An occasional interview series with Americans who are challenging the status quo.
Glynn Custred never thought he’d get involved in political battles while he pursued a scholarly career as an anthropologist. He’s now found himself in a big one — twice.
In 1996, Mr. Custred co-authored the California Civil Rights Initiative, an anti-discrimination amendment to the state constitution that’s better known by its ballot shorthand: Proposition 209.
Then last year he defended Prop 209, in a way, by helping defeat Proposition 16, which would have repealed the amendment.
Mr. Custred, 82, attributes the success in both ballot fights to his love of diversity.
“I’m an anthropologist; I love talking to different people and diverse audiences,” he said.
Of course, in common academic and political jargon, “diversity” refers to attributes outside the mind and does not mean what Mr. Custred means, which is “people of different outlooks.” That difference, in Mr. Custred‘s view, also goes a long way to explaining how, in a time where the U.S. seems obsessed with race, a ballot initiative designed to favor Black Americans went down to defeat.
Not everybody thinks the same way, not even in the multicultural mecca of California.
“There is a lot more diversity here now than there was when Prop 209 passed,” he said.
When Mr. Custred and a colleague, Tom Wood, first began crafting what they called the “California Civil Rights Initiative,” they presented a sort of quintessential California front. The two men operated out of a second-floor room in a house on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley, rented out to them by the sympathetic owner who used his dwelling as the headquarters of his own “World Without War Council.”
“We were advancing a campaign to buck a growing and generally well-regarded trend which went under the deceptive rubric of ‘affirmative action,’ and which was already firmly established in the university and was spreading throughout the institutions,” he said. “In our resistance to that trend, we evoked the principles which had been eloquently stated by Martin Luther King in his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and codified in federal law in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.”
Soon, Prop 209 gained the backing from Ward Connerly, a regent with the University of California system and, like Mr. Custred, a man with roots in the Deep South.
Mr. Connerly, who is Black, hailed from Louisiana and his grandfather had been born into slavery; Mr. Custred, who is White, was from a middle-class Alabama family. The two grew up looking at the era’s racist segregation, albeit from opposite sides, but reached a similar conclusion: Segregation was an evil system.
Yet both men concluded the key was shattering a system of “caste and class,” rather than defining people by race.
“I was born a few months before World War II broke out in Europe, I grew up in the real segregated South,” Mr. Custred said. “I saw first-hand what segregation meant. Why not merge and blend? You have to make it economically possible to move from one to another. Why segregate people?”
This idea, that bestowing benefits on one group is inherently flawed, is true to the spirit and language of classical liberalism and Dr. King, and means affirmative action is a step backward, according to Mr. Custred.
“I want to do the right thing because I’ve experienced it,” he said. “We’ve never lived up to our promise as a nation, or to the promise of Dr. King and the civil rights movement. But let’s not go backward.”
In 1996, Republicans were skittish about Proposition 209, Mr. Custred recalled, viewing it purely in terms of how it affected their electoral chances rather than in a philosophical and sociological light.
Mr. Connerly‘s willingness to fight for the measure gave them hope — and cover, as Mr. Custred said. Soon a broad coalition formed, bucking conventional political wisdom and passing the initiative with 55% support.
Heady times for a man who buried himself in books in Bloomington, Indiana, eventually earning a doctorate from Indiana University.
Mr. Custred later moved west with his wife, a German woman whose family escaped from the Transylvania region of Romania “just before the Iron Curtain slammed down,” he said.
Eventually, Mr. Custred became a tenured professor at California State University at Hayward (now Cal State East Bay), while also spending years as a visiting professor at the University of Southern California and, in 1992, as a Fulbright Professor at the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia in Buenos Aires.
His life is more focused on scholarship than politics, and yet he has twice found himself involved in the latter.
On the surface, Proposition 16, which went before California voters in November, looked like a simple repeal of Proposition 209. Though he played a much smaller role in 2020 than he did in 1996, Mr. Custred said he saw significant changes between the two elections.
For one thing, Proposition 209 was truly a grassroots effort: from makeshift desks in a Berkeley bedroom, its supporters got the required signatures, then crisscrossed the state making their case. Proposition 16, on the other hand, was a top-down job, formed and pushed by the Democratic supermajority in the Sacramento legislature.
Secondly, the backers of Prop 16 failed to take into account California’s new diversity, which includes a much larger and increasingly successful Asian American population, particularly with familial roots in China, Mr. Custred said.
Many Asian Americans already feel the sting of discrimination in college admissions, a marker upon which that community places a huge emphasis, and Asian Americans were among Prop 16’s biggest opponents, he said.
And then there is the fact, too often ignored by the intelligentsia, that California’s huge size is a product of Civil War politics, and “it really should be two or three states,” Mr. Custred said.
“The people in Fresno, or in San Diego, don’t think the same way as the people in San Francisco or Los Angeles,” he said.
Consequently, in an election coming after months of major racial unrest in many cities and a surge in corporate and political backing for the Black Lives Matter movement, Prop 16 was defeated decisively. In fact, more Californians rejected the repeal of Proposition 209 — 57% — than originally approved it.
Despite that victory, Mr. Custred is concerned about the simmering tensions that ran through 2020.
The current positions staked out by California Democrats clashes with ones that would have been cherished by them in the past, he said.
“The tide has recently turned, away from the liberalism of that time and toward a new wave of racist rhetoric and action, seen in slogans like ‘Black Lives Matter,’ or ‘White Silence is Violence,’ scrawled on walls, and on sidewalks and houses even in white middle-class neighborhoods,” he said. “Today in California we see this retrograde wave expressed in Proposition 16 that would thrust us deeper into a divided society from which only promoters of racial injustice can benefit.”
Mr. Custred calls the snobbish message blasting from his state’s capital, myriad college campus and most media outlets, “the flip side of segregation, one pushed by White elites and some Blacks.
“It’s ‘yes, let’s do something good for these poor, miserable people we’ve screwed over — let’s disadvantage these people!’” he said. “And in response, more people are, ‘Whoa, that might be a step too far.’”