May 7, 1998
The Racialization of
Last week, President Clinton diverted himself fromfending off scandal and defaming his accusers to denounce the Unzinitiative, Proposition 227, which is designed to end the currentsystem of bilingual education. In the process, he may havecontributed to the growing, and potentially debilitating,racialization of Los Angeles' political scene.
Clinton's endorsement has provided a criticalcover for leading Latino politicians to accuse the Proposition 227backers of being party to a broad-based anti-Latino politicalmovement. This California version of Hillary Rodham Clinton's "vastright-wing conspiracy" sees the measure's "English for the Children"platform as another racially tinged "wedge issue," in the spirit ofthe anti-illegal-immigrant Proposition 187 and anti-affirmativeaction Proposition 209.
Like most conspiracy theories, this one is notonly flawed from the start, but it's also dangerous if widelyaccepted. Proposition 187 was launched by nativists in Orange Countywithout support from Gov. Pete Wilson, who later adopted the issue tosave his own political skin. Proposition 209's drafters were two BayArea academics disgusted with the war on merit being waged bydeconstructionist academics; many of that measure's early supporters,including this writer, vehemently opposed Proposition 187.
Similarly, Ron K. Unz, who has financedProposition 227 with his own Silicon Valley fortune, hardly fits theracist stereotype promoted by some Latino activists. The son ofJewish immigrants to Los Angeles, he was the foremost financialbacker of the campaign against Proposition 187 and ran in the 1994Republican gubernatorial primary largely to protest the incumbent'sposition on immigrant rights. Yet, now, Unz is being tagged as an"immigrant basher" by politicians such as Rep. Xavier Becerra, whoonce were happy to see him as an ally.
Until recently, some observers, such as myPepperdine University colleague Gregory Rodriguez, had hoped thatProposition 227 would escape the racial stereotyping that doggeddiscussions of both propositions 187 and 209. With Latinos backingthe measure by wide margins in early polls, and only professionalcivil rights lawyers and bilingual teachers fervently opposed, areasoned debate on the measure's relative merits seemed possible. Thedebate would focus on what is best for California schoolchildren,particularly those with limited English skills. Indeed, it could evenbe said that Unz has already won his point, since Proposition 227'simpending passage has forced reluctant Latino legislators to beginreforming the failed bilingual system.
But such advances in common sense now are indanger of being offset by the issue's rapid racialization. Egged onby their political leaders and Spanish-language media, such asUnivision, which could be seen as having a financial stake inretarding the adoption of English, Hispanic support for the measureis flagging, down from around 80 percent to less than 60 percent. Bycontrast, Anglos, African Americans and Asians can be expected tosupport it by wide margins.
This racialization, not the issue of bilingualeducation, poses the real problem for Los Angeles. Latinos skepticalof bilingual education, notes Linda Griego, a former board member ofMALDEF, a leading anti-Proposition 227 organization, says that evenanti-bilingual Latinos are reluctant to back the Unz measure becauseof "emotional responses" set off by repeated linkage to propositions187 and 209. Old-style Chicano nationalists, such as Cal StateNorthridge Professor Rudolfo Acuna, openly demand that racialcompadres follow "Latino liberal narrative" favoring bilingualeducation. In my father's days back at NYU in the 1930s, they calledit "the party line."
This admixture of race and politics was notinvented by Latinos or Democrats but by Republicans, who, first underNixon and later Wilson, tapped deeply into the wells of Angloresentment. By endorsing Proposition 187, Wilson made a brillianttactical decision in terms of winning Anglo votes, but he committed astrategic blunder that may haunt Republicans for decades. One sign ofchange: Clinton took barely 51 percent of Latino votes in 1992 butmore than 80 percent four years later.
The consequences of such racially polarizedpolitics holds dangers for Latinos, California and Los Angeles.Instead of healthy competition for an emerging and critical electoralconstituency, we may be witnessing the birth of a one-party votingbloc. Once, Republicans were capable of winning a solid one-third totwo-fifths of Latino voters, who generally hold fairly conservativepositions on issues such as abortion, crime and welfare; today,wearing the GOP label has about the same appeal among Latinos asHamas has for Jews.
To many liberals, including Jews, thisconsolidation of democratic power may seem unalloyed good news, butthey have not figured the long-term costs. With the Republicanschased out to the edge cities and rural areas, the largely Jewish andAfrican-American political power brokers will now have to accommodatean increasingly Latino-dominated Democratic politics. And the earlyindications are that the process will not go smoothly.
Already, Zev Yaroslavsky, the county's dominantJewish politician, struggles with Congressman Becerra, SupervisorGloria Molina and other Eastside legislators over the beleagueredMTA. In the increasingly Latino east San Fernando Valley, CityCouncilman Richard Alarcon's race against Richard Katz suggests animpending clash of ethnic aspirations; an upstart Latino candidacyagainst Rep. Howard Berman, a close ally of the late Cesar Chavez,suggests that there may now be no secure cover beyond skin color. InSouth Los Angeles, Latinos, already the statistical majority, willsoon threaten the entrenched African-American power structure in thecoming years.
Some, like Loyola University's Fernando Guerra,sees "racialization" -- with all its potential for divisiveness -- asboth inevitable and even tactically sound. Constituting roughly 40percent of Los Angeles County's population, Latinos, due to theirvast numbers of noncitizens and relative youthfulness, stillrepresent only roughly half that percentage in the electorate.Concentrated racial solidarity expressed through one party, while itdiminishes the true diversity within the community, makes a kind oftactical sense. By stacking Latino votes in one pile, they canachieve a critical mass far more quickly than would be otherwisepossible.
But, in the long run, this strategy poses dangersnot only for Jews, African Americans and other non-Hispanics, but forLatinos as well. Unlike Jews or blacks, who represent a permanentminority, Latinos are destined to become the dominant political forcein our society. When a promising young politician such as CongressmanBecerra starts sounding like a Hispanic version of the ever-shrillRep. Maxine Waters, the implications are far more terrifying becauseof Latinos' emerging demographic might.
Fortunately, this steady devolution towardbalkanized, racialized politics can still be averted. As bothRodriguez and Guerra observe, Mexican-American and Central Americansare largely a mestizo people, an ethnic admixture of native Americanand European. They share a relatively tolerant attitude towardintermarriage, powerful work ethic, rapid growth of enterprise andgrowing home ownership, and are rapidly integrating into society asco-workers, partners, neighbors and even family. It is hard to seehow the future of this increasingly dominant and widely diverse groupcan be well-served by following a narrow racial politics that couldleave Los Angeles a Spanish-speaking Detroit.
But defusing racialization should not be seen as achallenge only for Latino leaders. Asian, Anglo and African-Americancommunity figures -- in business, government, the clergy andcharitable enterprises -- must also come to grips with the newdemographic and political realities. The days of satisfying Latinoswith tokenism or even well-intentioned inclusion in "rainbowcoalitions" has come to an end; railing against the "brown tide" iscounterproductive and hopeless. The Latinization of Los Angeles, and,indeed, California, is now largely inevitable. The challenge now isto de-racialize the process enough so that these changes work to thebenefit of our community, rather than its fragmentation.
Joel Kotkin is a senior fellow with thePepperdine Institute for Public Policy and a research fellow in urbanstudies at the Reason Foundation.
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