SAN FRANCISCO, California, January 4, 2001 – As California opens a new chapter as one of the nation’s first majority-minority states, there is an encouraging level of satisfaction and consensus among its major racial and ethnic groups, according to a new report by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). At the same time, strong disagreements about racially oriented policies and differing levels of political participation and economic attainment among these groups present a profound challenge for Californians and their elected leaders.
In Finding Common Ground: Racial and Ethnic Attitudes in California, authors Zoltan Hajnal and Mark Baldassare analyze 10 statewide public opinion surveys conducted by PPIC between April 1998 and May 2000 – including interviews with over 20,000 adult residents. They find that whites, Latinos, Asians, and blacks are all keenly aware of the demographic shift that is under way in California. Overall, 70 percent of Californians say the racial and ethnic makeup of their region has changed a lot or somewhat in the past few years. Whites (73%), blacks (70%), Asians (65%), and Latinos (63%) all report noticing these changes. Large majorities of each group also say they think that the immigrant population in California has been increasing.
What effect have these historic changes had on the state? None, according to a majority of residents. Asians (62%), whites (57%), Latinos (57%), and blacks (53%) say that the change in the ethnic and racial makeup of their region has made little difference. At the same time, most Californians (81%) express satisfaction with race relations in their area. Although Asians are the most positive (86%), strong majorities of whites (81%), Latinos (81%), and blacks (80%) agree that racial and ethnic groups in their region are getting along well. Perhaps most significantly, solid majorities of all racial and ethnic groups say they expect race relations to improve in the future.
“The good news is that Californians are generally united in their appraisal of the state’s dramatic social transition,” says senior fellow and sociologist Mark Baldassare. “And in many important respects, this diverse population also shares a common vision of the future and of the state’s policy needs.”
Indeed, there are more similarities than differences of opinion between racial and ethnic groups on many public policy issues. All see education, crime, and jobs and the economy as the state’s most critical policy problems and share some common ideas about solutions. For example, California’s public education system is widely seen as the most important policy issue facing the state. There is little variation among groups, with Latinos (28%), blacks (28%), Asians (27%), and whites (26%) all naming schools and education as their primary policy concern. In addition, most Californians also believe that insufficient educational spending is part of the problem. Even among whites, who are the least supportive of increased spending, 68 percent think that the current level of state funding is too low.
Although racial and ethnic groups agree about many of the major policy questions facing California, they have considerable difficulty finding common ground when it comes to racially and ethnically oriented policy questions. Indeed, whites and non-whites tend to sharply disagree over the correct approach to affirmative action, immigration, and bilingual education. Specifically, the report found that blacks tend to be the most supportive of programs to aid minorities, while whites are often the most opposed. Latinos and Asians fall in the middle, with Latinos usually closer to blacks and Asians usually closer to whites.
For example, while only 27 percent of whites and 49 percent of Asians think affirmative action programs should be continued, 78 percent of blacks and 66 percent of Latinos support maintaining these programs for the foreseeable future. Such divisions are reflected in the actual vote for Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot initiative that sought to end the use of affirmative action by state government. The report’s analysis of Los Angeles Times exit poll data indicates that although Latinos (76%), blacks (74%), and Asians (61%) strongly opposed the measure, it passed with strong support from white voters (63%), who comprised the majority of voters in that election.
“To the extent that explicitly racial issues achieve prominence, California is likely to be a deeply divided state,” says research fellow and political scientist Zoltan Hajnal. “But if Californians can focus their energies on tackling basic problems such as education and crime, then racial and ethnic tensions should be far less severe. The actions of California’s political leaders may well play an important role in determining the state’s ultimate course.”
The report raises two additional areas of concern: Differences in levels of political participation among the state’s ethnic and racial groups and a large gap between groups in some key measures of economic well-being. The authors found that in terms of both political involvement and interest, there is a significant divide between Asians and Latinos on the one hand and whites and blacks on the other. Asians (54%) and Latinos (51%) are far less likely than whites (81%) and blacks (70%) to say they always or nearly always vote. For Latinos, this gap is largely explained by lower socioeconomic status, lack of citizenship, and language barriers, but this is not true for Asians, whose low levels of political engagement persist even after socioeconomic differences are accounted for.
Ethnic groups in California are also divided when it comes to political orientation, with Latinos and blacks registering Democratic in greater numbers, Asians leaning slightly toward the Democratic Party, and whites splitting their party allegiances. “If the growing Latino population continues to register overwhelmingly as Democrats, California could take on the character of a one-party state,” says Baldassare.
Finally, the report finds that Latinos and blacks lag behind whites and Asians on most measures of socioeconomic well-being, including income, education, and home ownership. Latinos are also far less likely than other groups to use a computer or access the Internet. Despite the economic gap, Latinos (55%) and blacks (57%) are more likely than whites (38%) and Asians (43%) to say that they expect to be financially better off a year from now. Overall, majorities of all racial and ethnic groups express positive views about the quality of life in California today and believe that the state is headed in the right direction.
The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to objective, nonpartisan research on economic, social, and political issues that affect the lives of Californians. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. David W. Lyon is PPIC’s President and CEO.