Will Californians Vote 'No' On Affirmative Action?


High above Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles nests th three-room headquarters for the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI). Looking out the 14th-floor window, a visitor notices a lush green golf course across the street.

"That's the Hillcrest Country Club," explains Joe Gelman, the 35-year-old campaign manager for the CCRI, which, if passed by California voters next year, would wipe out government-sponsored racial and gender preferences in the Golden State.

As recorded in Neil Gabler's "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood," Hillcrest was founded by the Los Angeles Jewish community in 1920, when the existing country clubs were WASP-only preserves. Today, Hillcrest is posh and prestigious; the irrepressible Groucho Marx was speaking of it when he joked, "I wouldn't want to be a member of any club that would have me."

That's the way it was in California: Rather than fight old entrenched privilege, arrivals would simply create their own new world -- and make it bigger and better. From the gold-rushing 49ers to the Beverly Hillbillies to Central Americans making the trek to El Norte, it seemed as though the California cornucopia could fulfill all comers.

And so dreamers swelled the state's population: from 19 million in 1970 to 31 million today. In such an expansive environment, the state government also thought big. With so much wealth to go around, why not see that at least some of it was apportioned "fairly"? And so California adopted a steeply progressive state income tax, with the second-highest top rate in the nation: 11 percent (New York's top rate is just 7.875 percent). And beginning with then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in the early '70s, California trailblazed a new venture in social engineering: affirmative action for the peoples of the world.

But with 150 different nationalities, affirmative-action programs that made sense on a small scale proved impossible to administer in kaleidoscopic California. Non-Hispanic whites are just 57 percent of the state's population; Hispanics are the second-largest group, with 26 percent, followed by Asians and Native Americans with 10 percent and African-Americans at just 7 percent.

When the system is contorted, social justice is thwarted. The CCRI's Mr. Gelman asks, "Why do poor Armenians get nothing while rich Argentines get preference?"

Mr. Gelman, a Jew who need only look across the street to be reminded that his co-religionists, too, have suffered discrimination, is blunt: The current quota system, he says, is "not the answer to racial tensions; it's the primary cause of racial tensions."

To complete the complexity, nearly a quarter -- 21.7 percent -- of Californians were born outside the United States. A case can be made for affirmative action to help the descendants of slaves find their way into the American mainstream, but it's surely hard to argue that someone who came to the United States yesterday should either bear the burden, or reap the benefits, of affirmative action.

Finally, California's racial regulations -- which Republican Gov. Pete Wilson has only begun to roll back -- have become a major impediment to the social fluidity that propels economic growth. Today, the state's unemployment rate is 8.5 percent, more than two points higher than New York's and nearly three points higher than the national average of 5.7 percent.

Seventy-five years after the founding of Hillcrest, the idea of separate clubs for separate races is rightfully abhorrent to the American conscience. After a few decades of detour, Californians will likely reach the same principled conclusion about employment and education when they vote to approve the CCRI next year.

And so, with painful reality prodding it forward, the tarnished Golden State will once again lead the way.

James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday.

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