-related events in California's postwar political history?

DH: California has a history of segregation: it was blanketed by racially restricted covenants which restrict the vast majority of California housing to whites only. Employment and education also really have a long history of racial segregation, but at the same time the state prides itself on being a place of equal opportunity. So I examined the ballot initiatives since the postwar era and used them to understand how both things exist at the same time. A state that imagines itself as forward and progressive still has these deep inequalities.

GM: Can you explain how California's ballot initiatives are different from other states'? How does that contribute to this sort of institutional racism?

DH: Two considerations are important here:

1) Widespread use of political consultants. Part of the argument of my project is that racial inequality was protected and renewed not using the strident tones of white supremacy that flourished in other parts of the country, but using a much more benign but equally effective language of tolerance. The modern political consulting industry was really born in California in the 1930s, and consultants played a critical role in each of the initiatives I examine since the 1940s of developing language and messages that would suggest voters could identify as tolerant and egalitarian while still supporting policies that protected inequality. These consultants knew California well and had the ear of particular initiative proponents.

2) Widespread use of the initiative process in California. While 25 other states have some provision for direct democracy—initiative or referendum—California makes use of this process at a higher rate than almost any other state, especially since the anti-tax measures of the late 1970s.Simply put, specific civil-rights opponents quickly came to realize that it would be more effective to use ballot measures to influence the political debate and win policy changes than to use traditional legislative advocacy or litigation, as their opponents (labor unions, civil-rights groups, liberal organizations) had a stronger influence in those arenas.

GM: What about your argument sets apart your work from our current understanding of race in post-WWII America?

DH: A couple of things. It's not really about liberal versus conservative. In fact, many people who consider themselves quite liberal nonetheless condone these kinds of inequalities. In 1964, California voted for LBJ by a landslide over Goldwater, and at the same time the same voters voted to make housing discrimination by race a constitutionally protected practice, and they did so with no apparent contradiction or tension. It is not just about the kind of conservatism but how liberal progressivism and political culture can go hand in hand with inequality. You see this with segregation in public schools, employment, and access to higher education. The electorate imagines itself to be very forward-thinking but does very little to deal with these fundamental inequities.

LA Racial Demographics

The racial breakdown of Los Angeles county in 1940, 1970, and 2000. Click on image for larger view. Courtesy Phillip Ethington.

GM: Why was that 1964 ballot initiative so damaging?

DH: The 1964 measure, Proposition 14, was sponsored by the California Real Estate Association. It sought to invalidate laws recently passed by the Legislature which made it illegal to discriminate by race, religion, and national origin in housing—the standard anti-discrimination language we come to expect today. California realtors had long supported the use of segregated housing markets, and saw the legislation as a threat to their authority in helping to steer people into particular neighborhoods based on race. (Realtors rigidly enforced these exclusionary boundaries, and realtors who violated these norms would be expelled from their local associations.) They framed their measure, however, as simply protecting "property rights." While this implicitly meant racial property rights (e.g. no one was advocating for the right of a suburban homeowner to build a factory in their backyard), it was argued and defended as a race-neutral or coded policy.

Though Prop 14 was overturned by the US Supreme Court in 1967, its impact was important for three reasons:

1) It had an enormous chilling effect on large-scale desegregation advocacy in California, as both state officials and even civil-rights advocates feared triggering a further backlash among white homeowners. While before the election, civil-rights groups would hold sit-ins at housing subdivisions that discriminated, afterwards they mostly focused on finding housing for individuals. Any chance at making a significant dent in the decades of racially exclusive housing patterns was lost.

2) It provided a kind of language and framework which Ronald Reagan used in 1966 to win the governorship—race-neutral language that clearly signaled to white voters that their rights were being unjustly infringed upon. Reagan supported Prop 14 and made use of it in his election.

3) Many linked the passage of Prop 14 to the Watts riots which took place the following summer—that is, it contributed to a political environment which seemed indifferent to the squalor and abandonment created in black communities by the rigid enforcement of racially segregated housing boundaries.

GM: How does the "colorblind consensus" affect today's political discourse on race?

DH: The colorblind consensus refers to the idea that race no long matters in public life, so talking about race does little to get at the deeper social problems that we face. It's a consensus because liberals and conservatives agree that talking about race takes us back, and it's narrow and irrelevant. The argument I make is that if we are to address how to deal with the crisis in education and many of the crises that California and other places face, we have to come to terms with how it is experienced by race. How did we come to arrive at a moment where the vast majority of people argue that race shouldn't matter? It matters deeply.

GM: I've always seen this kind of view on race as rooted in a "bootstraps" ideology about the American dream that puts people's successes and failures on their shoulders. Does the answer lie in making people more deterministic and accepting of the way that larger forces in our lives and society shape our outcome?

DH: That's part of it. Most of white California benefited enormously from public support in housing and public education and part of it is challenging the myth that everyone is the author of their success or failure. The other part is a more thorough acknowledgment that racism isn't just a problem of the Jim Crow South, and it's very much a part of California's history. It didn't go away when people declared that liberal colorblindness had healed it. Part of it is thinking about the question of individual effort, but part of it is reckoning how it goes at the core of society.

GM: How much does the question of "meritocracy" matter?

DH: At least with higher education, the question of meritocracy comes into play a lot. We talk about it in all types of contexts when we remove all experiences leading up to a small set of standardized tests and we call that meritocracy. All these accumulated advantages in housing and education and all the realities of life that can't be explained as meritocracy. Frankly, they run counter to a basic democratic society.

GM: Is there any sort of California exceptionalism that your work has to deal with? What does set apart California's story from the rest of the country? What about California is happening nationwide?

DH: It was a California story but it is now the national story. Start with the conflict over school busing in the 1970s. In Boston, they were famously violent. In Michigan, buses were burned. In California, it was a seemingly peaceful movement that occurred on the ballots. It was a ballot initiative under this polite rubric of loving all kids, even though it kept kids in failing schools and preserved nice schools for the others. It was never framed as a struggle over race. "We love all kids" was the mantra. That disavowal of a legacy of inequality is very much a California story that was less the case in the South and the Midwest and Northeast. That disavowal and racial innocence is more of a national story now, that commitment to neutrality—that history doesn't matter.

GM: You use the phrase "genteel apartheid" in your title. Is that meant to be inflammatory or is there some concrete way in which California's racial situation resembles South African apartheid?

DH: It's apartheid in that it imparts this notion of separateness. If you look at housing, certainly in education the schools are as segregated as they were pre-Brown v. Board of Education. And the explanation we attach to that separation: It's natural, it's the way people prefer to be. It's, like in South Africa, viewed as the result of natural abilities. The notion that any segregation we witness is there because of policy, law, or history is not in people's consciousness. It reflects a natural order of society rather than being the result of particular policies.

GM: Let's talk about the present and future a little. How far forward and backward has California (Los Angeles in particular) come since the days of Rodney King?

DH: In most of the measures that matter—income inequality, education—the disparities are just as dramatic. I think this is a way of separating the rhetoric from lived realities. In the rhetoric—from a Latino mayor, for example—there's a certain amount about racial unity and the overcoming of divisions. But LA in particular is still a deeply segregated city. If you look at the period since Rodney King happened, we have eliminated affirmative action and set out to restrict benefits to immigrants and non-immigrants alike.

GM: Does Obama and his speech on race offer any hope of heightened awareness?

DH: The speech was trying to do two things: acknowledge some of the history while suggesting that the history doesn't confine us, that collectively there was a path to move forward. In the sense that it did acknowledge some racism, it was out of the ordinary.

GM: But you still see us as stuck?

DH: Look at the Supreme Court. It disavows that many of the inequalities that confront us are rooted in race. Race is being used to sort people out, but when it comes to remedies, race can't be used. The consensus that colorblindness is the way to deal with it is not only destructive in public life but it actually deepens the crisis by explaining away deep inequalities so we don't have to confront them.

GM: Are there any signs that make you optimistic?

DH: California has a wonderful new assembly speaker in Karen Bass, who was a community organizer who arose out of the riots. [Editor's note: Bass is the first African-American women to head any legislative body in US History]. Anti-Affirmative Action initiatives led by Ward Connerly (a famous black opponent of affirmative action) have failed in two states (Missouri and Oklahoma) to qualify for the ballot.
My argument isn't that the public is fundamentally racist but that people have used race in the electoral arena to divide people in different ways. There is always another possibility. The political leadership is there. Even people's willingness to look past the Jeremiah Wright issues suggests there's nothing inevitable about that political script. It can be different.
None of this is inevitable. Racial inequality has evolved. Whether you are a person of color or not, California offers a cautionary tale. You can't just wish these problems away. They have to be confronted.

J. Michelangelo Stein

J. Michelangelo Stein, a history graduate student, lives in Los Angeles.

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Article by J. Michelangelo Stein

J. Michelangelo Stein, a history graduate student, lives in Los Angeles.

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