Prop 209: Relearning the Lesson of Human Equality

Lucas Morel

September 1, 1997

Last week a federal appeals court decided not to reargue the constitutionality of Proposition 209, which amends the California Constitution to prohibit the government from using racial or sex preferences in hiring, contracting, or college admissions. The California Civil Rights Initiative (or "Prop. 209") was passed by 54% of Californians last November, but in April a district court judge issued a stay preventing its enactment. The case then went to a circuit court of appeals, which overturned the district court’s decision, thus allowing the amendment to take effect. Unfortunately, years of living under affirmative action have corrupted civic understanding of the rights that all Americans have in common.

For example, a woman of Filipino descent who benefited from affirmative action at a California state university, protested the implementation of Prop. 209. She explained, "I want to make sure my children have the same opportunities that I had." Notice what is implied here: her kids’ opportunity to fulfill their dreams in this country depends not on their own character and skills but on special efforts by the government to smooth their way into college. This is a patronizing view of their capacity to fend for themselves under the general protection of laws that govern all Americans.

This is all the more ironic, given the date the appeals court allowed Prop. 209 to take effect: August 28, the 34th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous "I Have a Dream Speech." In 1963, King dreamed of a day when his children would "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." He did not doubt the capacity of his children, or the children of any racial minority, to succeed in America. He only asked that government permit them an equal chance to pursue that success.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, organizer of a Prop. 209 protest/march in San Francisco, implied that Prop. 209 was targeted at minorities when he stated: "This law affects the majority of the population, not just the minority." But, of course, the law affects neither a minority nor a majority, but all of the population. It protects every man and woman’s right to be treated by the government without reference to their race or sex. Jackson’s confusion, similar to the woman’s quoted earlier, is the corrosive legacy of affirmative action policies that have taught Americans to view themselves not as equal partners but as competing beggars for government privileges. Affirmative action, which Prop. 209 explicitly reverses at the state level, denies the natural capacity of racial minorities to take care of themselves, with the deplorable consequence that many Americans now understand "civil rights" to mean "minority rights."

When asked, "What shall we do with the Negro?" the escaped slave-turned-abolitionist speaker Frederick Douglass replied, "Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us." He understood that the problem of racial bigotry in America had more to do with government intervention than with government neglect. Douglass summed up in one word what the Negro asks of government, "justice." This means "equality before the law" for all Americans, the protection of what King called "citizenship rights." King said his dream was "deeply rooted in the American dream, that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." With the dismantling of affirmative action just beginning in a few states, one can see how far we have to go to restore human equality as the operative principle of our government.

By enacting Proposition 209, Californians teach the nation that racial identity has no part to play in the protection they receive from their common government. But it is a lesson, however, that will not be learned easily. Not because it is new, for it is as old as the Declaration of Independence. Rather, its difficulty lies in the resistance of some who do not recognize how little they esteem their brothers and sisters of color. San Francisco County officials, for example, have declared their opposition to the constitutional ban on racial preferences. "We’re not changing anything," announced deputy city attorney Marc Slavin. Other state officials have adopted a "wait-and-see" policy, hesitating to change government hiring procedures too drastically until a final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is exhausted, expected no sooner than October. In the mean time, other states (like Washington) are pressing ahead with amendments of their own, modeled after Prop. 209.

President Clinton has called for a national dialogue on race relations in America. As many have commented already, it is a conversation that began at the nation’s founding, and has continued through this day. Perhaps if we remove race once and for all from government consideration, citizens will be able to speak the language of human equality to each other, and generations yet unborn will stand a chance of living in a society free of racial bias.

Lucas Morel is an Adjunct Fellow at the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at John Brown University in Arkansas.