Californians have reached new levels of accommodation for cultural and other differences, but some of our officials still speak unashamedly in stark racial and ethnic terms. In some cases these officials are politicians "of color," which seems to act as a buffer against the charge that they speak in biased and bigoted terms. Why is this so? What is the standard for what's acceptable from our elected officials in a state with the most complex population in the entire nation? Is there a double standard at play?
Illustrating this double standard is the flap that has surfaced surrounding the Gray Davis appointment of broadcast executive Norman Pattiz to the Board of Regents of the University of California. Pattiz is white (and Jewish) and wealthy. State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) has opposed the appointment and argued that the prestigious board needs additional diversity. But Romero, who comes with a resume of extensive political and racial activism, didn't stop there. She went on to claim that Pattiz's skin color and wealth didn't reflect the state's diversity. The logic here seems to be that white Californians are not part of the state's complex racial and ethnic diversity. Is "diversity" then just a proxy for "people of color?"
There is a legitimate case to be made that a position on the Board of Regents should not be a reward for wealthy contributors to a governor or his party. And to be fair, Romero did point this out in her own fashion. However, in the process, she strayed significantly across the line of acceptability and made racially offensive comments.
Why no outrage at Romero's statements? Imagine, if you can, a white political figure making a comment that someone "of color" appointed to a state board or commission was unqualified because of his or her skin color or economic status. It would amount to political suicide.
When a motion was recently put to a vote in the Assembly to seek an apology from Gov. Davis because of an off-hand comment about Arnold Schwarzenegger's accent, an African American assemblymember commented that no apology was due the Austrian immigrant because he wasn't a member of an oppressed minority group. Following that logic, does accountability for offensive comments only apply if they are directed at someone "of color?" Somehow we don't think this view of "social justice" is what the anti-bias struggles of an earlier period intended to bring about.
In our joint experiences as the former heads of Los Angeles-based anti-racist and anti-bias organizations (Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Anti-Defamation League) we fought to diminish the effects of racism and anti-Semitism on diverse and complex constituencies. We did not want biased and bigoted views shifted to any other group or groups in society, we wanted to eliminate backward-facing attitudes to every extent possible. In an even earlier era, civil rights figures like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel, didn't want to simply advantage the nation's ethnic and religious minorities -- they wanted to free all Americans from the yoke of immoral, discriminatory and divisive racial practices and politics. What gives an astute, seasoned political veteran like Romero license to make such comments, seemingly free from fear that she would be censured by either the public or her colleagues?
Several generations of radical street and university activism, combined with the actual reality of racial practices and policies that were exclusionary from another era of California's history, developed an incorrect belief that racism and bigotry is something that can only be practiced by white Americans, but not people of color. This view has seemingly given license to activists -- and obviously some elected officials --to make comments that coarsen public debate and sharpens the already jagged edges of identity politics.
The use of the race, ethnic or religious card is not unheard of in recent California politics. The misuse of these themes dates back as least as far as the brutal 1969 Sam Yorty-Tom Bradley race for mayor of Los Angeles. Yorty never passed on the opportunity to remind voters that his opponent was not just another candidate for mayor -- he was a black candidate. In recent times, we've had to endure numerous races that featured undertones, or in some cases blatant themes, of race, religion or ethnicity. In the late 1990s, a senatorial race between Richard Katz and Richard Richard Alarcón saw not-so-subtle claims that only a Latino could represent the San Fernando Valley district in question. The 2001 City Council race between incumbent Nick Pacheco and Antonio Villaraigosa produced political mailers that raised questions about the challenger's ethnic authenticity. That same year, a black candidate for city council urged voters to reject the candidacy of Jan Perry (a black woman) because she is married to a white man.
Comments like these must be met with outrage, and measured against a single standard of what amounts to biased language. It's one thing to argue that the pool of candidates needs to be enlarged for appointments to the UC Board of Regents, and entirely another to argue that success, wealth and white skin amount to some new sort of "three strikes" system in California.
Joe R. Hicks is the vice president of Community Advocates and the former executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. David A. Lehrer is the president of Community Advocates and was the former western regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.