Wednesday, March 27, 2013

California's History of Discriminatory Ballot Measures

In the context of the current debate over Prop 8 and the legalization of same-sex marriage, it's helpful to understand that California has a long history of passing discriminatory ballot measures that are later challenged legally.  Here are some examples. The source of this information is a fascinating book called Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California by professor Daniel Martinez Hosang, who teaches at the University of Oregon.  

Prop 11 and the Struggle for Fair Employment 

In 1946, Californians voted on Proposition 11, which sought to create a state Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), which would officially ban discrimination based on race, religion, color, or national origin in the workplace. It was inspired by President Roosevelt's Fair Employment Practices Commission, which was created at the outset of World War II.

At the time, employment discrimination was widespread in California.  Hosang writes, "At the time, California's burgeoning defense industry, from the sprawling Kaiser shipyards along the San Francisco Bay to the massive Lockheed airplane factories in Los Angeles County, routinely consigned black and Mexican American workers to the lowest paid jobs, if they hired them at all."

Martin Luther King Jr, Augustus Hawkins, and Pat Brown

The champion of Prop 11 was Assemblyman Augustus Hawkins, who at the time was the only African American in the California state assembly (he was very light-skinned).  Other groups lent their support: The NAACP, the Urban League, the American Council on Race Relations, the California Federation for Civic Unity, as well as union organizations like the CIO.

Those opposed to Prop 11 included Frank Doherty, former president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, as well as powerful agricultural lobbyists who had relied on cheap immigrant labor for decades.  The ballot argument against Prop 11 stated that "certain minority racial groups are the most efficient agricultural labor."

Another tactic to defeat Prop 11 was red-baiting.  Doherty called it a "communist-inspired scene."

But the chief argument of those opposed to Prop 11 was one that would resonate in future civil rights debates, that discrimination was an individual choice which could not be "coerced" by legislation.  A Los Angeles Times editorial explained, "Admirable as it might be if race and religious prejudice ceased to exist, The Times does not believe that the disappearance of either can be helped by compulsion…prejudices by their very nature are matters of emotion rather than logic or reason."

This argument, clothed in the language of individual rights, has proved a powerful one against large-scale civil rights legislation in California and elsewhere.

Ultimately, Prop 11 was "crushed on election day, capturing less than 30 percent of the vote."  The FEPC would not be created until 1959, with the passage of the passage of the California Fair Employment Practices Act of the state legislature.

The 1946 defeat of Prop 11 led one historian to write, "The public was definitely not ready for fair employment."

Prop 14 and the Struggle for Fair Housing 

"Men hate each other because they fear, they fear because they do not know one another, and they do not know one another because they are separated."

--Martin Luther King Jr, speaking in Los Angeles at a 1964 anti-prop 14 rally

In 1963, the California State Legislature passed the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which sought to address widespread housing discrimination and segregation in California.  For years, non-whites had been excluded from buying or renting property in many neighborhoods across California by racially restrictive housing covenants, which were created and enforced by realtors and homeowners associations, because non-whites were perceived to drive down property values.  

Assemblyman William Byron Rumford.

According to HoSang, "Bodies like the Southwest Realty Board in Los Angeles formed 'race restrictions committees' to organize homeowners to maintain racial restrictions, publicizing their success in the California Real Estate Association magazine."  It was racist housing covenants that created the widespread housing segregation across cities in California, even in my own hometown of Fullerton.

To address this social problem/injustice, California legislators William Byron Rumford, with the support of others like Augustus Hawkins and Jesse Unruh, introduced the Fair Housing Bill, which sought to make racially restrictive housing covenants illegal.  The bill passed in 1963.

In response, the National Association for Real Estate Boards and the California Real Estate Associaion mobilized their 45,000 members and 171 local realty boards to get a proposition on the ballot to overturn the Fair Housing Act.  A 1964 Advertisement in the Oakland Tribune spelled out their argument:


In September 1963, the Rumford Act became state law.  Heretofore, a man's home was his castle.  The Rumford Act makes a man's home subject to the whims of a politically appointed State Board…The politically appointed Commission can FORCE you to sell or rent your home to an individual NOT OF YOUR CHOICE.  Most people believe that a man has the right to sell, rent, or lease his property to whomever he wishes; consequently they OPPOSE the Rumford Act…VOLUNTEERS NEEDED TO CIRCULATE PETITIONS. (Source: Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California by Daniel Martinez HoSang)

The realtors and their supporters were successful in getting Prop 14 on the 1964 ballot, and thus began a widely public debate over the issue of fair housing in California.  Both sides used the language of "rights."  Those opposed to Prop 14 spoke of the rights of non-whites to rent or purchase property.  Those in favor of Prop 14 spoke of property owners' rights to choose whom to sell or rent to.

"Get Back Your Rights," Committee for Home Protection flyer in favor of Proposition 14, 1964.  Courtesy of Max Mont Papers, Urban Archives Center, Oviatt Library, California State University, Northridge.

Many heavy-hitters in the Civil Rights Movement (which was in full force in 1964) weighed in on the issue.  Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at an anti-14 rally in Los Angeles, stating, "Men hate each other because they fear, they fear because they do not know one another, and they do not know one another because they are separated."

Ultimately, Prop 14 passed by a margin of 65 to 35 percent, striking down the Fair Housing Act.  According to Lucien Haas, the press secretary appointed by governor Pat Brown to work on the anti-14 campaign, "Proposition 14 shattered [the myth] for me," as he realized, "My God, we're facing racism in the state of California."

In 1966, the California Supreme Court ruled in Mulkey vs. Reitman that Prop 14 was unconstitutional.  One realtor who ultimately changed his mind about Prop 14 stated, "The right we are giving up is the right to discriminate on the basis of race.  Is that a right we want to bat for?  I don't think this is a thing we should do a lot of breast-beating about.  It is not a laudable right in the first place."  Another inquired, "I wonder if we are not in favor of this type of legislation because we are men of property and men who have not ever been discriminated against?"

"Don't Legalize Hate," Californians against Proposition 14 flyer, 1964.  The image on this brochure was also featured on billboards across the state.  Courtesy of Max Mont Papers, Urban Archives Center, Oviatt Library, California State University, Northridge.

Even though Prop 14 was ultimately struck down, it made clear the fact that California was deeply divided about the issue of housing integration, and remains so today.  Today, in 2013, despite what we tell ourselves about civil rights progress, there remains widespread (unofficial) housing segregation in many California cities.  This issue of fair housing and de-segregation is one that REMAINS unresolved in California today.  The struggle continues.

Prop 21 and the Struggle for School De-Segregation 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.  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.  


  1. I started by reading "The town I live in". When I came across the segregation of minorities in Fullerton I thought of my Grandparents. They migrated here in the 40s and lived in a wooden shack on Truslow St. They worked as crop pickers and watched the housing tracks get built along the tracks of Truslow to Rosslyn all the way to harbor Blvd. My Grandpa comes from a family of twelve, six boys and six girls. They all worked in the fields and each one of them purchased there own brand new home in this area (Maple Area), it was the only place they were allowed to live. When Maple School closed in 1972 because of so called desegregation I grew up and experienced this separation of the community first hand. In elementary school you really don't question why the kids two blocks away from where you live get bussed to a different school. Now that I am an adult I realize that this really messed us up as a community.

    1. I feel your pain, through the history discrimination are everywhere in the world. For your children who does not understand yet what is discrimination is about, for sure soon you started to question why the society is so cruel. As of now, there are many laws protecting discriminatory act, if you feel you are violated there is a proper forum on filing a case against them. We should be tough and strong on fighting any discriminatory act.

  2. Tatiana Granados
    English 101
    California’s History of Ballot Measures article sounds like an issue that is still relevant to this day. People being racist about the residents who are able to buy and occupy the houses around them should be punished. If people need to make sure that colored ethnicities don’t move into the surrounding houses, maybe they should move somewhere else. I believe that if a person can afford a house they should be able to buy it and live in it. If white people want to act superior to other races, they should live in areas that are too wealthy for the common people. Its annoying that they believe they can force other people to not purchase houses because it will make the property value lessen. Its crazy to see the statistics after the desegregation laws passed in schools as well. The conclusion reminded me how everyone not from California believes it to be this amazing, laid back state where there is no drama. I think were almost the complete opposite however. Out of all the states I’ve been too, were the more diverse so that means more racism. I cannot think of American being completely peaceful or understanding. It would be nice to see but it most likely wont happen with people still hanging confederate flags in their front yard. And racism isn’t the only thing that is continuing today. Its just one more issue to add to the mess of this country.
    The chapter Genesis and the Stetson was pretty funny. I liked how his family gave him crap for not dressing like a Mexican. And when he finally tried, he looked ridiculous. Its awesome too that the government would match the profits that dances would make. I bet our country would get out of debt real fast. Dancing is a big part of my culture being Mexican. Every party we have, there is always a dance floor with music and people dancing. I like watching my family dance too. Its awesome watching two people connect o dance floors. It was pretty gross that Gustavo dated his cousin for two years too. And the fact that most of the girls he liked were Mexican. It was sad to hear that he was always rejected when he asked girls if he wanted to dance though. Also, the fact that he was friend-zoned or that he got stuck with the ugly cousin was also sad. That sucks constantly feeling that way. I wonder if his self esteem has changed now that he is a writer?

  3. Hannah Yoon
    ENGL 101, M W F 10-10:50
    This article about racism is so connected and so relevant to today. It surprises me that even now when there is no school segregation and whatnot, there is still racism. Some people still seem to hold a grudge against certain types of people. I believe people need to be allowed to live wherever they want to. If they need a place to stay, then they should have a place to stay. A safe place. Not somewhere out in the streets. Everyone is human and we all basically need shelter to survive. It is not fair that one race receives all the advantages while others do not. Isn’t the United States a diverse nation? That is something that I think does not soak into peoples’ minds. This nation is the most diverse out of all. I also agree with the quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Men hate each other because they fear, they fear because they do not know one another, and they do not know one another because they are separated." It sums up the whole definition of racism into one sentence. People were not taking the chance to get to know one another. It is different to actually know someone than to have a stereotype or a first impression about them. It seems as though the whites – who made themselves superior to all races – did not even try to speak one word to other races. It seems as though the whites did not want anything to do with others. And I feel it was because of that “stereotype”. It is completely rude to think that a property value will go down just because other people buy them. I was actually surprised when I read that someone was shocked that racism was in California. I thought this whole time that racism was just everywhere in the United States. I did not think that California held such a big reputation on racism. But, we are – I think – considered one of the most diverse states in the nation. Of course racism will never completely go away, but I’m glad that it has increasingly lessened from the past. At least there is no more segregation in schools, neighborhoods, etc. All that has changed, and people know each other now because we are not segregated. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement was absolutely true. It is the thing that stood out to me the most in this article, and now it seems like people took that sort of statement into consideration and are now making a change.

  4. This is a great blog! Thanks, Jesse! California has a long history of vicious racism. A rancher told me in the old days, one would think no more of an Indian than a coyote in shooting him and throwing him over the fence.