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Proposition 209 creates new social turbulence

NCR Staff
Los Angeles

Recent passage of California's initiative against affirmative action, Proposition 209, has provoked a barrage of responses all the way from Los Angeles archdiocesan offices to the White House steps.

The controversial measure to abolish state affirmative action programs eliminates consideration of race and gender as criterion in contracting, promoting and hiring in state institutions. Supported by California Gov. Pete Wilson and Republican candidate Bob Dole, Proposition 209 passed in the Nov. 4 elections by a margin of 54 to 46 percent.

But its implementation was immediately countered by the filing of four separate suits in local courts.

Simultaneously, Clinton administration officials, prompted by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, discussed the possibility of presenting joint or separate legal challenges at the federal level.

Tom Chabolla, head of the Los Angeles archdiocesan Office for Justice and Peace, said the initiative, euphemistically pegged as the "California Civil Rights Initiative" on the state ballot, only "emphasizes the divides there are in our community." Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony had vehemently opposed Proposition 209, and churches throughout the diocese waged educational campaigns on the initiative and other electoral issues.

Chabolla criticized the deceptive way the initiative was presented to voters. "Probably there were many people who voted for it who didn't know they were voting to abolish affirmative action," he said. Prior to the elections, members of Martin Luther King Jr.'s family protested the use of the slain civil rights leader's ideas in advertising that favored passage.

Fernando J. Guerra, an associate professor of political science who directs the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at the Jesuit-run Loyola Marymount university, said the "Machiavellian" use of measures like Proposition 209 by politicians for "short-term campaign goals" had brought an interesting response from both the church and the Latino community. "In the long run, (the politicians) have mobilized the Latino community really against the Republican Party," Guerra said.

Guerra pointed out that there has been a "tremendous movement of Latinos toward the Democratic Party," largely because of backlash policies. "You even have Cubans in Florida voting for (the Democrats)," he said.

People "used to talk about the potential Latino vote and political clout," Guerra said. In 1994 -- the year California Republicans rallied support to pass the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 -- and now in 1996 with Proposition 209, the Latino clout has become a reality.

"Latinos were seven percent of the state-wide vote in 1992, according to Los Angeles Times exit polls. In 1994, they were eight percent. In 1996, they were ten percent," Guerra said.

Their increasing political strength is evident in the state assembly, he said. Latino legislators now number 14 out of 80, compared to three out of 80 in 1990."

In this context of the rising importance of Latinos on the national scene, Guerra said the "Catholic church is in the same position as the Democratic Party. It wants to mobilize the 'Latino vote,' because it realizes Latinos are a larger and larger part of its constituency."

In Southern California, with a historically traditional and conservative Anglo population, this presents a delicate dilemma for the church. "How can it respond to the needs of the Latinos and incorporate their interests while at the same time meeting the needs of those who are already 'in' -- white Catholics?" Guerra queried.

To do this, Guerra said church leaders must "speak in code" to support Latino issues but avoid offending others. "This is a fine line, but they are capable of doing it, especially with the outlets they have."

One outlet, Guerra said, is the archdiocesan, grassroots, Spanish-language biweekly newspaper, Vida Nueva, a "medium white Catholics are not even aware of." The second vehicle? "They have the beautiful code of the Catholic teachings," Guerra said.

Guerra said the Catholic church is a "very important spoke" in the wheel turning in defense of the immigrant poor and of ethnic and racial equality in California. The church confirmed and reinforced messages supporting affirmative action, he said, and "it further legitimized this message in the Latino community."

The message from the pulpit is less likely to persuade white Catholics, Guerra said. "It is clear to me that white Catholics are not responsive to the church in the conventional electoral arena. Although the Catholic bishops came out against Propositions 187 and 209, data shows that white Catholics voted the same as the general electorate" in supporting the measures, he said.

For most Latinos, political mobilization, community involvement and church involvement are "one and the same," he said, but for whites, there is more separation of church and state in the electoral arena.

"There's kind of this feeling that, let's not follow lockstep what the bishops say, like the religious right," even though bishops in California are "on the left," Guerra said.

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 1996