It’s been nearly 25 years since California Proposition 209 was approved, which pretty much wiped out any advantage Black contractors, including Black architects, had in securing government contracts.

Prop 209 was approved in November 1996, amending the state constitution to prohibit state governmental institutions from considering race, sex or ethnicity, specifically in the areas of public employment. In essence, it knocked out set-asides for minorities to gain an advantage in securing government work.

Ironically, it was an African American who proposed the concept and worked at getting it passed. He is Ward Connerly, and even today, he is against set asides for minority firms. In March, Connerly spoke out about the state of Washington’s initiative to aid minority firms in securing government contracts. It’s called the Racial Preferences Initiative.

Ward Connerly and ‘set-asides’

Connerly has moved from California and now lives in Idaho, but he remains vocal about set-aside programs and is adamantly against them. He actually founded and chairs an organization called the American Civil Rights Initiative, a national nonprofit that works to end racial and gender preferences, also known as set-asides. Connerly, now 80 and essentially retired, is still quick to talk against minority preferences.

In 2006, Connerly led a similar effort in Michigan and Prop 2 was passed there, which did away with racial preferences under affirmative action programs. Before that, in 1998, he worked to convince Washington state voters to pass I-200, which also killed set-aside regulations. Now the state of Washington is considering rescinding I-200, and guess who’s out front declaring war on the effort.

In an interview with The New American, Connerly declared the Racial Preference Initiative as dishonest and deceptive in several ways. He says the initiative’s redefinition of “preferential treatment” and “affirmative action” is dishonest. Proponents claim that I-1000 would continue the ban on preferential treatment that considers characteristics such as race, sex, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, sexual orientation and disability as the “sole” factor for education or employment opportunities. However, Connerly says, the proposed new definition of “affirmative action” would enable state agencies to use one or more of these characteristics as “factors” to increase Washington’s “diversity in public education, public employment and public contracting.”

The ‘merit system’ and surrounding


Connerly said they are playing word games, knowing that most Americans favor a merit system rather than a mandated, politicized quota system. Another feature of the initiative that he sees as especially disingenuous is the addition of people with disabilities and military veterans to the mix. This was done, he says, simply to camouflage the real intent of the initiative and to create a “grab bag of goodies” for so many constituencies that it would be impossible to stop it.

Connerly’s motive for fighting set-asides is unclear. However, there is no doubt that his continued efforts to ban them are having an impact. Here in California, Proposition 209 is still in effect, and while its impact is not easy to measure, the African-American architects Our Weekly interviewed said that while it’s now quite challenging to get government work, they’ve managed to obtain work and build their businesses.

“You could tell there was a reduction in people reaching out, said Michael W. Anderson, a Black architect and CEO at BASE, an urban design, architecture, planning and engineering firm. “It has hurt opportunities for minorities, especially African Americans… you just don’t see people sharing work like set-asides mandated. The late ‘70s, early ‘80s… we were getting work because of public pressure. Some firms got significant contracts… that gave a lot of experience to Black firms. You still have racism, but the political pressure was there… now, you don’t get that work since there is no political pressure for people who make that pitch… people give projects to people that look like themselves.”

The work of DNA Architecture + Design, Inc.

Valery Augustin came to California after Prop 209 had passed, but just the same, he admits its impact is there, in that the initiative gave minority architects and their firms the experience that most projects look for in a design team. “The challengers… have to show experience – how do you do that when you’re just starting out.”

Augustin’s firm is DNA Architecture + Design Inc.. DNA is currently working on a project for Santa Monica, and that came about when DNA partnered with another firm. “I can see how set- asides were helpful, but then again, you were treated like ‘we have to give you some work,’ so a lot of times they would give you a small part just to satisfy the set-aside requirements.” DNA was a 2019 Restaurant Design Award finalist for its work on the Delicious at the Dunbar restaurant project.

Although Black architects are getting work, especially with private clients, they are still often not receiving credit for their work. In a recent issue of Curbed, a real estate blog, a variety of significant projects were found in Los Angeles alone that were designed by or featured the work of area Black architects. According to the blog and Jason E. Morris, not only did African-Americans lack professional opportunities, they weren’t always credited for their work. However, at the same time, Morris says, “African-American architects are here, and they’re doing good work, right here in L.A.”

Dollarhide Community Center in Compton

A map was produced by the American Institute of Architects, the Southern California chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects, and Gruen Associates, where Morris was employed at one time. The map, he says, was put together to inspire future generations of Black architects.

One of the projects highlighted on the map is the Douglas F. Dollarhide Community Center in Compton, which was a BASE project. The center is named after Compton’s first Black mayor, Douglas Dollarhide, who was elected in 1969.

Another project is Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, with Gabrielle Bullock heading the design team. In fact, there are a variety of medical-oriented facilities around southern California that featured Black architects: the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science; and the Physicians Dormitory at Martin Luther King Jr. General Community Hospital. Of note is the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance building, which was the company’s first permanent home. This historical structure was built in 1928 by one of the state’s two most noted Black architects: James H. Garrott and the legendary Paul R. Williams. In the 1940s, Williams would be commissioned to design Golden State Insurance’s other building, which still stands today on West Adams Boulevard, commonly known as the old “Sugar Hill” section of Los Angeles.

Lasting legacy of Paul R. Williams

Williams’ name comes up in regards to Black architects quite often. Highly visible buildings he played a part in designing include the Theme Building at LAX, the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (formerly May Co. at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles); and Angelus Funeral Home in South Los Angeles.

In addition to being part of several major projects, he was called upon to design the homes of a variety of celebrities. His clients included Frank Sinatra; Danny Thomas; and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. But perhaps the most interesting building under Williams’ guidance is his former home in Lafayette Square. Before 1948, he would not have been able to live there, as the area was prohibited to non-Whites. He built the home in 1952, and it was just sold two years ago for $2.4 million.