Finally a win!

Racial Information Ban Defeated, October 2003


Over the past nine years Californians have voted overwhelmingly in favor of initiatives that impede the full participation of people of color in state life, beginning in 1994 with restrictions on services to undocumented immigrants, going on to end affirmative action (1996) and to outlawing most bilingual education (1998).  On October 7, 2003, California voters overwhelmingly rejected the latest of these racially charged measures, turning back Prop. 54 by 64% to 36%. Prop. 54 would have prevented collection or use of racial demographic information, essentially making ignorance about racial realities the law of the state. Against all early expectations, opponents sent this initiative to deep, deserved oblivion.


Why did Prop. 54 opponents win when other campaigns against the race initiatives failed? Like all winning campaigns the victory was a combination of good luck, good management and grassroots enthusiasm, but three factors stand out:


1)    This time around, a Democratic state Attorney General did not allow proponents to frame the issue through a deceptive ballot title. In 1996, in order to keep affirmative action, voters had to vote "no" on a "Civil Rights Act." On what became Prop. 54., proponents wanted to name their know-nothing measure "the Racial Privacy Initiative." But the AG named this one the neutral and not very attractive "Classification by Race, Ethnicity, Color or National Origin Initiative."


Lesson: it helps to elect officials who will at minimum level the playing field against right wing initiatives.


2)    In the fight against Prop. 54, professional electoral campaign managers and statewide civil rights leadership found a way to live with each other. This is not an easy partnership. Campaign professionals deal in assembling momentary, shallow majorities out of any ammunition available (usually the mistakes of the other side); civil rights advocates promote take value-based policies for fundamental social equity that require patient, long term cultivation.


How the values of these two very different groups can clash was blatantly illustrated in the 1994 campaign against Prop. 187. That initiative, among other things, outlawed publicly funded health care for the undocumented. Campaign consultants polled on the measure and rapidly discovered that one of the few ways they could inspire opposition in the general population was to raise health concerns. They argued to immigrant advocates that in order to defeat Prop. 187, the message must be that, if it passed, untreated undocumented people would "spread disease."  Not surprisingly, immigrants and their friends were appalled by this argument; they immediately and accurately understood it would reinforce prejudice against immigrants. Many refused to adopt this and other consultant-advocated messages and multiple well-meaning but unfocused campaigns were buried in anti-immigrant votes.


In 2003, once again polling showed that concerns about the public health implications of not collecting racial data were the most promising way of defeating the race information ban. But through hard experience, the leaders of the campaign had learned that messages must appeal broadly both to the majority of voters (the 70 % who are mostly disinterested whites) and the communities directly impacted by the measure (communities of color.) Their message sought to draw all Californians together, not single out either victims or beneficiaries of the proposal. The message was that by voting on this "youÕll make a life-and-death decision affecting every Californian. Proposition 54 would block information that can help save lives." The slogan was "it's bad medicine." Campaign messages on mass market TV never mentioned race information. Even in communities of color, the health message was stressed Ð and it was popular there too, not surprisingly.


Lesson: professional campaign managers and ideological justice advocates have to learn to mesh their skills and values if they are going to pull together a broad majority.


3)    Because the professionals and the civil rights advocates were able to work together coherently around a values-based unifying message, they were able to convince the forces that have money for campaigns that contributing to the No on 54 effort might be getting on board with winners. Unions, led by the California Teachers Association and the National Education Association, contributed several million dollars to get the message on the airwaves. Meanwhile a vibrant, energetic student and civil rights mobilization in the communities of color put the icing on the cake -- and California finally defeated one of these race-based initiatives.


Lesson: Resources matter. Racial justice campaigns can be successful when they are realistically funded.

Jan Adams was a consultant to Californians for Justice, one of the anchor civil rights groups in the winning "No on 54" coalition.


This article was originally published as an epilogue to "California's Initiative Wars" by Kim Detterline and Hunter Cutting in TALKING THE WALK: a Communications Guide for Racial Justice. For more information, see