Skip to main content

American Studies and Ethnicity Graduate Earns Dissertation Award

USC College alum Daniel HoSang’s 357-page dissertation examines how California turned back the clock on progress in the fight against racial discrimination.

American Studies and Ethnicity Graduate Earns Dissertation Award

One of the first graduates of USC College’s new American studies and ethnicity Ph.D. program has received the interdisciplinary field’s highest honor for dissertation excellence.

Daniel HoSang’s “Racial Propositions: Genteel Apartheid in Postwar California” has won the 2007 Ralph Henry Gabriel Dissertation Prize. HoSang, who earned his Ph.D. this year, is now an assistant professor of political science and ethnic studies at the University of Oregon.

“I was shocked and really pleased,” HoSang, 36, said of the prize and $500 award presented to him Friday, Oct. 12, by the American Studies Association (ASA) at a conference in Philadelphia. “I felt that my project was a reflection of the Ph.D. program’s rigor, innovation and interest in interdisciplinary study.”

HoSang, who had worked as a union and community organizer, and journalist, said he pursued his Ph.D. at USC College to work with Laura Pulido, professor of American studies and ethnicity and of geography.

Pulido, chairwoman of HoSang’s dissertation committee, called HoSang “a once in a lifetime student” and said his success adds luster to the department and new program, which has created a buzz within the world of academia.

“By the quality of [graduate student] applicants we’ve received, we knew we were on to something here,” Pulido said. “But it’s been mostly talk, really. So a prize like this goes a long way in validating the department and especially the Ph.D. program.”

Each year, the ASA acknowledges the best doctoral dissertation in the interdisciplinary field of American studies. The ASA chose from a pool of 15 candidates from several of the nation’s 32 institutions that offer Ph.D. programs in the field.

Competitors for the dissertation prize included students from Yale, New York and Emory universities, and the University of Minnesota.

In his dissertation, HoSang “has produced a work of cultural history that will alter the ways in which readers will consider the history of race in the U.S.,” Stanley Corkin, chairman of the three-member awards committee, said from Ohio, where he is professor of English at the University of Cincinnati.

“It was extraordinary in its account of the specific social and political conditions of postwar California, as well as in its nuanced analysis of the various race-based initiatives and the campaigns around them,” Corkin said.

At first blush, HoSang wrote in his dissertation, California seems an unlikely place to turn back the clock on progress in the fight against racial discrimination.

But beginning after World War II, California’s system of direct democracy proved to be “a reliable bulwark against many leading civil rights and anti-discrimination issues,” HoSang wrote. From 1946 to 1986, California voters enacted initiatives that rejected fair employment protections, repealed fair housing legislation, overturned school desegregation plans and adopted English-only policies.

“The fervent discussions over these measures as they unfolded within the media, at public debates, neighborhood meetings, and through campaign advertisements made them a central site for Californians to deliberate the meaning of race, rights and authority,” HoSang said in an interview.

Those 40 years set the stage for a series of controversial and hard-fought ballot initiatives beginning in the 1990s that renewed the public debate about the meaning and significance of race and racism.

In 1994, California voters passed with 59 percent of the vote Proposition 187, which banned public education and services for many illegal immigrants. That year, they also approved Proposition 184, which toughened sentencing for repeat offenders, dramatically increasing the population in prisons, which are filled disproportionately with black and Latino inmates. That measure, dubbed “the three strikes law,” passed with 72 percent of the vote.

Two years later, public affirmative action programs were repealed with passage of Proposition 209 by 54 percent of the voters. In 1998, bilingual education was outlawed when Proposition 227 was supported by 61 percent of the California electorate.

Then in 2000, state voters increased penalties and sentencing for juvenile offenders, and incorporated many youth offenders into the adult criminal justice system. Called Proposition 21, the measure garnered 62 percent of the vote. Again, the law disproportionately impacted minorities.

“California’s enormous prison system draws most of its inmates from urban areas where the schools and neighborhoods have long been abandoned by most white families,” HoSang said.

“The prisons are not only filled disproportionately with black and Latino inmates, their incarceration is tied directly to earlier struggles over housing, employment and school segregation,” he said. “The prisons are a legacy of that racialized abandonment.”

In his dissertation, HoSang examined what caused California — a state with a large number of Democratic voters; a well-developed set of civil rights organizations; a growing number of black, Latino and Asian-American voters and elected officials; and a legislature that has generally addressed anti-discrimination issues earlier than many other states — to become the site of such contentious debates.

He did so by studying these and other of what he termed the state’s “racialized” ballot initiatives postwar, and then examining the forces that gave rise to these initiative debates.

For example, the propositions involving tougher criminal sentencing and trying some juveniles as adults “help us to understand how it is possible for racism to function without explicit mention of race,” HoSang said. “This is in many ways a central question of my project — how racial hierarchy gets reproduced in an era of ‘colorblindness.’ ” HoSang chose the dissertation topic while writing a seminar paper about a 2003 ballot initiative proposed by affirmative action opponent Ward Connerly. Proposition 54 would have prevented the state from collecting race and ethnicity data from its residents.

Connerly said the proposition was meant to create a “colorblind” society. But the measure would also have lessened the state’s ability to address disparities by race or ethnicity in discrimination and hate crimes, and was criticized by health care and physician groups as undermining medical research into the disparate impacts disease has on different ethnic or racial groups.

Pulido argued in an interview that while Connerly and others portrayed the measure as anti-racist, the proposition “was actually a tool to maintain white supremacy.”

“The anti-racist community was alarmed about it and it launched a new frontier in fighting racism,” Pulido said.

Although the debate surrounding Proposition 54 was contentious, it may have been more so had it not been overshadowed by the 2003 special recall election of Governor Gray Davis. At the ballot box, 64 percent of voters opposed the measure.

“Proposition 54 failed primarily because it was forced to compete with the gubernatorial recall during the same year,” HoSang said. “I don’t interpret that vote as suggesting any kind of sea change in the racialization of state politics.”

The measure and the complex debate over it coincided with California becoming the first state where the Anglo population was no longer in the majority. Those issues helped spark HoSang’s interest in exploring the broader historic patterns that ushered in this new brand of racial politics.

“Part of my larger argument is that these propositions didn’t reflect a single, unitary position among the electorate, which has always held contradictory positions about racialized issues,” said HoSang, who is writing a book based on his dissertation to be published in 2009 by the University of California Press.

“But they demonstrated how the meaning of race and racism shifts over time, as a result of political conflict and activism.

“For instance,” he continued. “While activists seeking to restrict immigration have failed at every attempt to qualify another ballot measure since Proposition 187, it’s certainly possible that they could figure out how to refine their language, tactics and bases of support in order to pass a future ballot initiative.”