Posted on April 25, 2005

Equal Opportunity: A Fact Of Life in California Government Agencies

Dr. Glynn Custred and Dr. Thomas Wood, Enter Stage Right, Apr. 25

More than eight years after Californians approved Proposition 209 by a wide margin, government agencies in California are finally getting the message — it is illegal to discriminate or grant preferences on the basis of race, gender or ethnicity.

When we began the effort to draft Proposition 209, our premise was simple: to ensure fair and equal treatment to all Californians, whether they were applying for admission to a state university, a job, assignment to a public school, or competing for a contract with a local government.

Unfortunately, government officials didn’t listen to the voters. Many ignored the voters’ clear message and intent, and pursued their own political agendas. For the last six years, the state’s chief law enforcement officer, Attorney General Bill Lockyer, refused to enforce this law.

Instead, the job of defending and enforcing Proposition 209 fell to Sharon Browne, a principal attorney at the non-profit Pacific Legal Foundation.

Browne’s efforts began the day after Proposition 209 passed, representing us in federal district court against the first legal challenge to the anti-discrimination law.

At nearly every turn, Browne was met with resistance from local government officials who apparently wanted to perpetuate discrimination. They continued to award contracts to businesses that charged taxpayers hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars more than low bidders.

In San Francisco, local officials went so far as to spend valuable taxpayer resources on outside lawyers who defended a 20-year-old discriminatory program that was clearly illegal. When considering bids for contracts from minority or women-owned businesses, the city looked first at the skin color or gender of the bidder, and then at the bid, giving minority and women-owned businesses a 10 percent bid preference.

For years, city officials threw up technical roadblocks to avoid the real issue of their discriminatory contracting program — and their responsibility to abide by the law.

When a Superior Court judge ruled that their contracting program was illegal last summer, San Francisco leaders defended their discriminatory practices. Mayor Gavin Newsom remarked in a city press release: “San Francisco has long been committed to ensuring equal opportunity for all businesses in City contracting.” Unfortunately, the city’s actions — giving preferences to minority and women-owned businesses — were exactly opposite of the “equal opportunity” the mayor heralded.

It was Browne and the Pacific Legal Foundation, not our elected law enforcement officials, who ensured equal opportunity and held the city accountable to the law.

Browne fought similar battles against the City of San Jose, the Huntington Beach Union High School District and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. In each case, she fought for a fair and level playing field against discrimination and preferences — and she won.

With these clear victories, municipalities are at last beginning to respect the law. For example, Oakland city officials met recent complaints about the lack of contracts going to minority owned businesses with a race-neutral solution.

Browne’s efforts recently were recognized by California Lawyer magazine, which awarded her a prestigious “California Lawyer Attorneys of the Year” award for Government/Public Policy. The magazine lauded her long-standing and tireless work to enforce Proposition 209, calling the 2004 victories over San Francisco and SMUD “the death knell for minority and gender-based preferences.”

During the 1996 campaign many claimed that Proposition 209 would prove negative for California. On the contrary, the result has been positive.

Thanks to Proposition 209, and many Californians like Sharon Browne, our governments are finally beginning to learn that they must not pick and choose Californians based on the color of their skin, their ethnicity or their gender.

Dr. Glynn Custred is professor of anthropology at California State University, Hayward, and president of the California Association of Scholars. Dr. Thomas Wood is the president of Americans Against Discrimination and Preferences and the research director of the California Association of Scholars. They were co-authors and co-principals of the California Civil Rights Initiative, Proposition 209.