In more than two decades of public life, former California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown has established a strong public image: dapper, cool and smiling, unflappable. But there he was one day in February, pounding on a podium, angrily denouncing Golden State voters as people who are "narrow-minded in many cases, who are only interested in just their little sphere." The San Francisco Democrat, arguably the most powerful figure in Sacramento for over a decade, told the reporters he had assembled that "everybody in here has been the beneficiary of preferential treatment at my expense--at every level of your lives, at every level of your lives."
Brown's anger had been set off by the California Civil Rights Initiative, an amendment to the state constitution that may appear on next year's ballot. Brown denounced the initiative as "totally phony" and "totally and completely a racist move." His charges have been echoed by other opponents of the measure. The measure's sponsors, on the other hand, say it will simply end the quotas that pervade the state's employment, education, and contracting programs and will restore the vision of a colorblind society that motivated the early civil rights movement.
As of this writing, the first of the 650,000 signatures needed to place the CCRI on the 1996 ballot hasn't even been collected, and the initiative campaign is still seriously underfunded. But already the measure has become perhaps the most controversial ballot initiative in California history, and it has sparked a national debate on affirmative action that may affect next year's presidential election. This battle has seemingly emerged out of nowhere. If the early rounds in California are any indication, the fight will be hot and bitter.
But despite the harsh rhetoric, the battle may ultimately turn on interpretation of the numbers on government hiring and education. And those numbers suggest strongly that affirmative action programs, especially in the state universities' professional schools, have promoted less qualified members of favored ethnic groups to the particular detriment of Asians and, to a lesser extent, of whites.
The text of the CCRI seems simple enough: "Neither the State of California nor any of its political subdivisions or agents shall use race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group in the operation of the State's system of public employment, public education or public contracting." The initiative goes on to exempt affirmative action mandated by federal law or by existing court orders or consent decrees. Nor would it affect private-sector affirmative action programs.
Early polls show that the CCRI enjoys strong support among California's electorate. A statewide survey released by the Field Institute in March showed registered voters backed the initiative 60 percent to 35 percent, with only 5 percent undecided. Whites supported the measure 65 percent to 29 percent. Slim majorities of blacks, Latinos, and Asians opposed the measure, but even in those ethnic groups support for the CCRI was at 40 percent or higher. Republicans backed the measure by 75 percent to 20 percent, while Democrats opposed it 51 percent to 44 percent.
The emergence of the CCRI, and its huge popularity, has taken some politicians by surprise. After all, affirmative action wasn't an issue in the 1994 elections at either the state or national level. But others say they are not shocked that so many people say they will vote to overturn affirmative action.
"Having seen the results of public-opinion surveys and polls over the last few years, I'm not surprised by the popularity of this measure," says Alan Heslop, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "The polls have shown a rapidly declining satisfaction with affirmative action. This decline is most pronounced among whites and Asians, but it's there to some extent with Hispanics, and even to a small extent among blacks."
David Bositis, senior political analyst for the Joint Center on Political and Economic Studies, concurs. "This issue has been out there for some time," he says. "Polls have shown that whites opposed affirmative action by a margin of about 75 percent to 25 percent for the last five years."
Why has this dissatisfaction with affirmative action gone unnoticed for so long? "I think that there was a real disconnect between the elites and the masses," says Frederick Lynch, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of Invisible Victims: White Males and the Crisis of Affirmative Action. "This dissatisfaction has been out there, but no one has been willing to acknowledge it. Affirmative action is the Bermuda Triangle of social research. Only a handful of academics have even bothered to look into the results of the programs. Even the major conservative think tanks, which publish studies on every other area of public policy, have been reluctant to take on this issue."
A number of factors, some peculiar to California, seem to have brought the issue to a head. Lynch cites the emergence of talk radio as a forum for the masses to discuss the issues important to them. He and others also say the results of last November's election propelled conservative issues in general to the top of the political agenda.
And the mere fact that California has the ballot initiative is one reason the debate on affirmative action began here. Interest groups and regular citizens alike have long used the initiative process to bypass the state legislature when it has been reluctant to address their concerns. Most famously, in 1978 Californians approved by a large margin the property-tax-cutting measure Proposition 13. This vote helped launch a nationwide round of tax cuts. Last year, Golden State voters gave a big thumbs up to Proposition 187, a measure that cut off government services to illegal immigrants. "The success of Prop. 187 prepared the way for the California Civil Rights Initiative," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at the Claremont Graduate School. "It showed that issues of class and race were open to debate."
The authors of the CCRI, two academics named Tom Wood and Glynn Custred, say that before taking on this issue they were not political. "But after spending so many years in higher education, where these preferences are so aggressive, widespread, and institutionalized, we realized something had to be done," says Wood. Though Wood and Custred say they are nonpartisan, virtually all of the politicians supporting the measure are Republicans. Even Gov. Pete Wilson, who introduced racial and gender goals and timetables for city employment and contracts when he was mayor of San Diego in the 1970s, backs the initiative.
"This issue got hijacked by the Republicans, who see it as a way to appeal to and bring to the polls a certain segment--the so-called angry white males--that was so important to their victories last fall," says Jeffe. "The measure has taken on a life quite different from what its authors assumed."
The CCRI's backers deny that it has been "hijacked" by Republicans. "We gave the Democrats a chance, and they fumbled it," says Joe Gelman, campaign director for the California Civil Rights Initiative, referring to a vote last spring in which Democrats on the state Senate Governmental Organization Committee rejected a move to place the initiative on the March 1996 ballot. In April, delegates at the California Democratic Party convention voted overwhelmingly to oppose the measure.