California is the United States of America, Just Sooner

Experts see a mirror image between the anti-immigrant and anti-minorities movements in the 1990s, the political change it brought to the state, and the current state of the nation.

The story of how anti-immigrant Proposition 187, passed by the voters of California in 1994, promoted the political participation of Latinos, Asians and supporters, seems to have a happy ending in the long run for the side that lost that election.

Those segments of society that felt attacked by the 1994 initiative became a lasting movement that turned the state into a more tolerant, less divisive place, with more diverse representation at all levels of its government but with the almost complete dominance of the Democrats over the Republicans, who currently are a minor force in the state.

But in the rest of the United States, the aftershocks of 187 continue to reverberate today. Some will say there are many similarities between the political and social phenomenon that happened then in the Golden State and what’s going on today in the nation.

Learn more about Proposition 187 and its repercussions on “187: The Rise of the Latino Vote.” Watch this preview.

“California is America, just sooner”, says University of Southern California sociologist Manuel Pastor. “When we look at the current politics nationally, we can see that they mirror what went on in California in the early 1990s that suggests that the route ahead for the country is probably the one we took in California.”

According to Pastor, that involves long term strategies to bring “communities of color together with progressive allies” to look for transformations in access to power based on community organizing. “Short term political victories don’t build the political strength to sustain what you need to do to move past the racial animus that is gripping the nation right now.”

Pastor speaks about a “wave of racial anxiety” that gripped California in the 1990s.  At the time of 187 and in the following years, other propositions targeting minority groups in the state passed in quick succession: three strikes crime laws and the elimination of both affirmative action programs and bilingual education, among others.

Protestors shout from a bus against Proposition 187 | Still from “187”

“That sense of demographic anxiety came in part because of a huge immigrant inflow into California in the 1970s and 1980s. Half of all immigrants coming into the United States came in through California,” said Pastor.

He adds that the demographic change that occurred in California in the 1990s “is basically the same one that the U.S. is going through right now.”

Economics is and was also part of it, as a deep recession caused by cuts in defense spending hit the nation, particularly in the Golden state.

“This racial anxiety played out against a background of economic uncertainty as well”, he added. “We had a perfect stew of anxiety about demographic change, nervousness about economic uncertainty and job loss, and wanting to blame someone for that, rather than to look for structural solutions.”

The rise of talk radio and Rush Limbaugh, a central figure of the ultra-conservative movement since the late 1980s, was another element in the “stew”, Pastor says.  Today, you have social media and a vast niche media network that acts as an echo chamber to extreme ideologies.

When you look back, the 1990s in California seem to have a lot of similar elements to most recent years nationwide, but also to other historical eras, says Loyola Marymount University political science professor Fernando Guerra.

“It’s not unusual in politics to try to scapegoat the other and scapegoat minorities, whether they’re ethnic, religious or national origin when there are crises and economic downturns. I see 187 as part of that trend that has been happening historically and worldwide. And unfortunately, it continues today and will probably continue into the future,” Guerra said.

This also usually happens when an incumbent politician or candidate has nothing better to offer, so scapegoating could be an effective strategy for winning elections, he adds.

“Then-governor Pete Wilson had no answers to the economic crisis, the real estate downturn that occurred at the time and the loss of jobs,” said the professor. “He was going to seek reelection (with exceptionally low approval numbers), and he could not explain why this was happening, or how he was going to get California out of it. So, he began a process of scapegoating using Proposition 187.”

Senator Pete Wilson campaigning | Still from “187”

UCLA professor of Chicano-Chicana and Central American Studies, Celia Lacayo, draws parallels between the political name of the Proposition 187 initiative and President Donald Trump’s slogan: “Make America Great Again.”

“The language in Proposition 187 was racialized in the sense that the title was “Save Our State.” So, then the question is: save our state from who? From what? It’s coded language that many conservative and predominantly white voters felt threatened by the increasing number of Latinos in California.”

An image of the “Save Our State” initiative along with highlighted language | Still from “187”

She adds that SOS is similar to Trump’s “Make America Great Again.”

“It’s not said in the name, but people understand what is meant by those slogans,” says Lacayo, although Trump is “very explicit about calling Mexicans rapists.”

Lacayo can see “many connections with Prop 187 and what is happening today in our country,” in the changing demographics and the changing economy for large swaths of the country, including the white working class. “People are still voting [with] that fear of Latinos and other minorities, and that’s in part how we get Trump”.

For the partisan politics of the state of California, there is a before, and there is an after Proposition 187. The state of California that existed before was a red, Republican state that almost always voted for the Republican candidate for president for the previous 40 years, with rare exceptions. It was the state of Richard Nixon, the state of Ronald Reagan.

Today, California is arguably the most progressive state in the nation, the most at odds with the policies of President Donald Trump and publicly resented by the President time and again.

Fabian Núñez, one of the anti-187 campaign organizers who just ten years later rose to one of the most powerful political positions in the state (California Assembly Speaker), says it was a turning point.

“The movement in 1994 against Pete Wilson and Proposition 187 was the catalyst to move California from where it was, which was a very conservative state, to where it is today, which is the most progressive state in the country.”

But even before 187, the demographics of the state were changing. Part of the reason was the large immigration of previous years and the bipartisan Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986 (Amnesty Law), passed by Democrats and Republicans in Congress and signed by Reagan, which helped legalize three million previously undocumented immigrants who were already well on their way to naturalization (or to be eligible for it).

“Clearly, 187 had a tremendous impact on Latino consciousness and political mobilization”, says LMU’s Guerra. “But it also impacted other communities, including the white community and the Asian community. Today California is blue, not only because of Latinos, but because of the Asian vote, but because of the traditional African-American vote and also the white vote that has also moved to the left, not tolerating anti-immigrant rhetoric that you saw in 187.”

Fast forward 25 years, say these experts, the whole nation has been gripped by racial division, massive protests against police brutality and racism, increases in white supremacist activities and racialized policies coming from the very top, as well as economic anxiety that spread from some quarters to the whole nation on the heels of a once-in-a-century pandemic.

The upcoming elections could provide clues as to whether the backlash against current policies is significant and whether there is long-term political realignment coming out of this moment in history, the experts argued.