Commentary

Common Ground: Enter the Majority-Minority State


By Zoltan Hajnal, research fellow, Public Policy Institute of California, and Mark Baldassare, senior fellow, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Sacramento Bee on January 14, 2001

All eyes are on California as it becomes the nation's first large majority-minority state. Will we finally realize the dream of racial harmony that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked over four decades ago, or will we descend into the gridlock and conflict as whites, Latinos, Asians, and blacks fail to find common ground?

This was the question posed to us by Lieutenant Governor's Commission for One California, and as we looked for answers in our recent statewide surveys, we were reminded that there are no simple answers in a state as diverse and complex as ours. On one hand, there is surprising consensus among the state's major racial and ethnic groups; on the other, some troubling differences exist in the attitudes and experiences of Asians, blacks, Latinos and whites living in California today.

Overall, Californians are not deeply divided in their racial and ethnic attitudes. Whites, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans are all keenly aware that immigration and racial and ethnic change are under way, and most seem to be comfortable with the results thus far. Indeed, most Californians feel that race and ethnic relations are going well in their region. Few report that racial and ethnic change is a negative development, and a solid majority believes that racial and ethnic relations will improve in the future.

There are, however, some specific areas of strong disagreement. The most profound differences concern racial and ethnic policy issues, such as ending affirmative action, denying social services to illegal immigrants and their children and restricting bilingual education. These trends are most evident in racial and ethnic voting patterns on recent ballot initiatives in statewide elections.

Whites tend to sharply disagree with Asians, blacks and Latinos over what policies, if any, to pursue as the state's public institutions seek to respond to the needs of an increasingly diverse population. Most Whites may be comfortable with immigration and racial and ethnic change, but resist the idea that special efforts should be made by the government to accommodate the needs of specific groups.

In contrast, Asian Americans, blacks and Latinos have overwhelmingly opposed ballot measures such as Proposition 187, restricting services to undocumented immigrants, and Proposition 209, ending racial preferences in state programs. A continuation of such voting patterns could disrupt the racial harmony that is otherwise evident in most other measures of public opinion in this state.

Despite the differences, there are many areas of agreement across racial and ethnic groups in the arena of state policy preferences. Asians, blacks, Latinos, and Whites have reached consensus on how they define the state's most critical public policy issues, and how government ought to approach many of these problems. All four groups perceive education, crime, and jobs and the economy as their most important policy concerns, and worry about the quality of the natural environment and the threat of pollution. All four also agree on the basic solutions on a broad range of issues, including improving education, protecting the environment and fighting crime.

At the same time, Whites show less interest in government programs aimed at poverty, while African Americans and Latinos are more likely to favor government activities that will benefit the poor. Considering California's large gap between the rich and poor, even in this era of prosperity, this could divide rather than unite California's racial and ethnic groups.

Politics is also an area in which there is some cause for concern. In terms of both participation and interest, there is a sharp divide between Asians and Latinos on the one hand and blacks and whites on the other. Asians and Latinos are significantly less politically engaged in California's elections. Many Latinos are poor, don't speak English or lack citizenship. But this is not true for Asians, who tend to vote less and be less interested in politics even after socioeconomic differences are accounted for. Certainly, if these two groups are to have their voices counted equally in the politics of the state, they will need to become much more actively involved.

A political divide is also evident when it comes to partisan politics. As the number of Latino voters increases, they are joining African Americans in overwhelmingly registering to vote as Democrats. Asians are leaning toward the Democratic party, but not by as wide a margin, while whites are splitting their party allegiances. The tilt of new Latino and Asian voters toward the Democratic party is changing the political landscape of the state and has corresponded with a string of losses for Republican candidates in recent statewide elections.

Over time, California could take on the character of a one-party state if current registration patterns among newly registering Latinos and Asian Americans continues, and this could alter California elections, political leadership and policy choices in fundamental ways.

Finally, we are concerned that Latinos and blacks lag far behind whites and Asians on most indictors of socioeconomic well-being, including income, education, and home ownership. Moreover, computer use and Internet use are far lower for Latinos than for others. In order for these groups to compete in the new economy and raise their incomes, black and Latino educational levels must improve dramatically in the decades ahead, and the digital divide in computer use will have to narrow.

Although there is much cause for optimism, the potential for racial and ethnic conflict still exists in California. Clearly the direction we ultimately take will depend in large part on which issues come to the fore. To the extent that explicitly racial issues achieve prominence, California is likely to be a deeply divided state. But if Californians can focus their energies on basic problems such as education, crime and the economy, then racial and ethnic differences are likely to be much less severe.

The actions of California's political leaders are critical. Let's hope they take the words of Dr. King to heart and find some common ground on the high road.

Publications

Just the Facts: Latino Voters in California

Ethnic Context, Race Relations, and California Politics

Finding Common Ground: Racial and Ethnic Attitudes in California

How Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration Shape the California Electorate

Statewide Survey Series