Leon Worden

Prop. 209 and a message from voters

Leon Worden · November 13, 1996

Battle scars notwithstanding, the passage of the California Civil Rights Initiative last Tuesday was the easy part. The real challenges lie ahead.

On the Friday before the election, I presented the Yes-on-209 argument in a forum for the employees of Sony Pictures in Culver City. Talk about a tough room! No poll was taken, but the audience clearly sided with my worthy adversary, Dr. Carole Petersen, former vice provost and current head of the diversity program at UCLA.

The forum drove home for me the fact that many minority group members are sincerely frightened about the elimination of race-based affirmative action programs. They voiced concerns not often heard in our largely homogenous Santa Clarita Valley.

The onus is now upon us to make sure Prop. 209 is used as a force for good. When our legislators reconvene next year, they will likely submit new proposals redefining affirmative action goals within the framework of Prop. 209. Programs once geared toward race will probably be re-written to target the economically disadvantaged. This is as it should be. Contrary to popular belief, Martin Luther King was careful to say that programs targeting blacks should also benefit impoverished whites.

America has a long history of affirmative action. The GI Bill, arguably the biggest affirmative action program of all time, provided low-interest housing loans to soldiers after WWII. Programs helping blacks were no less needed in their day.

As Prop. 209 chairman Ward Connerly said on election night: "This is an anxious moment for black people. For decades, we have relied on government to secure our rights. Federal troops stood guard so that little children could attend integrated schools. Those same troops had to stand by with bayonets in hand to protect our right to vote. Make no mistake, America, (the) government had to intervene to protect the civil rights of black Americans."

But where affirmative action was supposed to be transitional, it became indispensable, Connerly said. "We cannot forever look through the rear view mirror at America's mistakes." Indeed, ending race-based affirmative action is about letting go. It is about moving on to a wiser place, where equal opportunity is a birthright all Americans share.

Are we there yet? After the forum in Culver City, moderator Jim Hilvert, executive director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, said I could not possibly relate to the black experience. Perhaps not, I said. But I also told him what I tell you today: that I will not stand by idly in a state which discriminates, or a society which tolerates racism.

Before election day, university staff throughout California held emergency meetings to identify programs that would have to be modified or eliminated. Dr. Petersen noted that one goal at UCLA is to create a diverse student body representing a broad cross-section of California. Surely we will now have to grapple with the question: Is it the university's role to promote diversity? Or is its role to promote the best and brightest? And are the goals mutually exclusive?

Many similar questions will tug at our social fabric, not the least of which will stem from the recent court decision upholding the essence of Prop. 187's health and welfare provisions. Gov. Wilson's executive order denying prenatal care to illegal immigrants takes effect December 1.

The recent INS sweeps in Newhall that netted 25 illegal immigrants also nailed three employers. Councilwoman Jan Heidt often argues that those who employ undocumented workers are as wrong as those who violate our borders in the dark of night. She is right.

We must enforce our laws, lest Mr. Clinton's bridge to the 21st Century be washed downriver in a flood of illegal immigration. At the same time, it must be clear to those who enter legally that America is every bit as much their land as it is ours.

We must oppose affirmative action programs which use race or sex to discriminate. Yet we must recognize the value of diversity and appreciate the tremendous riches that people of diverse backgrounds and experiences bring to our culture. History reminds us that the chief antagonists -- and the biggest wartime losers -- of the 20th Century were nations led by ethnic supremacists.

We must promote English language instruction in public schools, not because English is somehow better than other languages, but because we bear a responsibility to offer non-English speakers the tools they need to fully participate in America. Equal educational opportunity through a common language need not equate to the loss of cultural identity.

Ultimately, common sense must prevail. We must promote laws which assist us in achieving equal opportunity, and discard outmoded policies that stand in the way.

That, I want to believe, is the message California voters sent last Tuesday.

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Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears on Wednesdays.

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