Somewhere over the rainbow

Looking past Proposition 209 for a new politics of race.

By Joan Walsh

Published November 6, 1996 11:38AM (EST)

I’m used to being a minority. I'm a white California voter who opposed Proposition 209, which abolished affirmative action, and the majority of white people
didn't vote that way. I didn't oppose 209 because I'm a woman and it would hurt me personally, but because I'm an old-fashioned racial integrationist, and I'm afraid of what the future holds if this racially diverse state is denied its most effective policy tool for promoting equity and inclusion.

But while the defeat of affirmative action is depressing to me, it is not surprising. It proves that the nation needs to move beyond zero-sum answers to racial inequity, in which one group wins at the expense of the other, and to ditch outdated racial rhetoric that isolates white people and substitutes retribution for equity.

Such an approach was more defensible when it was aimed at getting a privileged white majority to share political power and resources with a dispossessed, viciously persecuted black minority. Affirmative
action made moral and political sense when applied to black people, as the clumsy, inexact reparations for centuries of slavery and discrimination. But in California, its provisions stretched to apply
to Latinos, Asians, American Indians, every racial group but whites, at a time when white people are on the verge of becoming a minority — and already are, in almost every large city and many suburbs. It should be no surprise that it provoked a backlash.

Though Prop. 209's opponents emphasized, correctly, how much white women have gained from affirmative action policies, the issue turned out to be not about sex, but about race. And it showed that we have neither the language nor the policy that makes sense in this increasingly mixed-up racial free-for-all. This at a time when interminority conflict is rising in California, with blacks resenting Latino newcomers in South Central Los Angeles, Latinos attacking the credibility of black political leadership in cities around the state, and Chinese parents suing to scuttle an NAACP-backed school desegregation plan in San Francisco.

How do we develop a new language and a new strategy? First, we have to give up our attachment to a black-white paradigm of racial inequality, which fails to address the situation of Asians or Latinos. Compared to African Americans, Asians, while suffering intense prejudice, have much more in common with the European immigrant experience — a first generation of struggle against poverty and prejudice, then a rise up the ladder of social mobility into the mainstream. The reality for Latinos is more complex, differing by divergent backgrounds, and falling somewhere between the European and African American experience.

Civil rights activists must acknowledge that notions of a "people of color" coalition is doomed. Black voters joined with whites in supporting service cuts to illegal immigrants in 1994's Proposition 187, which Asians and Latinos opposed. Asian voters were almost evenly split on Prop. 209, voting more like whites than blacks, since affirmative action favors blacks, Latinos and American Indians in higher education, not Asians, and has actually limited the enrollment of high-achieving Asian students in the University of California system.

And increasingly we should challenge the more reactionary aspects of multiculturalism. There has always been a tinge of payback in the way affirmative action and other civil rights remedies were defended and implemented. I see that impulse on occasion
in my work as a writer on urban poverty issues. Recently a colleague told me about a "people of color caucus" he'd formed inside a group that was white-led, but mainly comprised of non-whites. Why do that, I asked him — cautiously, nervously — why exclude white colleagues and allies? Was there a program goal? He was silent for a moment, then angry. "We've been excluded for so long — they should know how it feels."

They — we — should. But should that goal drive social policy? I've had to argue for including white kids in a youth initiative designed to focus just on Asians, Latinos and blacks — as though white youth are any better served by our bankrupt, sclerotic public bureaucracies. I've found myself lobbying against coalitions and projects that lump all "people of color" together, as though Hong Kong immigrants have more in common with African Americans than I do. I'm increasingly offended by "New Majority" initiatives around California that don't include whites. It's just in-your-face white-baiting — we're the future, and you're not — satisfying, maybe, but futile.

I know white people want everything for
themselves — who doesn't? — and they
were lucky to get it for a while. But that's over, painful as that is for us. We decided to divide the pie more equally right at the point that the pie was shrinking. We moved to provide public education to all children — often forced by the courts to do so — without adequately increasing education
spending; that meant taking from kids who had and giving to kids who hadn't. Corporate America is pushing diversity training and downsizing at the same time, and wondering why white males are feeling
squeezed and resentful.

By any measure, white people retain a disproportionate share of the nation's bounty, and they will for the foreseeable future. But California's mixed- up racial politics could make it easier to find fair solutions, if the goal of
public policy is equity and inclusion, not retribution.

One of the best kept secrets in California is that 40 percent of white freshmen at UC-Berkeley in recent years have been admitted on something other than strict academic merit, thanks to preferences for rural students, athletes, applicants with musical or artistic abilities, children of alumni, and the economically disadvantaged. Without such forms of affirmative action, white students would be unable
to compete with the growing influx of Asians on grades and test scores alone; the university, already 40 percent Asian, would be much more so. Implemented correctly, affirmative action could have a strong constituency among whites.

In San Francisco, touting the benefits of diversity, not just harping on the obligations, has paid off for the public schools. Spanish, Chinese and Japanese immersion programs are crowded with families of every race, including whites, who are anxious for the benefits bilingualism provides. A growing school choice program tries to honor parental preferences while protecting racial integration goals. Not
surprisingly, school bond measures pass overwhelmingly here, supported by voters of every race, and lately even test scores are rising.

It may be that all manner of surprising coalitions will spring into shape if we size up racial politics with an eye toward equity, not retribution, and
get beyond zero-sum models of race relations. We have no choice. The victory of Proposition 209 ended the old civil rights order, and we have to build a new one.

Quote of the day


"I think this year will be remembered as a return to a period of declining turnout. Sadly, we are giving voters motivation to sit out."

— Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, on the lower than 50 percent turnout in Tuesday's presidential election, the lowest since 1924. (From "Voter Turnout Lower Than 1992," in the Wednesday edition of AllPolitics)

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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