There's something I've been noticing lately about me and my Caucasian American brothers.
We white males just don't seem to be as angry as we used to be.
Oh sure, some white guys get more and more ticked off all the time. Some of the most ticked off join militias and blow up stuff. And sure, some of us, myself included, never did get all that ornery.
Count me among America's millions of ambivalent white males. When it comes to preferential policies to promote the advancement of women and minorities, I'm decidedly wishy-washy. That may explain my reaction to Mayor Richard Riordan's decision to oppose Proposition 209, the so-called California Civil Rights Initiative, the popular but controversial measure that would ban ethnic and gender preferences in education, hiring and contracting practices.
First, it's good to see the mayor demonstrate a little spine, whatever the reason. Two years ago, the man who had campaigned on being "tough enough to turn L.A. around" ducked Proposition 187, the hot-button measure that, among other things, sought to deny health care to illegal immigrants and remove their children from public schools. To take a stand on such a divisive issue, Riordan lamely declared, would further divide the people of Los Angeles.
More recently--and more incredibly--Riordan has ducked Assemblywoman Paula Boland's secession legislation. How's that for irony? Boland's aim is, quite literally, to divide Los Angeles--and Riordan isn't tough enough to take her on.
So any time Riordan takes a stand on a controversial issue, it's news. Still, there was something disappointing in his rationale for opposing Proposition 209.
"I am opposed to preferences, quotas and set-asides," Riordan declared before a group of minority business owners Friday. "However, I am against the CCRI, because it is divisive."
Got that? He was neutral on Proposition 187 because to do otherwise would have been divisive. He's opposed to Proposition 209 because it's so divisive. For Riordan, this is the one-size-fits-all reasoning.
Actually, Riordan's decision has already proven divisive--among California Republicans. With his pronouncement, Riordan became the state's most prominent Republican to oppose Proposition 209. Gov. Pete Wilson promptly accused the mayor of "double talk." Wilson added: "It's like saying that you oppose racial discrimination but are against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination."
This ambivalent white male says that Wilson has a point. But so does Riordan. Such is the nature of ambivalence.
Most of us, I'd venture, embrace the noble vision of the Rev. King--that people should be judged on the content of their character. The question is, how do we get there? After the Civil Rights Act of '64, a generation of elected representatives from both parties widely adopted affirmative-action policies as correctives to patterns of discrimination that persist beyond the change in the law of the land.
To angry white males, this is red meat, a policy fit for slaughter. To ambivalent white males, the question is how and when these policies should be phased out. It would have been nice to have heard the mayor thoughtfully weigh the complexities of Proposition 209 and affirmative action.
Analysts suggested that Riordan's stand was a matter of pragmatic politics--an olive branch to African American and Latino political leaders who had been pressuring him to speak out against Proposition 209. For him to toe the Republican line or stay neutral would have provided a potential opponent with a wedge issue.
Which brings us back to the flagging anger among white males, who support Proposition 209 in greater numbers than other groups. In '94, they were a force to be reckoned with. But now Riordan isn't too worried about offending these voters. Surveys suggest as much.
It would be incorrect to say that all white males who support Proposition 209 are angry, but it's interesting that a recent Los Angeles Times poll showed that support for Proposition 209 has fallen to 59% from 66% in March. Among white males in that survey, support fell to 70% from 74% in March, while opposition has grown from 17% to 21%. Meanwhile, another poll shows that since September 1994, white males' preference for Democratic congressional candidates has grown from 28% to 36%.
Small numbers, but it's often small numbers that grab the media's attention, swing elections and decide the course of social policy. If '92 was the Year of the Woman, then '94 was interpreted as a white male backlash, symbolized by Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich.
But now it's '96 and the pendulum has swung. Al Franken's "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot" became a bestseller and Republicans rejected their angriest white male candidate, Pat Buchanan. Citizen Dole certainly seems angrier than President Clinton, but it's looking more and more as though Clinton, for all his faults, will be returning to the White House.
Maybe it's just a matter of journalistic fashion, but even the buzz phrase "angry white male" is fading. More interesting, perhaps, is how these things catch on.
A Nexis search of hundreds of newspapers and magazines showed that, from 1990 though '92, the phrase appeared in only four articles, before jumping to nine in '93 and 99 in '94. Then it zoomed to 1,671 in '95.
So far in '96, "angry white male" had appeared 352 times, less than half last's year's pace.
As far as "ambivalent white male" goes, so far it has appeared in at least one story--this one. Alas, I have little hope of its catching fire. It's just too boring a concept.
Scott Harris' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to Harris at the Times Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth 91311. Please include a phone number.
Back to the flagging anger among white males. In '94, they were a force to be reckoned with. But now Riordan isn't too worried about offending them.