Friday, November 14, 2008

Thoughts on California and the Next Generation

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In the excitement over the historic election of Barack Obama it is important to reflect on the landscape-altering impact of this year’s California ballot initiatives. Boasting one of the most divisive socially conservative agendas in recent memory, this year’s ballot initiatives highlighted why the initiative process has become a virtual cesspool for plutocratic special interests. At least four initiatives were bankrolled by millionaires, political action committees disguised as tax exempt faith-based initiatives and out-of-state GOP power brokers.

Voters rightly rejected the stentorian law and order Runner Initiative or Prop 6, yet also nixed humane treatment of non-violent drug offenders and potential reductions in the prison population by voting against Proposition 5. Voters approved an increase in the county sales tax for highways and public transit and backed millions for a high speed rail bond measure that the progressive Labor/Strategy Center argued will have little benefit for transit dependent L.A. communities of color. And as the nation now knows, voters backed Prop 8—the controversial anti-same sex marriage initiative that got overwhelming support from blacks and Latinos—yet they also rejected Prop 4’s parental notification for abortion policy by a slim majority.

If we examine the generational divide that exists between youth and adults on social issues such as sexual orientation, young people consistently express more tolerant views of gays and lesbians in polls than do older respondents. Last week, during an election forum at predominantly black and Latino Gardena High School, students spoke out against Proposition 8, arguing that using religious dogma to strip gays and lesbians of their constitutional right to marry was dead wrong. The generational divide is part of the reason why the margins of victory for this initiative have decreased when compared with over 60% of the electorate that supported a similar initiative, Proposition 22, in 2000. Although many have criticized the anti-Prop 8 forces for not mobilizing enough among communities of color, I believe that black folk in particular had a moral obligation and responsibility to reject this initiative. First, out of solidarity with lesbian and gay parents, families and caregivers in our communities, and second out of solidarity with our history of having been violently denied marriage rights as slaves and as racial others. On the flip side, the specter of state control over the bodies and destinies of young women moved the electorate and elicited outrage from young people over Prop 4. Regardless of their religious or ideological orientation, most young people were sensitive to the grave implications of encroaching upon the bodies and right to self-determination of young women. When the students learned who funded the initiative most scorned the right of a handful of white male millionaires to police the futures of young women.

While Obama’s mobilization of the youth vote inspired folk who had never voted before to go to the polls, not everyone felt empowered. When I went around to senior classes with my Women’s Leadership Project students to register 18 year-old voters a couple of young men were apprehensive about registering, moping that their vote wouldn’t count, so why register. I had to give them a mini primer on the bloody history of voting rights in this country, the thousands who fought and died, weathered literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses and worse just to exercise their constitutional rights. In many regards this election has been a litmus test for that legacy of struggle. And while we celebrate Obama’s victory, the lessons from California remind us that it will only be through critically conscious engagement with the full diversity of our communities—challenging the anti-democratic ideology of religious fundamentalism—that black people will continue to be at the forefront of progressive social change in this country.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and a commentator for KPFK 90.7 FM.