It was purely coincidence, but an ironic one: On the same day the Census Bureau revealed that a quarter of California’s estimated 33 million residents were born outside the United States, the state Board of Education formally adopted a new policy giving local school districts sole responsibility for educating students not proficient in English.

Together, these two events frame two powerful and conflicting currents flowing: California is the most diverse society in the history of humankind, but we Californians don’t yet know how to accommodate inevitable cultural change while retaining the core of common values vital to any functioning society.

Immigrants, legal and otherwise, are continuing to pour into California from hundreds of countries. The state receives about a third of all foreign immigrants and they and their copious offspring account for the vast majority of California’s population growth.

An accurate census would probably reveal that the non-Latino white (Anglo) population of California has already slipped below 50 percent and there are an estimated 150 languages spoken in the state.

The demographic reality, as the Census Bureau report underscores, is inescapable. Latinos will surpass Anglos within 20 years to become the state’s largest single ethnic group. Nevertheless, Anglos remain economically and politically dominant — roughly 75 percent of voters in statewide elections — and the tensions between demographic and political reality are growing more acute.

There are no villains in this drama, but there also is no shortage of genuine conflict between multiculturalism, however that may be defined, and cultural commonality.

These days, the conflicts burn most heatedly on two specific issues: affirmative action and bilingual education.

In 1995, largely at the behest of Gov. Pete Wilson, University of California regents abolished affirmative action — giving special consideration to ethnic minorities — in university admissions. And in 1996, California voters ratified that policy change by passing a ballot measure that eliminates all state affirmative action.

Last month, UC officials reported African American and Latino admissions to the system’s two most prestigious campuses, Berkeley and UCLA, dropped sharply as a result of the new policy.

It was a media coup for the officials, who had bitterly opposed the policy change adopted by regents, because the minority drop received news coverage throughout the country. But it was also a somewhat slippery trick by those officials because they withheld the data on other UC campuses, which showed much-smaller minority decreases, until after the Berkeley and UCLA furor had been unleashed.

The UC figures, however they were massaged, add new fuel to the debate that shows no signs of cooling: Does affirmative action redress discrimination or merely mask deficiencies, such as the poor performance of inner-city public school systems, while creating new social tensions?

It’s the same debate, more or less, on bilingual education. Should we attempt to provide instruction in native languages to those not proficient in English, or should we insist on immediate English immersion to reinforce the common culture? Influenced by Latino leaders and bilingual instructors, the state Assembly last year killed a bill that would have left the issue to local school officials. But with a more radical attack on bilingual education now before voters in the form of an initiative, Democratic leaders are trying to revive the bill as a more acceptable alternative.

The only certainties are that California will continue its rapid social evolution and we’ll be fighting over its effects for decades.

DAN WALTERS’ column appears daily, except Saturday. Mail: P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, 95852; phone: (916) 321-1195; fax: (916) 444-7838; e-mail: [email protected]

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