California at a Crossroads: Social Strife or Social Unity?
California at a Crossroads
In these economic hard times, California voters must either choose opportunities for all -- and social peace -- or deepening struggle between competing groups and continued, growing violence. Public policy and recent and proposed ballot initiatives show that Californians are making the wrong choice.
* Proposition 184, by mandating permanent imprisonment for third-time felons irrespective of the nature of their offenses, promises a massive increase in California's law-enforcement budget at the inevitable expense of desperately needed funding for education.
* Proposition 187 scapegoats undocumented immigrants rather than offering a rational and compassionate immigration policy. Prop. 187 completely fails to deal with the causes of illegal immigration and inflicts its severest penalties on children, depriving them of health care and education.
* The so-called California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI), proposed for the 1996 ballot, seeks to halt a generation of slow but significant progress toward the full inclusion of women and minorities in the benefits of our society. CCRI blindly denies that there are continuing social problems caused by racism and sexism.
Chronic tuition increases and cuts in financial aid threaten access to higher education and quality employment for all but the privileged few, while crippling California as a global economic competitor in a period of rapid technological innovation.
The 1994 election highlighted a choice that must now be made between two paths for California and the nation. One leads to a society whose people are healthy, well educated, and gainfully employed, the other, to a society whose men and women, whose ethnic and racial groups are trapped in endless struggle over dwindling resources. One alternative will address the real needs of the people for medical care, education, and jobs, the other will continue to fan the flames of prejudice and resentment, promising to maintain order only through a growing law-enforcement apparatus. The 1994 elections suggest that we are making the wrong choice. Even as Americans seem to have lost the ability to imagine any sort of truly hopeful future, they appear to be rushing headlong toward condemning so many of their children -- our children -- to live in an anti-utopia of poverty and despair.
In 1994, California's voters defeated a plan for universal health care, but approved Proposition 187, a simplistic response to the subtleties of illegal immigration. Voters also adopted Proposition 184, which mandates costly life sentences for all third-time felons, no matter what the character of the felony, violent or not, thus threatening to bankrupt the state for years to come. In the state and the nation, politicians won elections by promising both to slash welfare, health care, and education budgets, and to boost spending for police and prisons. The so-called California Civil Rights Initiative, an anti-affirmative action measure, is shaping up to be the most divisive issue of the 1996 statewide and national elections. In the following pages, we will examine these political developments in the light of the two alternative future paths between which citizens must now decide.
Sunset on the California Dream
By 1990, following years of booming economic growth, California had surpassed most countries in income and output, with a gross domestic product of $700 billion. From 1979 to 1988, the state added 2.6 million jobs. Average income per capita rose 18% in real terms from 1980 to 1990. California had taken over as the principal engine of U.S. economic development. Indeed, the state's electronics and aerospace industries were trumpeted as a source of national renewal and a sign of American innovation and entrepreneurship at their best.
However, weakened by fiscal mismanagement and political gridlock, and devastated by the base closings and military contract reductions that followed the end of the Cold War, the state economy came crashing to its knees in the recession of 1991 to 1994. Over the last four years, virtually all the key functions of state government have been cut back by one-fourth to one-third. California has plummeted from among the highest-ranked states in the United States in per-pupil spending in public schools to 38th. It now has the largest average class size of any state, and a school maintenance backlog 45 times the national average. Job loss amounted to almost 1.5 million from 1990 to 1992: 900,000 in wholesale and retail trade, 200,000 in manufacturing, 150,000 in construction, and 70,000 in agriculture. Unemployment was the worst since the 1930s, peaking at over 9% in 1993.(1) The official poverty rate skyrocketed from 12.5% in 1990 to 18.2% by 1993, putting California among the poorest 10 states in this most poverty-ridden of wealthy nations.
While the United States as a whole has fared slightly better than California, an increasingly globalized economy can only accelerate the flow of investment abroad. International trade agreements such as NAFTA and GATT, designed primarily to benefit business, will lure investors in search of rock-bottom wages, relaxed environmental regulations, minimal consumer protections, and little or no worker organization. In response, the United States will increasingly be pressured to lower domestic operating costs, as has already begun in the House Republicans' "Contract with America," which would, among many other provisions, sharply curtail corporate liability for unsafe products. The future is not bright.
While U.S. technological innovation has generated a significant number of high wage jobs, both job loss and population growth have exceeded job creation. Moreover, to keep such high-skill, high-wage jobs, U.S. workers require education and vocational retraining, neither of which has been an investment priority for policymakers. The logical response to the country, s economic situation would seem to be investment in education at the secondary, post-secondary, and vocational levels to give workers the skills to compete effectively in a global economy in which many foreign workers can work for much lower wages. Yet in California, as in the nation generally, investment in education is declining.
One result of the combination of California's ongoing recession and misguided spending priorities is a growing income gap between the state's wealthy few and working many. In the Bay Area, despite the current slump, the number of million-dollar executive paychecks has jumped from 5 to 54 in 10 years.(2) This disparity has been exacerbated by the wholesale cutting of the social welfare programs in place since the middle of the century. The result has been a growing pool of low-skilled and unskilled workers competing for an ever shrinking number of jobs. Along with a worsening economic situation and grim future prospects for an increasing number of Californians, the state has seen an increase in problems of deep poverty and despair homelessness, crime, and drug use.
However, instead of striving to create opportunities for all citizens, policymakers have simply found ways to misdirect the growing insecurity and frustration of working men and women, most recently championing the alleged interests of white workers against the supposed incursions of minorities. This has worked for the politicians since, for example, in the 1992 California election, whites provided 83% of the voters even though they made up only 53% of the population.(3) It is not surprising, therefore, that those most often blamed for California's economic woes are African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latinos.
The foregoing rather harsh facts of electoral life have given rise to a politically coherent right-wing platform in California. This platform is most notably apparent in Propositions 184 and 187, and the proposed CCRI anti-affirmative action measure (as well as in extreme cuts in higher-education budgets). All of these measures place blame for decreasing opportunity on those groups seen as competing with white males (African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, and women). In so doing, such initiatives deflect anger and resentment away from the small number of people and corporations controlling far more than their share of wealth in a time when most families must struggle for financial survival. Together, these initiatives promote mutual resentment as well as conflict among underprivileged groups over a severely and unnecessarily limited pool of resources and opportunities.
Chicanos and Latinos, for example, have felt more affected than others by Proposition 187 and have been the most consistently mobilized against it. They, in turn, have watched a strong majority of whites, and substantial minorities of African-Americans and Asian-Americans, display support for the measure's restriction on public expenditures for undocumented immigrants. Meanwhile, polls indicate that the "three strikes" initiative has gotten much more support from Latinos and whites than from Blacks. In contrast, the attack on affirmative action threatens a whole new set of divisive realignments.
While each one of the foregoing policies has the power to divide the people of California, setting competing groups against one another, taken together they form a unified, cohesive political position. They answer a cold and resounding "No!" to the crucial question: "Is California a society in which all the people are welcome to enjoy the benefits their work has helped to create?"
Proposition 187: Fortress California?
Proposition 187 -- passed by 60% of the voters in 1994 -- would deny illegal immigrants access to a broad range of government-provided social services, such as child immunization, prenatal health care for pregnant women, and all levels of public education. The proposition, currently suspended under temporary injunctions, would also force public educators and health-care workers to act as auxiliary INS agents, required by law to report all those whom they suspect of being in this country illegally. Contrary to American tradition, this would tend to force persons merely suspected of wrongdoing to bear the burden of proving their right to remain in the country. Proposition 187 is obviously a draconian law. A wise and workable immigration policy would take fully into account the complex circumstances that combine to encourage families in large numbers to uproot themselves and come to the United States.
Why, then, do foreign nationals come here as immigrants, especially given the difficulties of immigration (legal as well as illegal)? As an explanation, the oft-repeated assumption underlying Proposition 187 is far from obvious: that people from impoverished countries leave their homes, risking deportation and death, simply for the superior social welfare programs of the United States. Beyond the cultural attractiveness of the United States, as tantalizingly portrayed in American movies and television programs, and except for those cases where severe political oppression drives people from their native countries, the principal causes of immigration are economic. There are essentially two such causes: a push out of the home country and a pull into the United States.
It is well known that in less wealthy, less industrialized countries, workers endure far worse working conditions than in even the lowest-level U.S. jobs. They face not only lower wages and few benefits, but also poor protection against job-related injuries, limited collective-bargaining rights, and little or no job security. Advocates of Proposition 187 have argued that the United States cannot continue to be a haven for economic refugees from these poor countries. Yet this position ignores the fact that in many cases U.S. investors and government officials actually pursue policies designed to maintain such dreadful conditions, which, up to a point, increase the profitability of investment. A single current example may suffice. The extreme austerity measures now being implemented in Mexico by the Zedillo government have been undertaken directly at the behest of U.S. (and European) investors as an absolute requirement for the $20 billion peso-stabilizing loan guarantee program engineered by the Clinton administration. This program has met widespread opposition from both Left and Right in Mexico. It has already propelled Mexican benchmark interest rates well beyond 50%. The Mexican austerity program will obviously create a mighty push out of Mexico, which can only make the problem of illegal immigration far more severe in the years immediately ahead. Nonetheless, many of the same politicians who helped generate this current wave of anti-immigrant hysteria, which led to the massive vote for Proposition 187, have also supported the peso bailout, with its built-in impoverishment of Mexican workers.
On the other hand, an economic pull into the United States is also exerted by American, especially California, business interests, which offer illegal jobs to undocumented workers at below the U.S. minimum wage, but at wages far above those they could earn in their own countries. It is the prospect of such jobs, rather than the attractiveness of U.S. welfare benefits, that makes people from poor countries risk deportation and death to come to the United States. Indeed, U.S. businesses provide enough such illegal jobs to maintain an undocumented immigrant population of almost four million.(4) By filling jobs with undocumented workers at lower than minimum wage, employers are able to maintain abnormally low prices for American products. Moreover, these ultra-low wage, no-benefits jobs further serve business by exerting a strong downward pressure on the minimum wage of citizen workers. In a range of California industries, from seasonal agricultural work and the garment industry to Silicon Valley assembly work, employers are only too willing to ignore their workers, immigrant status in exchange for also being able to ignore laws setting standards for wages, benefits, and working conditions. Illegal immigrants, afraid of deportation or jailing, make for the most easily exploited of workers.
While the pivotal 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) included sanctions against illegal employers, such regulations have been little enforced to this day. In fact, both national and state economies rely heavily on undocumented workers, especially in agriculture. For generations, workers, both documented and undocumented, have moved in regular seasonal and geographic patterns from towns in Mexico up through the valleys of California following seasonal crops. These patterns have been encouraged by California politicians in the past because they guaranteed cheap seasonal work with a minimum of employer or social obligations to the workers. For example, Senator Pete Wilson was criticized for fighting to ease immigration restrictions on seasonal agricultural workers in 1986. In 1994, behind in the polls, Governor Pete Wilson flip-flopped onto the Proposition 187 bandwagon. Since the passage of 187, Wilson has flip-flopped once again and now wants a "guest worker" program.
Given the relative economic bounty of the United States, it is no surprise that there are many people who make the attempt to immigrate illegally. As we have argued, however, U.S. investors and government officials actually pursue policies that result in driving many workers from their home countries -- and into the United States. Moreover, U.S. businesses and consumers also benefit substantially from the exploitation of illegal workers.(5) Under these circumstances, it is only justice to attempt to integrate these immigrants fully into society, guaranteeing them the full range of worker advantages now enjoyed by citizens. It is certainly unethical to blame such undocumented workers for our own domestic economic and social failings.
Free social services or none, people will continue to immigrate to the United States in search of economic opportunity. They will continue to work not only for their own benefit, but also for the benefit of the whole country. They and their children should not also be vilified, scapegoated, and confined to a permanent and inescapable underclass. California and the nation are ill-served by the simplicities of the current spate of anti-immigrant hysteria typified by Proposition 187. On the contrary, we need a compassionate, intelligent, and comprehensive immigration policy that takes into account all of die following factors: the U.S. role in stimulating illegal immigration, the country, s legitimate needs for immigrant labor, our responsibilities to any persons resident in the United States, and the realistic social, economic, and environmental limitations on the capacity of the United States to welcome and integrate new immigrants.
Civil Rights in Reverse Gear
Hand in hand with Proposition 187's scapegoating of immigrants for domestic economic woes, a proposed amendment to the state constitution pits white males against those who would share diminished opportunities. The California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) seeks to dismantle all affirmative-action programs in state-funded institutions including, among many others, the entire University of California (U.C.), California State University (CSU), and Community College systems. Despite the effects of centuries of racism and sexism, proponents argue that a single generation of affirmative action has been more than enough, and that any prolongation of such programs amounts to unfair "reverse discrimination" against white males.
U.S. pundits and policymakers take a high moral tone against apartheid in South Africa or bride-burning in India, but, of course, this country is no stranger to sexism and racism. Slavery in the United States is quite recent history and racism has been apart of the national character beginning with the European settlers first contacts with Native Americans. Similarly, sexism has always been pervasive in American culture. It can easily be argued that women, who have been the principal beneficiaries of affirmative action, would be the principal victims of its elimination.
Prejudice is more than just a matter of unfair attitudes and hurt feelings. It has lasting and very tangible effects. For example, in 1939 Federal Housing Authority (FHA) lending guidelines specified that loans not be made that might "disrupt the racial integrity" of a neighborhood. On the basis of the avowed goal of segregation, the FHA made it next to impossible for blacks to get the low-rate loans granted to whites, Thus, between 1946 and 1960, 350,000 new homes were built in Northern California of which fewer than 100 went to African-Americans. The significance of these facts to the discussion of affirmative action is that today the greatest financial difference between blacks and whites is in their net worth, overwhelmingly a result of the disparity in value of their equity in housing stock. In 1991, the median net worth of white households ($43,279) was more than 10 times that of African-american households ($4,169). This is the lasting effect of a racist government policy. Affirmative action seeks to redress precisely this sort of injustice.(6)
When, beginning one generation ago, the nation decided to try to undo hundreds of years of injustice by adopting affirmative action, it was expected to be a temporary measure. One day, the programs would make themselves unnecessary because the playing field would be level; women and minorities would be fully integrated into society. To argue, as the drafters of CCRI do, that affirmative action should be dismantled because it gives unfair advantages to underrepresented groups is to claim that the playing field is now already level. In truth, affirmative action has had significant success, most notably in colleges and universities, where the representation of women and minorities has significantly expanded over the past 20 years. Despite sizable gains, however, much remains to be done, as recent reports on "the glass ceiling" make evident. The opponents of affirmative action mistake what is still an effective and essential corrective measure for a punitive one.(7)
Ironically, other opponents, including some African-American conservatives, have argued that affirmative action may actually damage the self-esteem of members of underrepresented groups and lead to increased feelings of personal inferiority. Even the most cursory understanding of this country's history, however, leads one to recognize that women and people of color have always been considered by society to be intellectually or morally inferior to white men. It is the lasting social and material effects of precisely such historic and current prejudice that make affirmative action necessary. No imagined injury due to employment under allegedly clouded circumstances could compare with the inevitable diminishment of self-esteem caused by a denial of suitable employment in the first place.
Even so, affirmative-action policies are far from perfect. Few would argue, for example, that the daughter of a Latino law professor should be given preference in college admission over the son of a white sharecropper. Moreover, no one would wish to encourage black contractors to seek preferential government awards of business for the eventual benefit of white investors. Affirmative action may sometimes require fine-tuning, but such adjustment, when necessary, should be undertaken only by people fully committed to the goals of gender and ethnic equality, not by those who deny the persistence of prejudice.
Opponents of affirmative action play on the fears of white males that hordes of undeserving women and minorities are going to take an unfair share of the limited number of jobs. However, the very notion that there are such large groups of undeserving women and minorities is itself eloquent testimony to the persistence of racism and sexism in our society. There is thus plenty of evidence of prejudice, yet there is no scientific evidence for any general lack of merit among women and minorities. The traditionally privileged position of the one supposedly deserving group (white males) is therefore unwarranted. However, the proponents of CCRI, by playing on white male fears, may nevertheless hope to protect this unwarranted privilege in the face of diminishing employment opportunities and earnings.(8)
The American tendency to locate the source of inequality in the supposed lack of individual merit of women and minorities really serves to mask a social problem: a systematically racist and sexist society confronted with severely and unnecessarily restricted resources and opportunities. This social problem calls for a social solution: the only way to avoid increased societal fragmentation and conflict while preserving the civil rights gains of the past 30 years is to greatly increase social investment so as to expand the pool of resources and jobs.
Proposition 184: Three Strikes and We're Bankrupt
Both Proposition 187 (a reactionary response to the complex pressures of immigration) and the CCRI (a simplistic attack on affirmative action) show the failure in creativity of conservative policies. This lack of creativity is even more obvious in Proposition IN, the "Three Strikes and You're Out" measure.
The non-debate preceding passage of this measure completely excluded any reference to the significant fact that the United States has higher rates of violent crime and incarcerates more criminals than any other comparably wealthy industrialized society. This is an extraordinary state of affairs. To accept this fact must surely lead us to seek its causes and to attempt to prevent crime, to the extent possible, rather than merely to punish criminals. Proposition 184 not only fails to address the root causes of crime, but also actually contributes to them by taking limited funds away from education, job training, and other critical social programs.
Between 1984 and 1994, the California Department of Corrections hired 25,864 new employees while the number of higher-education personnel actually decreased by 8,082.(9) In 1984, the State of California still spent more than two and one-half times as much on higher education as on prisons. For 1995, however, the rates of expenditure are about equal. It is unusual by world standards, and a dangerous sign of future social breakdown, that California now spends as much annually on incarceration as on higher education.
In Governor Wilson's budget for 1994-1995, higher-education staffing decreased by 968 persons, but corrections increased 7.5%, by 2,879. For the cost of imprisoning one person for one year, we could educate 10 community college students, five CSU students, or two U.C. students.10 to sentence a third-strike burglar to 40 years in prison is to forego educating 200 two-year community college students. If just one of those 200 denied affordable education turns to crime, the massive cost of incarcerating one prisoner will have had no effect whatsoever on the crime rate.
In October 1994, just about a month before the elections that would approve Proposition 184, the Rand Corporation published its own analysis of the comparative costs of incarceration strategies. The publication was entitled Three Strikes and You're Out: Estimated Benefits and Costs of California's New Mandatory Sentencing Law. This analysis is important because Rand placed estimates of the costs of building more prisons in the context of the state's broader budget alternatives. In just seven years, by the year 2002, the new legislation will require the proportion of the state's budget marked for corrections to double, from its current nine percent to 18%. The important fact is that this then reduces some other part of the state budget by that same amount.
The Rand analysis points out that this cannot come from K-12, because the state constitution was amended several years ago to set minimum levels for K-12 education. Nor can more than a small fraction of the money come from reductions in the health and welfare segment of the budget. For the last quarter-century, there has been a steady increase in the proportion of the state budget devoted to health and welfare, and it is now seven percent higher than in 1969. Since the number of beneficiaries and legitimate claimants will grow in the next seven years at a rate faster than the state, s population, budgetary increases in this segment seem unavoidable.
We come, therefore, to higher education. In the last 25 years, higher education's share of the state budget has fallen from 17% in 1969 to 12% in 1994. More cuts will come as the effect of Proposition 184 becomes felt in the next two years. Rand predicts that higher education and the remaining government services segment will have to be cut by 40% in the next seven years to accommodate Proposition 184 provisions.(11)
In this era of economic globalization and rapid technical innovation, the new jobs being created in the United States require an increasingly high degree of specialized training. Such training must obviously take place at the post-secondary level, including community colleges and vocational schools. Therefore the wisest investment in the future and in a continued high standard of living for our state and nation would be to increase our vocational school, college, and university budgets, to reduce tuition, and to expand the availability of financial aid for all students who wish to attend. At present, we are doing precisely the opposite. Term after term, tuition in our public colleges has increased and the availability of financial aid has diminished; hence enrollment has steadily declined. In such a diverse and wealthy nation, there should be sufficient educational opportunity for all qualified persons regardless of gender, ethnic group, or social class. Just as working people should not have to compete with each other for an artificially limited number of jobs, prospective students should not be forced to fight, one group against another, for a shrinking number of positions in our vocational schools and colleges.
Conclusion: Embracing Hope
The idea behind Proposition l @@ is to deny our dependence on immigrants so as to avoid taking responsibility for including them fully in our society. The idea behind the proposed CCRI is to deny the legitimacy of the claims of long-disrespected groups so as to avoid extending social benefits to them. Finally, the idea behind Proposition 184 is to deny the social causes of crime so as to avoid having to provide opportunities for people before they become criminals.
Embracing the immigrants upon whom we depend, investing in and honoring those groups so long denied and disrespected, and opening up the kinds of opportunities that might prevent criminality will all require a great increase in social expenditure and public services, the very reverse of the policies we are currently pursuing. In a country as wealthy as ours, it should not be necessary, for example, to withhold jobs from white men so that others can work, or to deny working people the chance to send their children to college. The American problem appears to be less a matter of limited resources than of the maldistribution of wealth and of the social disutility of great wealth. If the so-called free-market system is incapable of generating sufficient health care, education, and employment to meet the needs of all the people, then we must not hesitate to modify that system intelligently and boldly.
(1.) Figures from the California Employment Development Department, cited in the San Francisco Examiner (november 4, 1992: C1).
(2.) San Francisco Chronicle, "Annual Report on Executive Compensation" (May 23, 1994: B1) As reported in The Nation (Andrew Shapiro, "We're Number One," April 27, 1992:552), the U.S. has the highest average salaries of CEOs and the lowest productivity gains since 1980.
(3) San Francisco Chronicle (September 22, 1994).
(4.) U.S. General Accounting Office, Illegal Aliens: Despite Data Limitations, Current Methods Provide Better Population Estimates (Report PEMD-93-25, Washington, D.C., 1993). Cited in Roberto Suro, Remembering the American Dream (the Twentieth Century Fund Press, New York, 1994: 14).
(5.) Suro, p. 94.
(6.) Troy duster, "The Advantages of White Males" (San Francisco Chronicle, January 19, 1995: A21).
(7.) From 1980, for example, African-American enrollment at U.C. Berkeley doubled and Latino enrollment saw a more than threefold increase, as reported in The Diversity Project (Institute for the Study of Social Change, University of California, Berkeley, November 1991: 2).
(8.) Secretary of Labor Robert Reich noted in November 1994 that nearly three out of four working men -- those who lack college degrees -- have suffered a 12% decline in average real income since 1979. Quoted by Cynthia Tucker in San Francisco Chronicle (March 24, 1995: A23).
(9.) See the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, 1622 Folsom St., 2nd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94103.
(10.) This analysis was done by the Graduate Student policy consortium at the University of California, Berkeley.
(11.) The remainder of the budget covers a range of services, from workplace safety to parks, and pollution control to the regulation of insurance. Since 1980, the percentage of the budget absorbed by this segment has fallen from 12 to 9.…
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Publication information: Article title: California at a Crossroads: Social Strife or Social Unity?. Contributors: Not available. Journal title: Social Justice. Volume: 22. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 1995. Page number: 53+. © 1998 Crime and Social Justice Associates. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.
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