With less than a month left in the battle to place a controversial anti-affirmative action item in the California general election, a critical moment may have slipped past affirmative action supporters.
Plagued by fragmentation and the absence of a clear political target, opponents have allowed the public discussion of the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) to fade away while the initiative’s supporters inch towards an electoral victory.
CCRI prohibits state and local government from discriminating or granting preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in public employment, education and contracting.
UC Berkeley student activist Hatem Bazian admitted that the groups fighting to preserve affirmative action programs are not unified in purpose or strategy, blaming the fragmentation on the movement’s spontaneous creation more than a year ago.
“Part of it is crossing bridges that haven’t been crossed before and building bridges where they haven’t existed,” he said, adding that the various groups are currently in contact with one another and that he expected to see a unified campaign by this summer.
Meanwhile, in a last-minute push, organizers of the measure reportedly are ready to spend up to $.70 for each signature to ensure that they achieve the 700,000 signatures required to place the measure on the ballot.
In the aftermath of the UC Regents’ July decision to ban affirmative action programs in university hiring and admissions procedures, the sporadic protests which have emerged make the need for unity in a movement whose strength lies in mass support clear.
The first large-scale protest to follow the regents’ vote came to the UC Berkeley campus more than a month after the decision, drew approximately 500 participants and lasted little over an hour.
A second strike came at the September 1995 regents’ meeting, where protestors stormed inside the meeting chambers and promptly began arguing about what to do next.
The third, and final, large-scale protest came one month later with a number of student rallies across the state and an attempted campus shut-down at UC Berkeley.
While the focus remained on UC Berkeley and UCLA, students across the state also used the day to voice their opposition to the regents’ decision. The remaining seven UC campuses, as well as community colleges and other universities, also held rallies, yet none drew more than a few hundred participants.
Although some may point to a lack of focus among activists as cause for the downgrading of the affirmative action debate, Bazian said the right abandoned the issue with Calif. Gov. Pete Wilson’s failed attempt at the Republican presidential nomination.
“Wilson made the issue far more an electoral issue for himself and less an ideological issue for the Republican party. (There now exists) different strains within the Republican party that are really unsure about what way to go with affirmative action,” said Bazian.
The disarray on both sides of the political spectrum is only strengthened by the slew of initiatives–the Prohibits Preferential Treatment initiative, Affirms Affirmative Action, the California Economic and Education Opportunity Act, and the No Quota Civil Rights Initiative–competing with CCRI for a place on the ballot.
Attempts to end affirmative action electorally also have their counterpart in legislative circles. According to Rachel Richmond, spokesperson for state assemblyman Tom Bates (D-Berkeley), 10 bills demanding the end to affirmative action programs were proposed in the state assembly last year–all defeated due to lack of support among the business community.
According to CCRI Campaign Manager Rene Ramsey, the initiative has currently gained the support of more than 350,000 voters–slightly more than half the number necessary to qualify for a place on the state ballot.
Ramsey said, far from being anti-affirmative action, CCRI offers outreach and inclusion to all as well as assistance in achieving equal opportunity for all Californians.
“We include anybody who wants the help,” she said, adding that the group is currently waiting until the initiative comes on the ballot before they draw up specific policy and issue statements.
Other CCRI advocates could not be reached for comment.
Opponents to CCRI are currently directing their organizing efforts toward a National Organization of Women-sponsored mass rally and march this spring in San Francisco. With more than 250,000 expected to attend, planners hope the event will not only send a message to CCRI proponents, but also highlight the role of affirmative action in benefiting women.
“If you cast the issue solely in terms of race, then we have played into the Republican strategy,” said Bazian. “We are now launching an old-fashioned campaign. We want to out-organize the conservatives and turn the debate into a race-gender one.”
“My sense is that there has been a change in race dynamics in this country with the entrance of racist norms that were unacceptable only a few years ago,” said Bazian. “For us to change the dynamics, we have to increase the voter turnout among people of color by 5 percent.”
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