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CALIFORNIA COMMENTARY : Antidote for Ethnic Antagonisms : The proposed 'civil rights initiative' would avert conflict in our state's diversified population; that, or more Prop. 187s.

March 12, 1995|RON K. UNZ | Ron K. Unz is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was a leading Republican opponent of Proposition 187.

California, the leader in national trends, is approaching another crossroads: We can confront the challenges of our ethnic diversity either through the means symbolized by last November's Proposition 187 or by those of the proposed civil rights ballot initiative.

Although it began as a measure eliminating government benefits for illegal immigrants, by the end of its bitter, divisive campaign, Proposition 187 had become a symbolic battle for ethnic dominance between Anglos and Latinos. The television images of anti-187 mass marches festooned with Mexican flags galvanized white support for the initiative, while pro-187 forces routinely characterized California's many immigrant nannies and gardeners as a foreign army of invasion, reconquering lands lost in 1848. The ethnic nationalist rhetoric on both sides was a terrible portent for California's future. The actual details of the initiative itself--an appallingly drafted measure mandating, among other things, five-year prison sentences for immigrant mothers who send their children to public school--were ignored as the vote became a crude test of raw ethnic political power. Nearly two-thirds of Anglos voted for 187 while almost 80% of Latino voters opposed it. Since far more Anglos are registered voters, the measure passed handily.

The descent of California politics into a battle between ethnic blocks is hardly surprising. For three decades, liberal social policies have regularly promoted group rights over individual rights, and it was inevitable that similar ethnic nationalism would spread into the white majority population. The entire anti-immigrant backlash in America, which extends far beyond illegal immigration, draws heavily from whites' fear of having their rights trampled by ever-increasing numbers of ethnic minorities. A highly detailed private survey that I commissioned ranks affirmative action as one of the top reasons whites cite for hostility to new immigrants, easily outweighing fears of job loss or cultural conflict, and this is very plausible.

Consider a Californian of Italian ancestry. He may have nothing against immigrants in principle; his own grandparents probably were immigrants. But he is aware that when his children apply for admission to UCLA or compete for a job, they may very well be denied their dream in favor of Latinos, even those whose qualifications are substantially lower. Can we blame such an individual for resenting immigrants and voting to discourage their entry?

Anger grows when a major cable network is up for a tax break worth $400 million if it can be acquired by black entrepreneur Frank Washington. Or when a court decree in San Francisco explicitly denies some Chinese Americans the right to attend the city's top high school because they exceed a numerical quota. Or when the Los Angeles Fire Department follows hiring practices that have the effect of "no whites need apply." These extreme examples are the inevitable consequence of accepting the un-American notion that individuals should be rewarded or punished by the government based on their ancestry rather than their individuality. There can be no middle ground.

A spiral of ever-deepening group conflict is particularly dangerous for a society with California's ethnic diversity. Nearly 30% of Californians are Latino and 10% are Asian, with the overwhelming majority of these groups being new immigrants and their children. Add in the 7% of Californians who are black, and the many hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, Iranians and other non-Europeans whom our government bizarrely classifies as "Anglo," and it is obvious that far less than half of our population is of European origin. Even if all immigration, legal and illegal, ended tomorrow, the long-term demographic trends are apparent when nearly half of all children born each year are of Latino origin alone. The potential for a sharply divided California is at hand.

But so is the means for California's salvation. The civil rights initiative scheduled for the 1996 ballot would ban government-sponsored racial preference programs in our state and ensure that government treats each Californian as an individual rather than as a faceless member of a particular ethnic tribe. This measure, whose principles were among the cornerstones of my gubernatorial campaign last year, will drain the poison seeping into our society.

Abolishing ethnic preferences must transcend partisanship. Today's affirmative action is actually a last, terrible legacy of the Nixon Administration. The initiative's organizers are making every effort to attract the endorsement of prominent Democrats, from President Clinton on downward. Ironies abound: Clinton's chief of staff is Leon Panetta, who as a young Nixon Republican played a crucial role in formulating these very policies.

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