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Latinos Have a Lot to Lose

The shape of the state's future depends on education, so outreach to working-class minorities is crucial.

November 03, 1996|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

The Times' last poll before Tuesday's election found that Latino voters in California are narrowly opposed to Proposition 209, the initiative that would abolish affirmative action in state hiring and contracting. All told, 42% of Latino respondents said they would vote against 209, with 38% leaning in favor of it and 20% undecided.

That more Latinos oppose Proposition 209 than favor it is no surprise. The initiative would force state and local government entities--most notably the University of California and the California State University system--to abolish the few programs to get more Latino students into higher education and to give more Latino business people a crack at government contracts. But to my mind, the most significant number in that poll is the 20% undecided. That means one in five Latino voters is not sure how he or she feels about a measure that could have a negative effect on them and their children.

This is a sadly accurate indication of how conflicted many Latinos are about affirmative action, both in theory and in practice.

It's not politically correct for Latino activists to say it publicly, but many Latinos do not consider affirmative action programs to be all that significant for their community.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 5, 1996 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 7 Metro Desk 2 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Latinos: In Frank del Olmo's column Sunday, the percentage of Latinos in last year's UCLA freshman class was incorrect: There were 790 Latinos among 3,523 students--22%, not 4.5%. Systemwide, Latino students comprise about 14% of undergraduates attending the University of California. The Times regrets the error.

In its most benign form, this indifference toward affirmative action once was expressed to me by a Latina who works with recent immigrants from Latin America.

"Most of the Latinos I know don't need it," she said simply.

Indeed, it has occurred to me on more than one occasion that the Latino community would be better off if more U.S.-born Latinos shared the work ethic, confidence in the future and just plain gumption of their immigrant brethren.

Other Latinos take the pragmatic view of the successful Latino businessman who once told me he considered affirmative action "a program for the blacks." He was not angry about this, I hasten to add, merely stating what he considered a fact: that affirmative action is intended to help African Americans overcome the effects of centuries of slavery and racial segregation.

My position on affirmative action falls somewhat in between those two. I don't spend much time worrying about Latino businesses getting government contracts. Most of the Latino entrepreneurs I know figured out a long time ago that the public sector of the California economy (indeed, the national economy) is shrinking, and the place to pursue one's fortune is in the private sector.

But in order to compete in the private sector, one must be at least minimally prepared through a decent education. And that leads me to the reason I will vote against Proposition 209: the effect it would have on public higher education in California.

Thirty years ago, when I was an undergraduate at UCLA, there were just 25 Latinos in a student body that numbered about 25,000. I remember the number because we few "Chicano Bruins" got to know each other pretty well.

Each one of us came from working-class families and none of us could have afforded to attend college anywhere but at a public university. And I, for one, will always be grateful to the taxpayers of California who helped pay for the opportunity I was given.

Even the most stubborn supporter of Proposition 209 must admit that Latino representation of 1 in 1,000 at the biggest public university in Los Angeles was pretty pathetic.

Well, things are a little better at UCLA these days--but not that much better. Last year's freshman class had 3,523 students, including 790 Latinos. That's roughly 4.5%, still not good enough when you consider that the population of this city and indeed the entire state is approaching 40% Latino. But even that minimal improvement would not have happened without the active recruitment of Latino students by UCLA.

Most Latino kids still come from working-class homes and would be hard-pressed to attend college, even community college, without some assistance. Faced with family financial needs, far too many opt to go right to work rather than pursue a college education. That costs California greatly, both in terms of future leaders and future high-wage taxpayers.

That is why UC and Cal State--where I completed my journalism degree in 1970 and where Latinos were also well-nigh invisible--must be allowed to recruit Latinos and other underrepresented minorities as aggressively as possible. Proposition 209 would not just stop that, but would also lock its prohibition against all such affirmative action programs into the California Constitution.

Proposition 209 must be defeated. And whether they realize it or not, Latino voters have a bigger stake than most other Californians in making sure it is.

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