Bilingualism Fight Reveals California's Racial Divisions

Bill Clinton may see himself as a mender of racial divisions, but by joining the opposition to California’s Proposition 227, a ballot initiative that would restrict bilingual education, he is contributing to a potentially dangerous racialization of California politics.

Latinos, like most Californians, once overwhelmingly favored the measure. Their support has dropped to below 60% from a high of around 80%, and may further decline before the June 2 election.

Mr. Clinton’s stance has further emboldened the measure’s opponents among professional Latino activists and increasingly influential Latino political elites. More important, it threatens to undermine what analyst Gregory Rodriguez has called the "racial détente" that until recently characterized the debate over 227.

Martha Diaz Aszkenazy: ‘When I tell people I am a Republican, people think I am crazy.’

Initially chastened by strong Hispanic support for the measure, many Latino politicians seemed resigned to let it pass or fail on its merits. But now some Latino civil rights groups and politicians are trying to depict the proposition as an anti-Latino "wedge issue" along the lines of the anti- illegal immigrant Proposition 187, and Proposition 209, which banned racial preferences.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D., Calif.) has accused the measure’s author, Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, of "immigrant bashing"–even though Mr. Unz was the principal financial backer of the campaign against 187. Art Torres, the state’s Democratic Party chief, has denounced the measure as "another attack on the Latino community."

In the case of both Propositions 187 and 209, large support among virtually all groups gradually eroded under a blistering attack by Democratic and minority politicians and civil rights groups, aided by sympathetic mainstream media. Despite strong Latino grass-roots opposition to bilingual education, these same forces are now almost uniformly opposing 227, arguing that support or even fair consideration of the measure violates what historian Rudy Acuna calls the "liberal Latino narrative." The attempt to enforce the party line has made being a Latino supporter of the bilingual education measure a difficult position. Linda Griego, a former board member of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a leading anti-227 organization, notes that Latino supporters of the ballot measure have been partially paralyzed by opponents who have linked it to the two previous racially charged initiatives.

The new racialized political climate could prove particularly dangerous in California, where party loyalties are increasingly determined by ethnicity. Anglos–excluding such relatively small groups as feminists, environmentalists and labor activists–have swung decisively to the Republican Party, which now finds its base almost entirely in the suburbs, edge cities and rural areas. Even the old GOP urban strongholds, such as Pasadena and Glendale, have turned to the Democrats as their immigrant and minority populations have swelled.

Perhaps the oddest products of this realignment are Republican Latinos like Martha Diaz Aszkenazy, president of Pueblo Contracting Services, a construction firm located in the heavily Latino city of San Fernando. Born to working-class Mexican parents and brought up in a Spanish-speaking household, she went to school before bilingualism swept California in the 1970s. She learned English well enough to graduate valedictorian of her high school before attending Loyola Marymount College.

Her own experiences and success make her an outspoken opponent of bilingualism. Yet in the current climate, being an open backer of 227, let alone a Republican, is stigmatizing. "The Republicans have a bad image among Latinos," says Ms. Aszkenazy, whose firm employs 32 people, mostly Latinos. "When I tell people I am a Republican, people think I am crazy."

As Latinos move out of the Republican Party–Bob Dole drew only 12% of their vote, compared with the 30% to 40% Ronald Reagan routinely captured–there is a growing danger of a bifurcation between a "lily-white" Republican Party and a Democratic Party dominated by "people of color." This presents the possibility of a long-term decline for Republicans, as Latino voters, already by far the fastest-growing segment of the state electorate, become solidly Democratic. This threatens not only the remaining Republican legislative seats in urban areas like Los Angeles County, notes Mike Madrid, the state party’s political director, but also rapidly growing, economically booming areas such as Silicon Valley, the San Bernardino-Riverside region and even the conservative bastion of Orange County, whose lone Democrat in Congress, Rep. Loretta Sanchez, is herself a former Republican.

But Latino loyalty to the Democrats is not written in stone. Most polls show that Latinos, who will constitute a majority of the state’s population within the next 25 years, tend to be conservative on a host of issues like welfare, family values, crime and abortion. Yet even Mr. Madrid admits that changing Latinos’ party affiliations may not be easy for Republicans. Their leading gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Dan Lungren, and Senate candidate, businessman Darrell Issa, so far have demonstrated little appeal to Hispanics.

Yet strong support last year among Latinos for Los Angeles’s Republican mayor, Richard Riordan, shows that an empathetic candidate who stresses public safety and economic growth can make headway in this community. "We don’t have to change our basic message to win Latino votes," Mr. Madrid suggests. "But we have to get some new messengers."

Racialized politics also holds dangers for Democrats. Forced to pander to organized ethnic advocacy groups such as Maldef, Democrats risk alienating their remaining Anglo supporters over issues such as bilingual education and racial preferences. Unable to reform even the most abusive practices in time, their hammerlock on the state Legislature–assured by their control of urban districts–is increasingly constrained by the power of conservative-backed ballot measures, which continue to draw support from a predominately white and middle-class electorate.

As the Democratic Party’s ranks swell with Latinos, conflicts with other core constituencies, notably Jews and African-Americans, are intensifying. In Los Angeles, prominent Jewish Democrats, such as County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, find themselves competing for power with increasingly assertive Latino legislators like Supervisor Gloria Molina. Even pro-immigration stalwarts, like Rep. Howard Berman (D., Calif.) and former Democratic Assemblyman Richard Katz, face primary challenges from Latino candidates. Perhaps even more threatened are the African-American politicos who still dominate South Los Angeles, where residents are now mostly Latinos.

Ultimately, the long-term answer for California lies in candidates, both Democratic and Republican, who can break the racial logjam by speaking to issues–like maintaining the state’s remarkable economic recovery and restoring excellence in education–that cut across ethnic lines.

Mr. Kotkin is a senior fellow with the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and a research fellow in urban studies at the Reason Foundation.

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