California Legislators Fight Divisive Ethnic Battle

Democrats are pitting African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos against each other.


SACRAMENTO—Republican legislators had often been criticized for being divisive when they held up the passage of state budgets to exact concessions—something that has subsided after the 2010 passage of Proposition 25, which requires a simple majority to pass budget bills.

Yet the fading of Republican power has not led to an era of Kumbaya. In fact, the state Capitol recently has been plagued by some of the ugliest and most divisive political battles in years as Democrats fight one another over ethnic-related issues. A new bill that recently passed a Senate committee is likely to keep the hostilities boiling.

The flashpoint was in March, after Asian-American legislators backed away from their previous support of SCA 5, a constitutional amendment that would have asked voters to repeal Proposition 209. That was the 1996 statewide initiative that banned racial and ethnic quotas in the state university systems and other public facilities.

Asian-American voters feared that their kids would face discrimination in university admissions if the new measure passed—and they put pressure on their legislators to back off. But some of SCA 5's supporters, who remain intent on reviving the issue, were livid at how it all played out.

The Sacramento Bee reported on "racially tinged reprisals," including allegations that an unrelated bill by an Asian-American assemblyman was killed by Latino and African-American legislators purely as retribution. Several Latino and African-American legislators withdrew their support for state Sen. Ted Lieu's congressional bid given that Lieu signed a letter asking the Assembly speaker to shelve the bill.

A cooling-off period seems in order, yet some of the same legislators who backed SCA 5 also are backing a bill that could lead to the reinstatement of another controversial ethnic-related policy: bilingual education.

In 1998, voters approved Proposition 227 mandating that public schools teach immigrant students with instruction that would be overwhelmingly in English. Sponsored by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, the measure basically ended public bilingual education programs that were said to have delayed English fluency because they taught kids heavily in their native language. It won with 61 percent of the vote.

The measure wasn't only about methods of English instruction. Supporters of Prop. 227 argued that bilingual education was an impediment to assimilation, so it got caught up in the immigration debates even though Unz had opposed Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that restricted public services to unauthorized immigrants.

Yet the death of bilingual education has remained a sore point for many Latino legislators. Last week, a Senate committee voted 7-0 to approve SB 1174 by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Huntington Park/Long Beach. It would ask voters in November 2016 to "amend" Prop. 227 by deleting the English-immersion requirement and leaving it up to local education officials. The bill is a clear effort to reinstate bilingual-education programs.

Indeed, Lara's statement on the vote laments the reduction of such programs. Given the evidence that immersion is a quicker way to teach immigrants English, bilingual-ed's backers now champion the method as a way to help kids maintain their Spanish-language heritage.

Unz thinks that current legislators don't really remember the old debate, but ultimately will be forced to back down in a fashion similar to what happened after parents learned about SCA 5.

"For most of a full generation, almost all young immigrant students in California have been taught English as soon as they started school and generally learned it perfectly well within a few months," Unz told me on Friday. "If the California politicians and school administrators were crazy and stupid enough to try to switch back to Spanish-almost-only instruction, they'd encounter such a gigantic grassroots revolt they'd be politically annihilated in very short order."

That's a relief, but it still raises a disturbing question: Why are some California legislators so eager to revive these old ethnic debates that will lead to nothing but bitterness and division?