Unz -- Candidate, campaign reformer, civic prophet?

If you count all of Ron Unz’s statewide political campaigns, he’s just one-for-three. That’s good enough for a hitter in baseball, but it doesn’t put him in the category of great civic prophets. He took on Pete Wilson in the Republican primary for governor in 1994 and lost; he ran Proposition 25, the campaign finance reform initiative on the March 2000 ballot, and lost again. Each time he got just over 34 percent of the votes. (His campaign for the Senate this year, which was abandoned before it had really started, isn’t being counted here.)

But Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire best known as the sponsor of Proposition 227, which got 61 percent of the vote just two years ago and that, in his words, has “dismantled” bilingual education in California, is working hard to spread a bigger and more ambitious message: If government and the nation’s elites continue to categorize the nation by ethnic and racial groups — if they pursue the “diversity” model and don’t return to the melting-pot model in assimilating new immigrants — the country could eventually tear itself apart.

He tried to make the point in a piece written for Commentary magazine last fall, and he made it again in a talk at the Public Policy Institute of California the other day. While de facto assimilation, as measured by rates of intermarriage, the numbers of immigrant entrepreneurs and similar data, are at record-high levels, he says, the nation’s political elites continue to pursue policies of ethnic balkanization. His argument is reinforced by polls showing that substantial majorities of Americans, including 64 percent of blacks and 81 percent of Asians, don’t want to be categorized by race. Yet on any number of forms, beginning with the census, government asks people to put themselves into boxes.

Unz, who opposed Proposition 187, the initiative passed by voters in 1994 that would have kicked illegal alien kids out of school and turned every teacher and doctor into a snoop for the immigration authorities, has always tried to make a sharp distinction between that measure and his own opposition to bilingual education and race-based affirmative action.

So far, that hasn’t worked. Even if one discounts those who continue to tar him as an ill-disguised bigot, Unz’s insouciant version of political history leaves some gaping holes. As he reads it, much of the backlash against minorities (in things such as Proposition 187) has come not from endemic racism, but from the official overstress on ethnic distinctions.

“A social ideology that allots to blacks and Latinos and Asians their own separatist institutions and suggested shares of society’s benefits,” he says, “cannot long be prevented from extending itself to whites as well, especially as whites become only one minority among many minorities. Before it is altogether too late, those who support this status quo must realize that the diversity prescription contains the seeds of national dissolution.”

What Unz leaves out is any real awareness of the history and legacy of three centuries of discrimination — the continuing inequality, for example, of many of the schools attended primarily by minority children; the continuing disclosures of racism in places such as the Los Angeles Police Department; the subtle discrimination in employment and housing; the fact that in many places even white ethnic politics is alive and well. The implicit notion that the melting pot was working just fine until minorities demanded special treatment is a bit bizarre.

And yet the policy argument made by people such as Unz — or by UC Regent Ward Connerly or by Shelby Steele of the Hoover Institution — can’t easily be dismissed. Given the consistent drift — in the voting booth on measures overturning race-based education and employment policies, in the opinion polls, in the courts — how much of a future does officially decreed race-consciousness have? And if it continues, will it simply invite more backlash and divisiveness?

Unz regards himself as the physician here, the bringer of policies of inclusion and assimilation. For the past two years, he’s penned a string of Op-Ed pieces, faxes and e-mail to show that Proposition 227 works. And on that he may well turn out to be right. While his early claims of great test score gains among students designated as limited English proficient have to be taken with a few grains of salt, and while it may be some time before the numbers are conclusive, he’s clearly made converts of teachers and principals who fiercely opposed him two years ago. Kids who languished then are learning now — sometimes with surprising speed — in English.

How much of that progress is due to Proposition 227, and how much to a host of other reforms — including the fact that schools will be evaluated in part on the test scores of those limited-English-proficient kids — will always be open to dispute. But the facile argument that Proposition 227 was merely another piece of racism is rapidly collapsing.

Unz is surely also right that the old civil rights model positing a white majority and a black minority doesn’t apply to California with its ethnically diverse population, where there is no longer any single ethnic majority. It’s now California and the Southwest that will be the models for the nation, not New York or Boston. It’s here that our future as a single unified nation will be tested. If we can’t do it here, can they do it anywhere else?

Peter Schrag’s column appears in The Bee on Wednesdays. He can be reached by fax at 321-1996; or by letter at Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852-0779; or by e-mail at [email protected]

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