Proposition 107 Essay

In an election dominated by the outsized personalities of a few Tea Partiers, voters’ opportunities to engage in direct democracy—that is, to vote on ballot initiatives—are easy to overlook. But initiatives on state ballots across the country give voters the chance to have their say on a number of important issues, from shooting down healthcare reform, to radically restricting reproductive rights, to banning affirmative action.


These initiatives don’t all cater to the Right, however: possibly the most high-profile ballot initiative of this election season is California’s Proposition 19, which would legalize marijuana possession for anyone over 21 and allow the government to tax and regulate its consumption.


Prop 19’s supporters, including The Nation, argue that it would save the state the $1.7 billion currently going into enforcement each year, make marijuana consumption safer, and allow police to focus on more serious crimes—potentially decreasing drug-related violence at the border and curbing the drug war’s disproportionate affect on minority communities.


The bill’s opponents argue that if Prop 19 is passed, “it will be legal for a driver to get high right before taking the wheel”—which is puzzling, considering alcohol consumption has long been legal, while driving under the influence is not. Too bad polls show a slim majority of California voters aren’t keen on the measure. Fifty-one percent of all likely voters are opposed to it as of October 22, according to a USC/LA Times poll, though 55 percent of likely voters under 29 are in support.


Though no other state is going quite as far as the Golden State, voters in Arizona, Oregon and South Dakota will all find initiatives to legalize medical marijuana on their ballot.


Initiatives discussed: Proposition 19, California; Proposition 203, Arizona; Measure 74, Oregon; Measure 13, South Dakota


Credit: Reuter Pictures

On Tuesday, Arizona voters were given the chance to vote on Proposition 107, which prohibits "the state from giving preferential treatment to or discriminating against any person or group on the basis of race, sex, colour, ethnicity or national origin". The measure passed with 59% of the vote, effectively banning affirmative action in the state.

Proposition 107 supporters, including Republican representative Steve Montenegro, who sponsored the measure to amend the Arizona constitution, have invoked civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr's dream that "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" and twisted that into a plea for "colour-blindness" rather than equality. Affirmative action, which began in the United States in 1965, is a policy designed to mitigate historic and present discrimination and institutional racism and sexism. 

A 1996 essay in the Journal for Social Issues noted that in a society where whiteness remains the baseline and the preference – consciously or subconsciously – people of colour are at a disadvantage:

"All else being equal, colour-blind seniority systems tend to protect white workers against job layoffs, because senior employees are usually white (Ezorsky, 1991). Likewise, colour-blind college admissions favour white students because of their earlier educational advantages. Unless preexisting inequities are corrected or otherwise taken into account, colour-blind policies do not correct racial injustice – they reinforce it."

Affirmative action offers a way to counteract that racial bias – and the gender bias – that remain pervasive in our society. The journal article offers a statistic from the US labour department, revealing that affirmative action has helped 5 million minority members, as well as 6 million white and minority women, move up in the workforce.

Of course, there are those who would claim that the forces that may have inhibited the success of women and minorities in the past have been erased, especially since, thanks to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, we've achieved a post-racial and post-feminist society. (Please note: tongue firmly in cheek, here.)

It astonishes me how short our collective memory is. Institutional racism is not a thing of the distant past, some evil that died with the Civil war. I am 40 years old. My paternal grandparents were not allowed to vote until they were well into their 60s, when the Civil Rights Act was signed. My father was raised in the Jim Crow south, attending separate and unequal schools, riding in the back of the bus, and never entering through a white neighbour's front door. My mother's choices, as a young woman in the 1960s, were limited both by the biases against black people, but also against women.

For generations upon generations, people of colour and women were barred from positions of power, from voting for their own government representation, and from taking part equally in opportunities for growth and success. That marginalisation made it more difficult to lay the foundation for the achievement of future generations. The idea that we have made up for hundreds of years of oppression in barely 50 years is ludicrous. 

And oppression is not merely history. Bias and inequality live and "the playing field" is not equal. Women still earn 77 cents to the male dollar. Extract from that black and Latina women and the figure drops to 68 cents and 58 cents respectively. Research has shown that people with names traditionally thought of as African American, or who have other racially identifying information on their resumes, receive fewer responses to job queries. According to the Journal on Social Issues article:

"[W]ithout affirmative action, the percentage of black students at many selective schools would drop to only 2% of the student body (Bowen & Bok, 1998). This would effectively choke off black access to top universities and severely restrict progress toward racial equality."

These figures may seem startling to some – according to the New York Times, "maybe because of the popular perception that affirmative action still confers significant advantages [my emphasis] to black job candidates, a perception that is not borne out in studies. Moreover, statistics show even college-educated blacks suffering disproportionately in this jobless environment compared with whites."

It is a privilege to believe in a level playing field, a privilege to believe in post-racialism and post-feminism. Women and people of colour cannot afford to be so naive. Arizona, a state that voted no to a Martin Luther King holiday and wants brown folks to routinely have their "papers" checked, just made it a little harder for marginalised people to get along. In a disingenuous effort to guard against discrimination, Republican lawmakers have led Arizonans actually to enshrine inequality in the state's governing document.


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