Although not apparent at the time, the 1990s were a pivotal period in the cultural and political history of California.
A severe recession at the onset of the decade, resulting from the end of the Cold War and the subsequent decline of the state’s once-immense defense industry, prompted a mass exodus from the state.
Well over a million people, mostly white and many former defense industry workers and their families, left for more prosperous locales. Their departure changed the socioeconomic makeup of whole communities, particularly defense industry bastions in Southern California, as immigrants from other nations moved in.
The upheaval triggered cultural tensions that manifested themselves in three tumultuous ballot measures – one aimed at cutting off public services to illegal immigrants, another that prohibited racial preferences in college admissions and public employment, and a third that barred bilingual education in public schools.
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As culture wars raged, an overwhelmingly white electorate passed all three measures. And a few years later, voters also passed an initiative to prohibit same-sex marriages.
The illegal immigrant measure was eventually set aside by the courts, as was the ban on same-sex marriages, even after it was placed in the state constitution. But the two other measures remain on the books, much to the consternation of Latino rights advocates.
Were the two to reappear on the ballot, it’s doubtful whether a much-changed California electorate would pass either one, so their opponents could seek repeal through new initiative campaigns. But instead, they are revisiting the culture war in a Legislature now dominated by Democrats, including many Latinos.
A partial repeal of the ban on racial preferences, generally called “affirmative action,” was approved by the state Senate when it had a Democratic supermajority.
Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 would allow affirmative action in college admissions. However, when the measure reached the Assembly, it faced a backlash from Asian American legislators, and legislative leaders shelved it.
There’s also an effort underway – albeit much quieter – to undo the ban on bilingual education.
A new state framework for English language arts endorses bilingual education, despite the 1998-vintage law prohibiting it, arguing that using a student’s first language can make it easier to acquire skills in English.
Drafters of the new guidelines contend that they do not violate Proposition 227, the ballot measure that prohibited bilingual education, but it could become a matter for courts to decide.
Meanwhile, however, Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, is carrying a bill that would, if endorsed by voters, effectively repeal the law.
Lara’s Senate Bill 1174 will face its first test in the Senate Education Committee this week.