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CALIFORNIA COMMENTARY : It Can Still Be a Golden State : This election we gave our children a classic lesson in how not to resolve problems; we must heal our wounds of division.

November 21, 1994|ART TORRES | State Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), who was a candidate for state insurance commissioner, is chairman of the Insurance, Claims and Corporations Committee.

Take pause, California. Look around and reflect. We have many wounds to heal.

The eyes of my 14-year-old daughter, Danielle, told the entire story on election night. The concern and fear in her eyes had less to do with her father's election loss than her recognition that all is not well in California; that an unfolding environment of racial animosity, fueled in large measure by Proposition 187, bodes ill for her future; that, by virtue of being Latino, attending a public school, she is no less suspect of the "I" word than her immigrant classmates. Indeed, in a world where skin color actually does matter, all Californians with immigrant roots are implicated by the climate we have created.

The most vocal supporters of Proposition 187 have successfully cast the immigrant as leech. The most vocal opponents have branded the average white California voter as bigot. In our collective, cathartic effort to address a long-ignored public-policy issue, we've scarred one another for generations to come. We've taken complexity and reduced it to all-or-nothing equations. We've given our children a classic lesson in how not to resolve problems.

Am I overplaying this? In 20 years of service in the California Legislature, I've witnessed periodic waves of racial tension that have rocked this state. If I had a dollar for every hate letter I've received in Sacramento targeting my Mexican heritage, I'd be a very rich man. And yet the fevered pitch we hear today is unprecedented and frightening. We're adrift.

But between these spouts of anger, I've also seen our periods of triumph, of rising above race and class to pursue a common agenda. We saw it after the Los Angeles riots, at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, where black, brown, yellow and white came together in harmony to address a crisis. We saw it after the two earthquakes, north and south.

We have the capacity to rise above difference to move California forward. But we must first expunge the emotion and "politics" from the critical issues facing this state, such as immigration. By no means should we relax our efforts to curb undocumented immigration. But we need to address the issue responsibly and with an understanding of who we are in California.

We are, in fact, a state that boasts the most diverse population in the world, where today's minority will be tomorrow's majority. We are a state where our rich diversity--combined with our proximity to our NAFTA partner Mexico, and at the gateway to the emerging Pacific Rim--may well translate into our economic salvation. We are a state where today's voters will soon be dependent on the good wisdom and foresight of the future--and ethnically diverse--generation of voters.

All of which presents a critical test for our state's leadership. With the passage of Proposition 187, we've created a national issue for which our own governor may well be drafted as primary spokesperson. He can build national political capital by ratcheting up Proposition 187-style demagoguery, inflaming racial tension on a national scale, or he can set a national standard for leadership by healing the wounds of division in his own back yard.

The latter is what California desperately needs. Wilson needs to be the voice of leadership and unity in a state divided, and must set a standard for reasoned, informed debate. He needs to reach out to those within the Latino community, among others, who feel betrayed by his actions. He needs to transcend politics and work hand in hand with Sen. Dianne Feinstein to address immigration concerns. He needs to restore hope in a growing generation of disillusioned and bewildered Californians .

Let us embrace the change California voters have endorsed. But let us do so without demagoguery, hate and finger-pointing. Let us respect the rich diversity of our population with responsible leadership at the helm. Let us heal our wounds and rediscover our common ground.

I will reach out to the young people in this state who showed me during the campaign year what truth and conviction are all about.

My vision has not changed, no matter what perceived tidal waves appear to have swept over so many of us. The tide washes away, and we are left with new imprints to make upon the sand we call our California.

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