Racial and Gender Justice
Ballot initiatives play an increasingly important role in setting policy in California on every issue from healthcare and the environment to same-sex marriage. In 1911, when wealthy special interests had corrupted politics in Sacramento and crippled the people’s ability to hold government accountable, California established the initiative, referendum, and recall to give the people the power to make or unmake their own state laws and to remove their elected officials. But today, that system is not functioning as it was intended, especially for California’s new majority.
Wealthy special interest dollars fuel the initiative economy, which coupled with a lack of review and oversight, plus poor voter education on ballot measures, has led to poorly drafted proposals, legal challenges and attacks on people’s civil rights. This is not the empowering direct democracy reformers had envisioned.
In 2011, the Greenlining Institute launched an unprecedented effort to identify a set of reforms to fix our broken system. With funding from California Forward, the James Irvine Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, we conducted a two-part public opinion survey of a representative sample of California adults in June and December, 2011.1 More importantly, we convened 17 community listening sessions across 14 cities to learn more about real voter experiences, attitudes and ideas for direct democracy. The input we received from the community, in addition to that from a 33-member advisory panel of policy experts, good government groups, and community-based leaders, helped us develop a reform agenda that can start to return the initiative system to its “citizen democracy” roots.
Every year, the NAACP holds a rally from March 4-9 to commemorate the Selma to Montgomery march and draw attention to the issues facing African Americans in America. Since the passage of Alabama’s HB 56—the nation’s worst anti-immigrant law—the NAACP has reached out to organizations around the country to build lasting relationships between Civil Rights and Immigrant Rights communities over their common history of struggle. The event marks the coming together of a broad movement for a renewed call for civil rights in America. This year, a core part of their agenda was a demand to repeal HB 56.
Gamaliel, a grassroots network of non-partisan, faith-based organizations in 18 U.S. states, South Africa and the United Kingdom, is now taking on the voting rights issue. They are working together with the NAACP and other social justice organizations on “Get out the Vote” initiatives for the Fall elections.
The 2010 Census clearly documents a profound population shift in the U.S., which could be a game-changer for the progressive community. However, given the regressive rhetoric and policies of conservatives toward voters of color (VOC) and progressive whites, states like Arizona and Georgia are rapidly turning into key battlegrounds. The populations of both states have increased significantly since 2000 and each has gained a new congressional seat and an extra Electoral College vote.
In Arizona, VOCs now make up 24 percent of the voting population. In 2008, an impressive 74 percent of registered voters went to the polls. In Phoenix, long a Republican stronghold, the population grew by 9.4 percent to nearly 1.5 million with significant numbers of them being people of color. The city recently elected a Latino city councilman and a Democrat for mayor.
The face of the Southern electorate is changing and nowhere is the shift clearer than in Florida and North Carolina. In these two critical battleground states, the share of white voters has shrunk since the 2008 presidential election, while the number of African American, Latino and other people of color voters has steadily grown. However, new voting restrictions could undermine the political potential of this shift towards an increasingly diverse electorate.
The foreclosure crisis has disproportionately impacted communities of color because people of color were sold adjustable rate mortgages at a higher rate than whites, even where income levels and financial risk were on par. The upshot of this predatory lending practice has been a massive dislocation of workers and families (most of whom considered their homes their only economic asset) side by side with an unprecedented transfer of wealth to financial institutions and the private sphere.
Advocates abroad call this type of activity by a name more familiar to the third world—a land grab. Multinational corporations have acquired 15 to 20 million hectares of land in wholesale purchases in the global south to establish large-scale industrial farms for food and biofuels.
Closer to home, in the Detroit area, speculator John Hantz is trying to purchase 200 acres to create a large corporate farm. Indeed, land grabs have been afoot for some time within postindustrial landscapes from where capital has fled in search of cheaper labor. What makes the current land grabs especially troubling is the opportunistic use of the tsunami of foreclosures by banks to seize properties. Their willful enablers in this transfer of assets have been the states and their housing policies, ostensibly created to reduce the number of vacant bank-owned properties by converting them into rental units.
Foreclosures: Excellent Investment for Some
A handful of fast-growing real estate management corporations are now stepping into the foreclosure crisis. Backed by billions of dollars in private equity, property management companies are viewing the crisis as a rare opportunity to amass tens of thousands of single-family homes and convert them into rentals—i.e. long-term high-yield investments. Beyond the stresses on families in neighborhoods experiencing the land grab, this nascent industry—promoted by federal policies—will in all likelihood facilitate the transfer of tens of billions in wealth from distressed homeowners—largely Black and Latino—to a few wealthy private equity firms.