High above Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles nests the three-room headquarters for the California civil rights initiative. 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 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 Neal 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 the power of old entrenched privilege, arrivals would simply create their own new world--and make it bigger and better. From the gold-rushing 49ers to Central Americans making the trek to El Norte, it seemed as though the California cornucopia could fulfill all comers. The very symbol of the American Dream for the multitudes was a palmy estate with pool, patio and four-car garage, all overlooking the sun-dappled Pacific.
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 thought big, too. With so much wealth to go around, why not make sure that at least some of it was apportioned "fairly"? California adopted a steeply progressive state income tax, with the second-highest top rate in the nation: 11%. And beginning with then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in the early 1970s, 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. Across the country, 75% of Americans are counted as non-Latino whites. African-Americans comprise the second largest group, at about 12% of the population. And so for most Americans, affirmative action is a white-black issue, with tragic historical resonances affecting contemporary policy. But California, with no legacy of slavery or Jim Crow, is different. Non-Latino whites are just 57% of the state's population; Latinos are the second-largest group, with 26%, followed by Asians and Pacific Islanders at 9% and blacks at just 7%. Further confusing the situation are mixed marriages. A third to a half of Latinos and Asians marry outside their ethnic group. "In a state with so many mixed marriages," the CCRI's Gelman asks, "why should their children have to choose between mommy's ethnicity and daddy's ethnicity before applying for a job?"
When the system is contorted, social justice is thwarted. As Gelman observes, "Poor Armenians get nothing while rich Argentinians get preference." Gelman, a Jew who needs only look across the street to be reminded about discrimination, is blunt: The current quota system is "not the answer to racial tensions; it's the primary cause of racial tensions."
Finally, to complete the complexity, 21.7% 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. Including white women, 73% of Californians count as "minorities" and so fall into a protected class.
But no bureaucrat can protect people from economic hard times. California's racial regulations, which Gov. Pete Wilson has begun to roll back, have become a major impediment to the social fluidity that propels economic growth. The state's unemployment rate is 8.5%, nearly three points higher than the national average.
Seventy-five years after the founding of Hillcrest, the idea of separate clubs for separate races is abhorrent to the American conscience. After a few decades of detour, Californians appear ready to reach the same principled conclusion about employment and education when they vote on the CCRI next year. So with painful reality prodding it forward, the tarnished but trendsetting Golden State will once again lead the way.