The Humble Origins of Proposition 209

Written by Ying Ma

Proposition 16, on the California ballot this November, seeks to overturn Proposition 209, which was adopted by voters in 1996 and prohibits racial discrimination and racial preferences in public contracting, public education, and public employment.

Many of you did not take part in the Prop 209 campaign and those who did may not remember the details. We would like to offer a refresher on the humble origins of this inspirational initiative.

Now Section 31 of Article I of the California Constitution, Prop 209 was co-authored by Glynn Custred, currently professor emeritus of California State University East Bay, and Tom Wood, who received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley, and would later serve as the executive director of the California Association of Scholars.

The first office where they advocated for what would become the Prop 209 campaign was a bare room in an old two-story house that once served as the headquarters of the World Without War Council, on a tree-lined street near UC Berkeley.

Larry Arnn, then the president of the Claremont Institute and now president of Hillsdale College, would become Prop 209’s first chairman. More than a million voters in California would put the initiative on the ballot.

“Proposition 16 forsakes the only principle that can nourish and sustain equal rights: each is alike before the law,” Arnn said in an email to a reporter recently. “That principle was strengthened in the California constitution by Proposition 209. To weaken it is to abandon the hope of the nation pursued from its beginning by the greatest Americans.”

Though California has changed dramatically since 1996, the proponents of racial discrimination and preferences have not: They are resorting to the same dirty political trick now as they did then.

Last week, the Prop 16 campaign issued a memo maligning the opponents of racial preferences as KKK sympathizers. They even dredged up a debate featuring David Duke defending Prop 209 at California State University Northridge (CSUN) in 1996.

In reality, that debate was manufactured by the anti-Prop 209 campaign in a desperate attempt to attract media attention. Duke was invited and paid by CSUN to represent Prop 209, over the strong objections of Prop 209 chairman Ward Connerly.

Duke debated the late Joe Hicks, a veteran civil rights leader who became so disgusted with the tawdry political shenanigans of the anti-Prop 209 campaign that began to rethink his political philosophy after the incident and subsequently became a committed libertarian who opposed racial preferences. Were he not deceased, Joe would be campaigning against Prop 16 today.

Color Bind, an award-winning book about Prop 209 by Lydia Chavez, a UC Berkeley journalism professor opposed to Prop 209, documented the details of how the anti-209 forces attempted to use David Duke to smear the other side. Please see here for a short section from her book.

Sadly, twenty-four years later, the Prop 16 campaign reprised the same dirty political trick last week: Flailing in the polls, they issued a memo trying to link Duke to the opponents of racial preferences once again. It was as desperate and despicable in 1996 and it is today.

Californians have known for decades that the president of the No on Prop 16 campaign, Ward Connerly, a black man with a proud multiracial heritage, has no affinity for the KKK. They have also seen in this campaign the wonderful supporters of NO on Prop 16, who hail from all across the political spectrum and are of all different races and colors.

Co-authored by two obscure academics who worked out of a bare room, Prop 209 became part of the California Constitution because it represented the American ideal of equality. Unable to challenge that ideal, the Prop 16 campaign has resorted to smear tactics and false accusations, just as its predecessors did.

On Election Day, they will fail again, and California will reject their attempt to restore racial discrimination.


Ying Ma is the Communications Director for the No on 16 Campaign