California reaffirms its rejection of racial discrimination - Businesslive

30 November 2020 - One of the most striking lines in an article I read last week was this: “Americans embrace the Civil Rights Act of 1964 now more than ever.”

Michael Morris

One of the most striking lines in an article I read last week was this: “Americans embrace the Civil Rights Act of 1964 now more than ever.”

Well, of course they do, you might say. Donald Trump is on his way out, Black Lives Matter is ascendant, critical race theory is being embraced by the intelligentsia, and identity politics is the normative standard. What’s there to be intrigued about? 

In fact, it’s not like that at all. The line comes from a piece on the outcome of Proposition 16 in California, a proposal on the general election ballot in the state on November 3 to repeal California’s Proposition 209 of 1996.

Proposition 209 prohibited state government institutions from considering race, sex or ethnicity, specifically in public employment, public contracting and public education, thus banning the use of affirmative action in California’s public sector.

Proposition 16 sought to overthrow the 24-year-old Proposition 209 and replace race neutrality with affirming race-consciousness in laws, programmes and regulations.

Against everything that most suppose is true of America — or California — who would have doubted the outcome? The odds were certainly stacked in favour of racialising state assistance.

As veteran political commentator Michael Barone wrote: “The ballot measure was supported by the Democratic supermajorities in the state legislature; by long-established corporations and Silicon Valley tech firms; by leaders of mainline churches and non-profit organisations. Some $20m was spent on its behalf and only $1m in opposition.”

Yet, Proposition 16 failed … “by a solid margin of 57% to 43% in a state that voted 64% for Joe Biden”, as Barone put it. It showed that “Californians, like most other Americans, don’t like racial discrimination”.

What was most striking for Barone was that “Proposition 16 was rejected by a wider margin — 57% to 43% — than the margin by which Proposition 209 was adopted 24 years ago — 55% to 45%”. And, during that time, California “has become strikingly more ethnically diverse and culturally liberal. And more Democratic. Bill Clinton carried California by 13 points, Joe Biden by 30.”

Hence his observation that “Americans embrace the Civil Rights Act of 1964 now more than ever.” And, of course, one recalls the “dream deeply rooted in the American dream” defined a year earlier by some of the 20th century’s most famous lines, spoken from a podium at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on August 28 1963.

It was here, reputedly at the prompting of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson — who called out, “Tell them about the dream!” — that Martin Luther King departed from his prepared text. The rousing lines that followed, each beginning “I have a dream …”, included what perhaps remains the simplest rebuttal of racialism in modern times: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

This was not, of course, a universally popular idea at the time — FBI counterintelligence programme director William C Sullivan wrote in a memo a few days later that “King’s powerful demagogic speech [marked him] … as the most dangerous negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the negro and national security”.

It is ironic that King’s simple idea is as much of a threat now to the devotees of critical race theory. But the Californian result does suggest that if good ideas take time to win popular endorsement, they usually do in the long run.

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.