Though we rarely think of it this way, many of the nation’s most celebrated milestones of social progress are in fact acts of civic redemption. The Emancipation Proclamation, the 19th Amendment, the Voting Rights Act — all corrected grievous injustices that never should have occurred.
Similarly, some monumental political achievements are meant to fill the void left by our collective inaction, and the resulting harm done to the common good. As Californians fill out their ballots between now and Election Day, they will determine the fate of three statewide measures intended to remedy public sins of commission and omission that have exacted a steep human toll.
Proposition 15 would make amends for one of the most far-reaching ballot measures in American history — 1978’s era-defining Prop. 13. With its landslide passage, Prop. 13 not only upended California’s revenue stream for public education, it ushered in a taxpayer revolt that spread to cities and states across the country. In the rush to lower property taxes, California crippled one of the best K–12 public education systems in the nation while also starving local government of the funds needed for a host of essential programs.
The cumulative impact of Prop. 13 over the ensuing four decades is difficult to quantify. The rapid decline of the state’s K–12 schools is well documented, but how do we measure the real cost of this descent into substandard education? How many kids, deprived of quality schools, saw their futures shortchanged, their economic, emotional and psychological well-being sacrificed on the altar of lower taxes?
How many libraries in poor communities closed for lack of funds, eliminating a critical refuge for both children and adults? How many programs had to turn away those in need, day after day, year after year, while frozen-in-place commercial property taxes padded the coffers of mega-land owners.
Like Prop. 15, Prop. 16 — which seeks to overturn California’s ban on considering race, sex or ethnicity in public employment, contracting and education — is politics as redemption. It speaks to our current reckoning with the persistence of racism, and our willful delusion that systemic discrimination is a thing of the past.
California’s passage of Prop. 209, in 1996, outlawed the use of affirmative action by state government, effectively pulling the rug out from under a generation of people of color. The passage by voters of Prop. 209 was undergirded by a patently false narrative: that affirmative action was no longer needed to combat racial bias, and furthermore, that it amounted to reverse discrimination.
The lie that buttressed Prop. 209 was quickly revealed: Black enrollment at state universities plummeted, while women- and minority-owned businesses lost hundreds of millions of dollars in potential contracts. In the nearly 25 years since the measure was enacted, economic inequality in California has steadily risen, with disproportionate impacts on populations that were targeted by Prop. 209. In our rush to pretend that entrenched racism had been eliminated, more damage was inflicted on people of color, with impacts that are impossible to fully calculate.
Prop. 21, also on the November ballot, promises to redeem both the inaction of the past several years, during which California has experienced a severe affordable housing crisis, and a deliberate act of greed carried out at the behest of powerful real estate interests. It would nullify parts of the 1995 Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act, which imposed draconian limits on the ability of local government to pass rent control laws.
As housing costs have skyrocketed across the state, the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom have done relatively little to ease the pain felt by millions of renters. The sharp rise in housing costs has accelerated the slow-burn disaster set in motion a quarter-century ago by Costa-Hawkins, exposing the confluence of market and governmental failures to meet a basic human need — that of safe, affordable shelter.
It is hard to overstate the magnitude of California’s housing disaster, and equally difficult to measure the pain it has caused. How many families have been evicted? How many kids have been stripped of the security of decent housing?
How many breadwinners have been denied precious time with their children by exhausting commutes to and from semi-affordable outposts hours away from underpaid jobs? This is the new reality that our broken housing system has engendered — a reality that Prop. 21 seeks to change.
In politics, as in other spheres of our lives, we often must wrestle with the past in order to secure a better future. This election year, California’s misdeeds from the last decades of the 20th century sit squarely on the November ballot, inviting voters to take stock and choose a different path forward.
Danny Feingold is publisher of Capital & Main, an award-winning investigative news organization that reports on economic, social and racial inequality.