MEMO: The Anti-Latino Roots of California’s Ban on Affirmative Action and Opposition to Prop 16

This week, ballots begin to arrive in Californians’ mailboxes, and voters will have a chance to erase one of the last remaining vestiges of the ugly anti-Latino politics of the 1990s. By passing Proposition 16, California voters can end the state’s ban on affirmative action, strike a blow against discrimination, and expand opporunity for the state’s growing Latino population.

The history of how progressive California became one of just nine states to ban affirmative action was on display this week when former California Governor Pete Wilson endorsed Donald Trump, a man who calls Latinos rapists and murderers, mercilessly separates children from their parents and keeps them in cages at the border, and who blames Latinos for crime across this country. Wilson’s endorsement is a reminder that California’s ban on affirmative action—and opposition to Prop 16—has been and continues to be rooted in anti-Latino sentiment.

Pete Wilson was a leading proponent of the “trifecta of hate” against Latinos in the 1990’s. During his second-term gubernatorial bid, Wilson needed an issue to galvanize white male voters to save his waning campaign. He boldly supported Proposition 187, an effort to scapegoat California’s immigrant community for the state’s economic woes by cutting off life-line public services to immigrants including health and education. Four years later he supported Proposition 227 – the so-called “English for the Children” initiative –  which banned bilingual education in the state, capitalizing on xenophobia and anti-Latino sentiment as the White population in the state began to decline as a percentage of overall residents. 

Sandwiched between Proposition 187 and Proposition 227 was Wilson’s failed bid for the U.S. presidency. Seeking to stand out in a crowded field, Wilson relied on his old anti-immigrant, anti-Latino tactics and vowed to end affirmative action in California. Fueled by a need to once again galvanize white male voters, Wilson was all-in for a 1996 statewide ballot measure that purported whites were being discriminated against in state contracting, admissions and hiring, while Latinos and Blacks were privileged. 

Wilson found a ready champion in Ward Connerly, the eventual architect of Proposition 209 and Wilson’s pick for the University of California Board of Regents where the affirmative action debate caught fire. In a 2003 interview on his opposition to affirmative action, The Washington Post reported that “said he was tired of seeing Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants characterize themselves as underprivileged minorities”

“In California, this is no longer about race,” Connerly said. “It’s about ethnicity, and those of Mexican descent who will soon be a majority.  They don’t want to see those categories go. They want to see affirmative action policies remain so they can take advantage of them. They want to claim minority status when, in fact, they will soon be a majority in California.”

The Wilson-Connerly duo was successful in passing Proposition 209, misleading voters into believing the effort would create a colorblind society, while being endorsed prominently by David Duke, former Ku Klux Klansman and known white supremacist. In a much publicized debate at Cal State Northridge in 1996, the Los Angeles Times reported that Duke insisted “affirmative action promoted unqualified minorities at the expense of whites,” who he warned would be outnumbered and outvoted as the country came to resemble the audience he was addressing.

The blatant racism of characterizing Latinos and other underrepresented groups as unqualified is not something of the past for opponents of affirmative action. Just this week in an interview with the Sacramento Observer, Connerly accused the UC system of using race to admit a large number of Latinos because they could not possibly be qualified, “I know damn well the University of California is using race through the back door. I know it. I don’t know how. I don’t know specifically where, but if you look at the admission results starting at the very beginning of 209 implementation and you look at where we are right now, in order to have the number of Latinos being admitted to the system going up as dramatically as has happened, you have to conclude that something has changed to allow race to be factored in the back door.”

The cast of characters in the fight against affirmative action and the insidious anti-Latino undertones includes Richard Sander, a UCLA law professor and economist, who upholds the Duke and Connerly argument that affirmative action elevates unqualified students into our state’s public universities. At a recent event hosted by KPCC and LAIST, Sander veered off of students and took aim at the UC Board of Regents, arguing they have a “serious pathology,” because of their support for affirmative action. It is important to note that Sander’s criticism comes when, for the first time in history, the UC Board of Regents is chaired by a Latino (John Perez) and the Vice Chair is a Latina (Cecilia Estolano). 

For some people, the more things change, the more they stay the same. But this time around, California voters have a chance to show that we have evolved as a state. By voting Yes on Prop 16, we can reject the hatred and division of California’s past and chart a new course toward a future where everyone has an equal chance to succeed and we all thrive together.

Paid for by Yes on 16, Opportunity for All Coalition, sponsored by civil rights organizations Committee major funding from M. Quinn Delaney, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc. and the Hospitals, Open Society Policy Center

© 2020 Yes on Prop 16. All rights reserved.
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