Conflicts in the Coalition: Challenges to Black and Latino Political Alliances

Article excerpt

With the ascendancy of single-issue elections in many states, citizens have turned to voter initiatives rather than representative institutions (legislatures) to influence the debate over salient public policy issues, and to link a politically attentive public with key legislation (Magleby 1984: 15; Eulau and Prewitt 1973: 218). One of the more controversial initiatives involving the contours of racial and ethnic politics in California was Proposition 187, which was placed on the ballot and passed in 1994. Known as the "Save Our State" initiative, Proposition 187 proposed to bar illegal immigrants from receiving state-funded human, health, social, and educational resources and services (Hero and Tolbert 1996). The initiative was targeted toward the state's bourgeoning Latino population, much of which increased as a result of the recent influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America over the past decade (Cowan, Martinez, and Mendiola 1997; Camarillo and Bonilla 2001: 103-134; Durand, Massey, and Charver 2000: 1-15).

The Proposition 187 campaign ignited deep-seated tensions within California's diverse racial/ethnic population. Given the initiative's negative impact on the Latino community and the racially insensitive language employed by the initiative's key supporters (Kelley 1997: 120-121), many Black and Latino political activists and civil rights leaders claimed that Proposition 187 was racist and xenophobic. Nonetheless, as Table 1 points out, leading up to the 1994 election, about 64% of the Black electorate expressed their support for the initiative. Although a much smaller percentage of Blacks actually voted in favor of Proposition 187 on election day, especially when compared to whites, their lackluster opposition to the initiative revealed underlying tensions between Blacks and Latinos in California.

Our objective in this paper is to assess Black attitudes toward Proposition 187. We utilize this as a proxy for analyzing the challenges that Black and Latino political leaders and grass-roots activists face in building progressive coalitions. Although we are mostly concerned with the Black/Latino encounter, our study also accounts for differences in attitudes toward immigration between Blacks and whites. We conclude our study with a broad discussion of the challenges facing Black and Latino political alliances. Although our study only focuses on a single-issue election in California, it underscores similar challenges that Black and Latino political activists face in other jurisdictions around the country that have traditionally been sites of progressive coalition building between the two groups.

The Initiative Industry

Our study offers a unique look at the prospects and difficulties in building Black and Latino political alliances around an issue that was shaped and influenced by what has been referred to as the initiative industry. The initiative industry refers to the intensive campaign involving interest groups, politicians, fund raisers, and political activists, who lobby and mobilize the electorate and grass-roots support in favor of or in opposition to voter initiatives. This process includes obtaining thousands of petition signatures required to place an initiative on a ballot; electioneering and the politics of framing an issue/initiative; mass direct mailing campaigns and media and political advertisements; and utilizing the courts in order to influence the outcomes of voter initiative campaigns (Magleby 1984; Cronin 1989). For politically-charged, salient issue latent initiatives such as Proposition 187, this process can be extremely expensive to interest groups, costing millions of dollars (Magleby 1984: 64; Broder 2000). Because traditional out-groups such as Blacks and Latinos have few resources, the financial burdens of voter initiatives, make it difficult for them to put together sustained political campaigns in favor of or in opposition to high profile initiatives. …