Racial Politics

Stanford "Race Summit" focuses on California initiatives

After bruising battles at the ballot box, protagonists in some of California’s most contentious public-policy debates unsheathed their swords once again to duel over affirmative action and immigration reform.

A new ingredient has been added to the brew–bilingual education. And a measure on the June ballot is expected to generate as much passion as Propositions 187 and 209 before it.

In a preview of the Bay Area debut of President Clinton’s Initiative on Race, about 300 people, including some prominent leaders from both sides of the Proposition 209 and 187 campaigns, gathered at Stanford University last Saturday for a day-long conference.

Billed as the “California Summit on Race in America,” the conference was intended to answer the president’s call for discussion of race relations and the public-policy issues that underlie that dialogue.

It was organized by the university’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE). Participants included academics, policy analysts, business leaders, and students.

“Our goal was to present a wide range of research-based information and different views that will stimulate meaningful and informed discussion of these critical public-policy issues,” said CCSRE Director Al Camarillo. “Central to our goal was to bring a group of people with some strongly different perspectives on affirmative action and other issues.”

He said the conference was intended to stimulate discussion on the complex issue of race relations. “If we can get people talking about it, the possibility of more understanding may emanate from the discussion,” he said.

However, it was evident from the often heated exchanges among the panelists and the reactions of the crowd that the wounds from the Proposition 87 and 209 campaigns have yet to heal.

Proposition 187, approved by voters in 1994, denies certain benefits, including public education and prenatal care to illegal immigrants, but has languished in the courts for nearly four years.

Proposition 209, passed in 1996, dismantles most affirmative-action programs. It has been upheld by the courts, but a petition is being circulated to qualify an initiative for the November ballot that will, in effect, undo Proposition 209.

Ron Takaki, a historian and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, is helping a group of students at Boalt Law School gather the required signatures to qualify for the ballot.

He spoke passionately about providing opportunities for women and minorities, contending that unless the principle of equality is embraced by society, it can’t move forward.

The grandson of Japanese immigrants, Takaki said the country owes a debt to blacks, who were drafted in large numbers into the Union Army by Lincoln to help defeat the Confederacy during the Civil War.

He also cited the Chinese who built the railroads linking the East Coast with the West Coast, unifying the country. “The lesson of 209 is that we lost the intellectual battle. We failed to set a theory for affirmative action,” Takaki said. “The cornerstone of such a theory is equal opportunity.”

The new affirmative-action initiative, if approved, would allow the use of race, gender, and ethnic and economic background–now banned under Proposition 209–as factors in hiring, public contracting, and college admissions.

“The people of California deserve a vote on affirmative action presented to them honestly,” Takaki said, adding that Proposition 209 was couched in language that may have misled the voters, because affirmative action was not mentioned. He said polls indicate that there is broad support for affirmative action.

But Charles Geshekter, a professor at Chico State University and an adviser to the Proposition 209 committee, said affirmative action started with the best of intentions, but gradually degenerated into set-asides and quotas.

Some panelists, however, bewailed the politicization of the discussion on affirmative action and immigration reform. Gov. Pete Wilson used his support for Proposition 187 to propel his bid for reelection in 1994.

In 1996, the Republican Party tried but failed to capitalize on Proposition 209 to help GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole carry California.

Democrats were the leading opponents of both Propositions 187 and 209, but politics so polluted the air that meaningful discussion of the issues was impossible, some panelists said.

Constance Rice of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Education Fund said the debate on affirmative action was a cold one, “with a screaming subtext.”

“You can’t start conversation of race in a war-like arena,” Rice said. “For a society that wraps around 187 and 209, there can’t be real race conversation.”

She said everyone should take a step back and reflect on their individual feelings of people from another race or ethnic background in order to begin the process of healing and reconciliation.

Based on the verbal skirmishes last Saturday, Ron Unz’ initiative on bilingual education promises to be divisive and contentious.

Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who authored the “English for the Children” Initiative, said bilingual education is a well-intentioned, but failed policy.

“The best way of uniting California society is that children be taught in English,” he said. “A multilingual society is not practical at all.”

He said that to maintain the state’s and the country’s competitive edge, learning English must be mandated. “English is shaping up to be the unofficial international language. It is the language of international commerce.”

Unz said he has heard horror stories from parents, particularly Latinos, whose children have not learned to speak English despite years in school.

If his initiative is approved, public schools will be required to conduct instruction in English. Students with limited English-language skills would be placed in intensive, short-term immersion programs not exceeding one school year. The initiative also calls for an allocation of 50 million a year for 10 years to fund community tutorial programs.

But Unz’ opponents contend that the former candidate for governor is grand-standing and does not have the background to assess public school education in California.

Henry Der, deputy superintendent of the California Department of Education, said 1.3 million students–1 in 4–are eligible for bilingual education in California, but only about 400,000 are actually assigned to classes with qualified bilingual teachers.

The state spends 32 billion on public education each year, but only about 350 million goes to bilingual education.

“To assert that billions of dollars are spent on bilingual education is a stretch of the imagination,” said Der, whose wife is a bilingual teacher.

Based on the passionate debates on Saturday, discussion of race relations through the president’s initiative is expected to be as difficult. The seven-member advisory board is scheduled to hold hearings in the Bay Area next week.

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