The Racialization of L.A. Politics

As Proposition 227 Looms, Latino Power Rises

Recently Bill Clinton diverted himself from fending off scandal and defaming his accusers to denounce the Ron Unz initiative, Proposition 227, that is designed to end California’s current system of bilingual education. In the process, he may have contributed to the growing, and potentially debilitating, racialization of L.A.’s political scene.

Clinton’s attack on 227 has provided a critical cover for leading Latino politicians to accuse the Unz backers of being part of a broadbased anti-Latino political movement. This California version of Hillary Clinton’s “vast right wing conspiracy” sees Unz’s “English for the Children” measure as another racially tinged “wedge issue” in the spirit of the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187, and the racial-quota banning Proposition 209.

Like most conspiracy theories, this one is not only flawed from the start, but also dangerous if widely accepted. Proposition 187 was launched by nativists in Orange County without support from Pete Wilson, who later adopted the issue to save his own political skin. Proposition 209’s drafters were two Bay Area academics disgusted with the war on merit being waged by deconstructionist academics; many of 209’s early supporters, including this writer, vehemently opposed Proposition 187.


Similarly, Unz, who has financed Proposition 227 with his own Silicon Valley fortune, hardly fits the racist stereotype promoted by some Latino activists. The son of Jewish immigrants to Los Angeles, he was the foremost financial backer of the campaign against 187 and ran for Governor in 1994 in the Republican primary largely to protest the incumbent’s position on immigrant rights. Yet now he is being tagged as an “immigrant basher” by politicians like Representative Xavier Becerra, who once were happy to see him as an ally.

Until recently some observers, such as my Pepperdine University colleague Gregory Rodriguez, had hoped that Proposition 227 would escape the racial stereotyping that dogged discussions of both 187 and 209. With Latinos backing the measure by wide margins in early polls and only professional civil rights lawyers and bilingual teachers fervently opposed, a reasoned debate on the measure’s relative merits seemed possible. The debate would focus on what is best for California school children, particularly those with limited English. Indeed it could even be said that Unz has already won his point since 227s impending passage has forced reluctant Latino legislators to begin reforming the failed bilingual system.

But such advances in common sense now are in danger of being offset by the issue’s rapid racialization. Egged on by their political leaders and Spanish-language media such as Univision, which could be seen as having a financial stake in retarding the adoption of English, Hispanic support for the measure is flagging, down from around 80 percent to under 60 percent. By contrast, Anglos, African-Americans and Asians can be expected to support it by wide margins.

This racialization, not the issue of bilingual education, poses the real problem for Los Angeles. Linda Griego, a former board member of MALDEF, a leading anti-227 organization, says even anti-bilingual Latinos are reluctant to back the Unz measure because of “emotional responses” set off by repeated linkage to 187 and 209. Old-style Chicano nationalists, like Cal State Northridge Professor Rudolfo Acuna, openly demand that racial compadres follow “Latino liberal narrative” favoring bilingual education. In my father’s days back at NYU in the 1930s, they called it the party line.

This admixture of race and politics was not invented by Latinos or Democrats but by the Republicans who, first under Nixon and later Wilson, tapped deeply into the wells of Anglo resentment. By endorsing 187, Wilson made a brilliant tactical decision in terms of winning Anglo votes, but committed a strategic blunder that may haunt Republicans for decades. One sign of change: Clinton took barely 51 percent of Latino votes in 1992 but over 80 percent four years later.

The consequences of such racially polarized politics hold dangers for Latinos, California and Los Angeles. Instead of healthy competition for an emerging and critical electoral constituency, we may be witnessing the birth of a one-party voting bloc. Once Republicans were capable of winning a solid third to two-fifths of Latino voters, who generally hold fairly conservative positions on issues such as abortion, crime and welfare; today wearing a GOP label has about the same appeal among Latinos as Hamas has for Jews.

To many liberals, including Jews, this consolidation of democratic power may seem unalloyed good news, but they have not figured the long-term costs. With the Republicans chased out to the edge cities and rural areas, the largely Jewish and African-American political power-brokers will now have to accommodate an increasingly Latino-dominated Democratic politics. And the early indications are that the process will not go smoothly.

Already Zev Yaroslavsky, the county’s dominant Jewish politician, struggles with Congressman Becerra, Supervisor Gloria Molina and other Eastside legislators over the beleaguered MTA. In the increasingly Latino east San Fernando Valley, City Councilman Richard Alarcon’s race against Richard Katz suggests an impending clash of ethnic aspirations; an upstart Latino candidacy against Representative Howard Berman, a close ally of the late Cesar Chavez, suggests there may now be no secure cover beyond skin color. In South LA., Latinos, already the statistical majority, will soon threaten the entrenched African-American power structure.

Some, like Loyola University’s Fernando Guerra, see “racialization”—with all its potential for divisiveness-as both inevitable and even tactically sound. Constituting roughly 40 percent of L.A. county’s population, Latinos, due to their vast numbers of non-citizens and relative youthfulness, still only represent roughly half that percentage in the electorate. Concentrated racial solidarity expressed through one party, while it diminishes the true diversity within the community, makes a kind of tactical sense. By stacking Latino voters in one pile, they can achieve a critical mass far more quickly than would be otherwise possible.

But in the long run, this strategy poses dangers not only for Jews, African Americans and other non-Hispanics, but Latinos as well. Unlike Jews or blacks, who represent a permanent minority, Latinos are destined to become the dominant political force in our society. When a promising young politician like Congressman Becerra starts sounding like a Hispanic version of the ever-shrill Rep. Maxine Waters, the implications are far more terrifying because of their emerging demographic might.

Fortunately, this steady devolution towards balkanized, racialized politics can still be averted. As both Rodriguez and Guerra observe, Mexican-American and Central Americans are largely a mestizo people, an ethnic admixture of Native American and European. They share a relatively tolerant attitude towards intermarriage, powerful work ethic, rapid growth of enterprise and growing home ownership and are rapidly integrating into society as co-workers, partners, neighbors and even family. It is hard to see how the future of this increasingly dominant and widely diverse group can be well-served by following a narrow racial politics which could leave L.A. a Spanish-speaking Detroit.

But defusing racialization should not be seen as a challenge only for Latino leaders. Asian, Anglo and African-American community figures—in business, government, the clergy and charitable enterprises—must also come to grips with the new demographic and political realities. The days of satisfying Latinos with tokenism or even well-intentioned inclusion in “rainbow coalitions” has come to an end; railing against the “brown tide” is counterproductive and hopeless. The Latinization of Los Angeles, and indeed California, is now largely inevitable. The challenge now is to de-racialize the process enough so that these changes work to the benefit of our community, rather than its fragmentation.

Joel 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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