Unlike some of the 2,000 student protesters who walked out of class Wednesday morning to demonstrate in suburban Contra Costa County, 18-year-old George Chinchilla knew exactly why he came.
Wearing a black cap and the white armband of a student leader, he came to protest what he called the racism of Propositions 187, 209 and 227.
“We’re having a walkout for student rights,” said Chinchilla,
who meandered alone through the crowd that swelled with each incoming BART train from Daly City, Pittsburg, Richmond and Oakland. “We’re trying to get our education, but these things are coming up and trying to bring us down.”
Chinchilla isn’t a lone voice. He is among many Californians who see Prop. 227 as the latest mutation of a nativist, racially tinged trend in the state. Three ballot initiatives in the last four years have — intentionally or not — exposed raw nerves related to race, ethnicity and national origin.
Prop. 187, which voters passed in 1994, tried to bar welfare, health care and public schooling to undocumented immigrants before most of it was struck down by the courts. Prop. 209, in 1996, scrapped public affirmative action programs for women and people of color. Prop. 227, which goes before voters June 2, seeks to end bilingual education in the public schools in favor of English-based programs.
“I think Latino voters and families are feeling threatened and they’re feeling undue attention on them,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, executive director of the statewide Latino Issues Forum. “Somehow they are being questioned on how American they are. Unfortunately, Proposition 227 fans the flames of 187 and Governor (Pete) Wilson’s 209 debate.”
Some Hispanics and others see the initiative as an effort to quash Spanish and other native languages and in essence, to denigrate immigrant cultures in California. To some, that’s racist.
But voters and the initiative leaders are tired of being cast as racist or anti-immigrant for supporting statewide policy changes. They say the race card has been used to whip up opposition but isn’t based in reality.
They insist that Prop. 227 will benefit immigrants.
Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is co-sponsoring Prop. 227 and who provided major funding for Prop. 209, loudly opposed Prop. 187 and distances himself from anti-immigrant organizations.
Most Republican leaders who took the helm on Props. 187 and 209 are mum about Prop. 227 for fear of alienating Hispanic voters. And most polls indicate that Hispanic voters may favor the initiative.
Thomas Scovel, a psycholinguistics professor at San Francisco State,
is one expert who gets mad about racial arguments against Prop. 227, known as the Unz initiative.
“It vexes me enormously that my academic colleagues tend to dismiss anyone who is for Prop. 227 as racists or rednecks,” Scovel said. “That insults the majority of people, and it over-emotionalizes a much more complex issue.”
Prop. 227 is pushing the sensitive buttons of race and ethnicity whether or not that’s what its backers intended.
With white people fast becoming a minority in California, some see a wicked backlash that began with Prop. 187 at the height of the state recession.
For example, Wilson showed images of undocumented immigrants sneaking across the U.S.-Mexico border in his 1994 gubernatorial campaign ads. The ads, according to civil rights groups, fanned fears of a Hispanic invasion.
California, where 22 percent of the population is foreign born, has undergone a dramatic demographic shift in the past three decades. But while other states such as Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois also have sizable immigrant populations, experts say California is the only state to turn the anxiety about demographic trends into several statewide ballot measures.
“Many English-speaking, white Americans are threatened by what they perceive as all of these people coming to America and taking their jobs and they’re blaming language for this,” said Lenora Timm, a linguist at UC-Davis. “It isn’t very profound thinking, but it happens.”
Timm and other language experts note that many Americans fear that language promotes unrest. It’s an anxiety that California will be “Balkanized”
into ethnic groups with little connection to one another.
Alex Saragoza, an ethnic studies professor at UC-Berkeley, notes the connection of immigration, ethnicity, race and language is an ongoing theme in American history.
“I think we’re going through another period of anti-immigrant hysteria,”
said Saragoza. “It’s just like we did with Poles, Greeks and Italians at the turn of the century.”
Saragoza said politicians promoted English over other native languages after World War I when immigrants were seen as a threat to national security.
That nativist period resulted in the 1924 immigration act that virtually shut the doors on new immigrants, especially those who sought to come from anywhere but northern Europe.
But Unz and initiative co-sponsor Gloria Matta Tuchman don’t see it that way at all. They insist that Prop. 227 is about promoting English literacy and benefiting immigrant children who have been shortchanged by bilingual education.
Unz commonly refers to protests against bilingual education by immigrant parents in Los Angeles as the inspiration for his financial and political backing of the cause. Tuchman emphasizes her Mexican roots and scoffs at the notion that Prop. 227 is anti-immigrant.
Nevertheless, Unz worries about the bedfellows who are supporting the initiative for reasons other than his own.
“My main concern from the beginning was not whether it won, but how it won,” he said.
Unz notes that the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which spearheaded Prop. 187, is actively trying to defeat Prop. 227 by asking members to flood radio talk shows and newspapers with criticism.
A California-based parents rights group called Parents Involved in Education held a meeting in Antioch in February that featured speaker Terry Graham,
a conservative activist who is against the Unz initiative because it doesn’t go far enough to abolish bilingual education.
The meeting, which opened with the song “Proud to Be An American,”
revved up opposition to Prop. 227 by showing a film clip of Unz at an anti-Prop.
187 rally in 1994. Unz’s opposition to Prop. 187 — an initiative near and dear to some in the audience — was used to prove his “real” motivations to assist immigrants in California.
But other conservatives — including Wilson and Republican gubernatorial contender Dan Lungren — are still tight-lipped about the initiative apparently because they don’t want to alienate Hispanic voters.
English Only movement
The anxiety felt by some Californians about Prop. 227 and race may be a byproduct of the intolerant reputation of the English Only movement that began in the early 1980s.
In 1986, an organization called U.S. English succeeded in passing Prop.
63, an amendment to the state constitution that made English the official language. The amendment exempted public schools and therefore didn’t affect bilingual education.
Tuchman was an active member of U.S. English and served on its board of directors in the late 1980s.
Author James Crawford, in his book called “Hold Your Tongue,”
notes that the group’s poor image was solidified when a memo from a U.S.
English leader surfaced in 1988. The memo promoted stereotypes about Hispanic birth rates and expressed fears that Hispanics would take over the nation.
Crawford sees Prop. 227 as an extension of that movement. He said the efforts share the same basic goal, to promote English over other languages.
But he says Prop. 227 proponents are careful to avoid “stale rhetoric”
about speaking English to be a “good American.”
“For some — a minority — the language issue is a way to strike back at other groups. Language has become a lightning rod for a lot of the insecurities that people feel about demographic or cultural change,”
The official campaign to defeat Prop. 227 is staying focused on academic and financial pitfalls associated with the measure and steering clear of the hot racial arguments. Some insiders say the message that Prop. 227 is racially biased, even it it’s true, won’t win them any “no” votes.
But groups such as Californians for Justice, a statewide grass-roots civil rights organization, have opposed all three ballot initiatives and have argued that the efforts scapegoat people of color and immigrants. For them, Prop. 227 comes from the same ugly well as Props. 187 and 209.
Using the same campaign tactics that they used to challenge the last two propositions, Californians for Justice members are campaigning door to door in low-income communities to get the word out against Prop. 227.
“This campaign is not about education,” said Mimi Ho, the organizing director. “It’s all coded words to talk about race. Even though he
(Unz) promotes himself as pro-immigrant, he’s not. He’s taking away funding from communities of color in the schools.”
Where Hispanics stand
The most recent L.A. Times poll showed that 50 percent of Hispanics favored Prop. 227 and 32 percent opposed it. A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California revealed similar results.
Even so, L.A. Times poll director Susan Pinkus cautioned that it may be too early to predict the responses of Hispanics. She told the L.A. Times that pre-election polling of Hispanic voters before Props. 187 and 209 showed support for the initiatives while exit polls revealed strong opposition.
Rodriguez of the Latino Issues Forum is convinced that the wording of the proposition has a lot to do with the poll results. For example, the
“English for the Children” title of Prop. 227 does not indicate that bilingual education will be dismantled. Similarly, Prop. 209 was called the “California Civil Rights Initiative” and did not mention affirmative action.
The forum conducted its own poll with two distinct questions about Prop.
227 among 700 likely Hispanic voters. When potential voters heard the wording of the initiative as it will appear on the ballot, 65 percent said they would definitely or probably vote yes. But when the question mentioned that bilingual education would be eliminated, only 31 percent said they would vote yes.
Andrea Lampros covers education and Proposition 227. You can reach her at 925-943-8155 or P.O. Box 5088, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.