Monday, January 28, 2013

Prop 21 and The Struggle for School Desegregation in California

In 1972, Californians voted on a ballot measure which seriously undermined school de-segregation efforts.  At the time, in the Los Angeles Unified School District, 95 percent of black students and 80 percent of white students were enrolled in highly segregated schools.  The impetus for Prop 21 was the 1970 Crawford v. Los Angeles court case which "found the state's largest school district [Los Angeles] to be deliberately segregated and ordered the [school] board to devise a far-reaching desegregation plan."  Soon after, the Bagley Act passed, which "formally established school desegregation as a policy goal of the state [of California]."

Proposition 21 (or the Wakefield Amendment), which sought to overturn the Bagley Act, was championed by a conservative Republican named Floyd Wakefield who "railed against the yoke of 'forced integration.'"  Wakefield represented the city of South Gate, "a working class city of fifty-seven thousand residents that, through the use of racial covenants and other restrictive practices, remained deeply segregated well into the 1960s.  I recently read about South Gate in Luis Rodriguez's memoir Always Running:

"One day my mother asked Rano and me to go to the grocery store.  We decided to go across the railroad tracks into South Gate.  In those days, South Gate was an Anglo neighborhood, filled with the families of workers from the auto plant, and other nearby industry.  Like Lynwood or Huntington Park, it was forbidden territory for the people of Watts.

My brother insisted we go.  I don't know what possessed him, but then I never did.  It was useless to argue; he'd force me anyway.  He was nine then, I was six.  So without ceremony, we started over the tracks, climbing over discarded market carts and tore-up sofas, across Alameda Street, into South Gate: all-white, all-American.

We entered the first small corner grocery store we found.  Everything was cool at first.  We bought some bread, milk, soup cans and candy.  We each walked out with with a bag filled with food.  We barely got a few feet, though, when five teenagers on bikes approached.  We tried not to pay attention and proceeded to our side of the tracks.  But the youths pulled up in front of us.  While two of them stood nearby on their bikes, three of them jumped off theirs and walked over to us.

"What do we got here?" one of the boys said.  "Spics to order--maybe with some beans?"

He pushed me to the ground; the groceries splattered onto the asphalt.  I felt melted gum and chips of broken beer bottle on my lips and cheek.  Then somebody picked me up and held me while the others seized my brother, tossed his groceries out, and pounded on him.  They punched him in the face, in the stomach, then his face again, cutting his lip, causing him to vomit.

I remember the shrill, maddening laughter of one of the kids on a bike, this laughing like a raven's wail, a harsh wind's shriek, a laugh that I would hear in countless beatings thereafter.  I watched the others take turns on my brother, this terror of a brother, and he doubled over, had blood and spew on his shirt, and tears down his face.  I wanted to do something, but they held me and I just looked on, as every strike against Rano opened me up inside.

They finally let my brother go and he slid to the ground, like a rotten banana squeezed out of his peeling.  They threw us back over the tracks.  In the sunset I could see the Watts Towers, shimmers of 70,000 pieces of broken bottles, sea shells, ceramic and metal on spiraling points puncturing the heavens, with reflected back the rays of a falling sun.  My brother and I then picked ourselves up, saw the teenagers take off, still laughing, still talking about those stupid greasers who dared to cross over to South Gate."

Wakefield argued that "forced busing" and other desegregation efforts would infringe on people's freedom of choice.  Historian Daniel Martinez Hosang describes a story board for a "Yes on 21" campaign commercial: "The storyboard showed a terrified young white girl being forced to board a school bus as her mother stood by helplessly, explaining, 'The government says you and your little friends can't go to school anymore in the neighborhood, honey.'  The girl's forlorn and bewildered response, 'Aren't we people too?' implicitly set the rights of white viewers--the 'we'--against a racialized other receiving unwarranted advantages from, as the ad described, 'that old government.'  The storyboard's concluding panel, 'Restore Freedom of Choice,' was again explicitly racialized, for such a 'freedom' was only available to white parents--minority students assigned to inferior and segregated schools had no such choice."

Many of the groups who sought to defeat prop 21 were the same who had rallied (unsuccessfully) against Prop 14, just eight years earlier: the NAACP, the ACLU, the California Teachers Association, the State Federation of Labor, the League of Women Voters, and several faith-based organizations.

Ultimately, Prop 21 passed by a wide margin: 63 percent of the vote.  As with Proposition 14 (which overturned fair housing legislation) and Prop 11(which denied fair employment), Prop 21 demonstrated the fact that the struggle for Civil Rights was far from over in California.  Schools would remain essentially segregated.

In 1975, the state supreme court overturned Prop 21, stating that it "involved the state in racial discrimination."  Though it was overturned, Prop 21 left a legacy of segregation, one which would be upheld in 1979 by Prop 1.  Hosang describes the "chilling" legacy:

"Though it was only in effect for two years, Proposition 21 did have a chilling effect on many local school desegregation efforts.  The Inglewood and Pasadena school boards immediately attempted to appeal their own desegregation orders, and in cities such as Whittier and Santa Ana planned desegregation measures were never put into effect.  At the same time, the state auditor began monitoring whether school districts were complying with Proposition 21's mandates.  One state education official observed that 'things have come to a dead halt in the area of desegregation since Proposition 21 passed…we have lost ground.'  Indeed, in early 1974, the state census revealed that 192,000 more students attended segregated schools in comparison to five years earlier."

Floyd Wakefield's political career ended shortly after Prop 21 passed, when his state assembly district was eliminated due to redistricting.  In 1974, he moved to Anaheim to run in the newly-created 70th district, which included Anaheim, Brea, and Yorba Linda.  Wakefield stated in an LA Times article that north Orange County was "the area most compatible with his own philosophies."  Ultimately, he lost the Republican primary, and his tenure in politics was over.

Daniel Martinez Hosang describes the decline of Floyd Wakefield, and what it suggests about the changing nature of Southern California politics at the time:

"The decline of Wakefield's eight-year career in the state assembly paralleled important transformations in the political landscape of Southern California during the 1970s.  Wakefield never tempered his ardent conservative postures.  In the last months of his final term in the assembly, he sought to qualify a ballot measure to rescind the California Legislature's 1972 ratification of the Equal Rights Act and sat at the head table of a John Birch Society political banquet where founder Robert Welch called for President Nixon's impeachment.  But Wakefield could no longer count on a constituency in South Gate to reliably support such appeals.  The white working-class residents that a decade earlier had rallied behind Wakefield's  defense of Proposition 14 and segregated South Gate High School were rapidly abandoning the inner suburbs south of Los Angeles for new residential developments in the San Fernando Valley and Orange County.  Wakefield was no innocent bystander in this retreat.  By insisting that cities such as South Gate could never prosper if they became racially integrated, he implicitly endorsed the exodus of white residents that ultimately led to his own political demise.  Wakefield's uncompromising assertion of white rights anchored in the white working-class suburbs of South Los Angeles would give way to a more subtle and sophisticated defense racial inequality and segregation centered in the burgeoning San Fernando Valley."

My main source for the above info is a relatively recent scholarly book called Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California by professor Daniel Martinez Hosang, who teaches at the University of Oregon.  This book, based on a foundation of copious archival research, presents a realistic and unglamorized portrait of the ongoing struggle for civil rights in California, a state that has a liberal reputation, but also has a history of passing very conservative ballot measures.

One of the main insights of the book is to dispel the myth that California "firgured out" and "fixed" social injustices and inequality back in the 1960s.  A realistic look at California's schools and communities reveals shocking social, housing, employment, and educational segregation and inequality.  Hosang's book is helping me to peel back the layers of the onion and really try to understand how we got where we are, and how things might be different.  

No comments:

Post a Comment