SAN FRANCISCO -- The second-most-important choice to be made by American voters this November will appear on the California ballot as Proposition 209. The California Civil Rights Initiative, as its sponsors accurately call it, would put an end to state-sponsored discrimination on the basis of race or gender. If Proposition 209 passes, California's government will get out of the business of quotas, preferences, and set-asides. The state will no longer judge its citizens by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, the level of their ability, and the merit of their claim.
The organizers of Proposition 209 are mostly political amateurs: a pair of academics from Berkeley, a Sacramento businessman, a San Diego law professor. The opponents include some of the savviest political operators in California: San Francisco's Mayor Willie Brown, the National Organization for Women, the Service Employees International Union, the NAACP. The Ford Foundation has poured $1.4 million into "research" and "litigation" supporting racial quotas and preferences. The California Teachers Association has donated $50,000. Even Barbra Streisand has kicked in a grand.
But Proposition 209 has one overwhelming factor in its favor. It is written in language so clear and compelling that every voter in California can understand it.
"The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting." To win voter approval, some ballot campaigns have to spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising and public education. For Proposition 209 to pass, its supporters have to ensure only that Californians read it.
Mark DiCamillo, managing director of California's respected Field Poll, calls the California Civil Rights Initiative "as American as apple pie." Its wording, he notes, echoes the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Its mandate -- equal opportunity without quotas -- is one most Californians already agree with. So far, every Field poll testing the initiative has found that strong majorities support it once they hear the wording that will appear on the ballot.
"I don't see how the 'No' campaign wins," says DiCamillo, "unless it does a major, major negative buy."
But "major major negative" is exactly what the No campaign is turning into. Unable to attack Proposition 209 on the merits -- which would mean arguing for discrimination by race and gender -- its opponents have resorted instead to hysterical race-baiting.
Los Angeles City Councilor Richard Alarcon compares the California Civil Rights Initiative to Hitler's Mein Kampf. In San Diego, City Councilor George Stevens calls it "the most racist initiative that has ever been put on the ballot." San Francisco's Mayor Brown, usually cool and unflappable, says that if voters support Proposition 209, "it won't be on the basis of anything except pure, unadulterated exploitation of racism." Norm Holst, cochairman of the American Civil Liberties Union in San Bernardino, labels it "a Republican tool to draw out the . . . xenophobes and hatemongers."
Businessman and university regent Ward Connerly, the father of Proposition 209
A leading strategist for the California Democratic Party put out a contract on the two co-authors of Proposition 209, academics Tom Wood and Glynn Custred. "These two professors may have white shirts on now," Bob Mulholland told the San Jose Mercury News. "By the time we're done with them, they'll be pretty dirtied up."
The most hideous assaults of all have been aimed at Ward Connerly, the black businessman and University of California regent who chairs the Proposition 209 campaign.
"He's married to a white woman," spits Diane Watson, a state senator from Los Angeles. "He wants to be white. He wants a colorless society. He has no ethnic pride. He doesn't want to be black." In the July 22 Oakland Tribune, columnist Douglas Allen called Connerly "a lackey . . . no friend of his race . . . a tool of the white elite." Eight days later, the paper ran an editorial cartoon depicting a dry-cleaning shop as "Connerly & Co. -- Ethnic Cleansers." It showed a hood and sheet hanging in the window.
By their epithets ye shall know them.
Come November, Californians will have to answer this question: Shall the principle for which Martin Luther King went to jail, for which Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat, for which Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman gave their lives -- the principle that all men and women, whatever their race or color or ethnic background, stand equal before the law -- be rescued?
Perhaps the sponsors of Proposition 209 can help Californians reach their answer by taking out ads that reprint this passage from a recent best-seller:
"Equal rights and equal opportunity . . . do not mean preferential treatment. Preferences, no matter how well intended, ultimately breed resentment among the nonpreferred. And preferential treatment demeans the achievements that minority Americans win by their own efforts. . . . Discrimination 'for' one group means, inevitably, discrimination 'against' another; and all discrimination is offensive."
The book is My American Journey; its author, General Colin Powell. The words appear on Page 608.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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