The most important thing about the California election this coming Tuesday is what hasn’t happened. No one is playing race politics.
Bilingual education will likely be abolished, but not one of the major candidates is trying to make hay of it. A popular initiative of the sort that used to win elections for candidates is this time being opposed by all four candidates for governor, including the conservative Republican. The Wilson era is over, and with it an era in race politics.
Four years ago, Pete Wilson grabbed the issue of illegal immigration to stage a major come-from-behind re-election victory. Wilson positioned himself at the front of the parade to pass Proposition 187, which would deny all public benefits, including public education, to illegal immigrants. The initiative passed, Wilson won, and so, almost, did Republican Michael Huffington, coming close to defeating incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Proposition 187 was, as pollsters like to explain, one of the issues that drove the vote toward Wilson and Huffington.
Is that race politics? Not everyone who supported 187 did so out of animus to immigrants, much less racially based animus. Indeed, many immigrants supported it themselves, considering it a question of respect for rule of law. But choosing such an issue as the centerpiece of an election campaign, particularly when you know, as Wilson did, that the poorly drafted initiative was unconstitutional on its face, would be tied up in court for years and addressed mostly federal rather than state issues, at least evinces a willingness to use existing racial divisions and sensitivities to the politician’s own advantage.
So, too, with affirmative action, which was the next issue on the Wilson agenda. Preparing for a presidential bid, Wilson made ending affirmative-action preferences the defining issue of his second term, staging splashy meetings of the Board of Regents on the subject while leading the campaign to enact Proposition 209.
Again, opposing preferences hardly makes someone a racist. But at a time when the Supreme Court had already held most blanket preferences of the sort Wilson opposed to be unconstitutional anyway, the campaign to abolish affirmative action inevitably sharpened racial sensitivities in the state, and Wilson’s eagerness to embrace it seemed to prove, if nothing else, that race continued to work to the advantage of those who make it an issue.
Nor is this simply a Californian phenomenon. Issues that divide the electorate along lines of race have worked to the Republicans’ advantage in national politics, from Richard Nixon’s campaigns for “law and order” to George Bush’s against Willie Horton. Again, crime is not a racist issue – its victims are also disproportionately black. Still, few symbols are as powerful as that of the black murderer who rapes the white woman, and making that the centerpiece of the campaign was a decision that Bush campaign manager Lee Atwater later came to regret.
From the beginning, the initiative to abolish bilingual education has been supported by upward of 60 percent of Californians in public polls. Given that, and recent history, one might expect someone running for something to try to run on the issue, as Wilson and Bush and so many other politicians have done in the past. But in fact, the only politicians to visibly support the initiative are Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who is not running for governor even though he might have been the strongest candidate, and Gov. Pete Wilson, whose belated support was immediately rebuffed by the initiative’s sponsors, who want no part of what Wilson has come to represent in this state.
The irony is that the public seems to have an easier time addressing issues related to race in a non-racist way than politicians do. Proposition 209 would almost certainly pass again today, if it were on the ballot, and so would a better-drafted Proposition 187. But it is unlikely that they would elect anyone, certainly not anyone who was perceived to be catering to racial divisions.
Californians seem ready to move toward common language, common standards, common ground – and they don’t have any interest in those who would seek to divide us along the way for political gain. Race politics doesn’t play. Susan Estrich is a law professor and columnist for the Los Angeles Times. She was national campaign manager for Dukakis for President in 1988.