Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California

Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California

Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California

Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California


This book looks beyond the headlines to uncover the controversial history of California's ballot measures over the past fifty years. As the rest of the U.S. watched, California voters banned public services for undocumented immigrants, repealed public affirmative action programs, and outlawed bilingual education, among other measures. Why did a state with a liberal political culture, an increasingly diverse populace, and a well-organized civil rights leadership roll back civil rights and anti-discrimination gains? Daniel Martinez HoSang finds that, contrary to popular perception, this phenomenon does not represent a new wave of "color-blind" policies, nor is a triumph of racial conservatism. Instead, in a book that goes beyond the conservative-liberal divide, HoSang uncovers surprising connections between the right and left that reveal how racial inequality has endured. Arguing that each of these measures was a proposition about the meaning of race and racism, his deft, convincing analysis ultimately recasts our understanding of the production of racial identity, inequality, and power in the postwar era.


One difference between the West and the South I came to
realize … was this: in the South they remained convinced that
they had bloodied their land with history. in California we did
not believe history could bloody the land, or even touch it.

—JOAN didion

In the 1990s, a series of controversial California ballot initiatives renewed a debate over the meaning and significance of race and racism in public life. Within a span of seven years, as the nation looked on, California voters passed propositions banning public education and public services for many immigrants (1994), repealing public affirmative action programs (1996), outlawing bilingual education (1998), and toughening criminal sentencing for adults and juveniles (1994, 2000).

At first blush, California seemed an unlikely site to stage such contentious struggles. During most of the 1990s, California Democrats, traditional supporters of civil rights since the New Deal, held a ten-point lead in voter registration rates, capturing all of the statewide offices by the end of the decade. Moreover, California voters appeared to take quite “liberal” positions on many other issues, approving ballot initiatives to increase the minimum wage and to legalize medical marijuana while rejecting measures backed by conservatives to establish a system of public school vouchers and to weaken the political power of unions. the sudden upsurge of “racial antipathy” on the part of the overwhelmingly white electorate seemed an exception in need of explanation. Why, observers asked, did a wave of “racial conservatism” grip California’s seemingly liberal electorate?

Scholars and pundits have offered several explanations: demographic transformations fueled by a growing number of immigrants arriving from Asia and Latin America; upheavals in the state’s economy, including the steepest economic downturn since the Great Depression; and a series of opportunistic political actors who used the ballot process for their own partisan gain. All of these lines of inquiry are worthy of attention and, indeed, each tells part of the story. But in continuing to search for the exceptional forces that drove the racialized ballot initiatives of the . . .

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