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Liberals Envisioned a Multiracial Coalition. Voters of Color Had Other Ideas.


The proposition seemed tailor-made for one of the nation’s most diverse and liberal states. California officials asked voters to overturn a 24-year-old ban on affirmative action in education, employment and contracting.

The state political and cultural establishment worked as one to pass this ballot measure. The governor, a senator, members of Congress, university presidents and civil rights leaders called it a righting of old wrongs.

“Women and people of color are still at a sharp disadvantage by almost every measure,” The Los Angeles Times wrote in an editorial endorsement.

Yet on Election Day, the proposition failed by a wide margin, 57 percent to 43 percent, and Latino and Asian-American voters played a key role in defeating it. The outcome captured the gap between the vision laid out by the liberal establishment in California, which has long imagined the creation of a multiracial, multiethnic coalition that would embrace progressive causes, and the sentiments of many Black, Latino, Asian and Arab voters.

Variations of this puzzle could be found in surprising corners of the nation on Election Day, as slices of ethnic and racial constituencies peeled off and cut against Democratic expectations.

“We should not think of demography as destiny,” said Professor Omar Wasow, who studies politics and voting patterns at Princeton University. “These groups are far more heterogeneous than a monolith and campaigns often end up building their own idiosyncratic coalition.”

Asian-American Californians opposed the affirmative action measure in large numbers. A striking number of East and South Asian students have gained admission to elite state universities, and their families spoke to reporters of their fear that their children would suffer if merit in college selection was given less weight. That battle carried echoes of another that raged the past few years in New York City, where a white liberal mayor’s efforts to increase the number of Black and Latino students in selective high schools angered working- and middle-class South and East Asian families whose children have gained admission to the schools in large numbers.

“There’s more texture to California blue politics than you might think,” said Lanhee Chen, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University and policy director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential run. “Identity politics only go so far. There is a sense on affirmative action that people resent being categorized by progressives.”

Latinos, too, appear sharply divided. Prominent Latino nonprofit and civil rights organizations endorsed the affirmative action proposition even as all 14 of California’s majority-Latino counties voted it down.

Latinos make up more than half of San Bernardino County’s population, although significantly fewer turn out to vote. More residents there voted on the affirmative action proposition than for president, rejecting it by a margin of 28 percentage points. In rural Imperial County, in the southeastern corner of the state, 85 percent of the population is Latino. The voters there who gave Joseph R. Biden Jr. a nearly 27-point margin of victory went against the affirmative action measure by 16 percentage points.

The results suggest that Democrats may need to adjust their strategy as the complexities of class, generation and experience, and the competing desires of these demographic groups become clear. Since the dawn of the 21st century, it has become commonplace for party leaders to talk of a rising demographic tide that is destined to lift the Democrats to dominance. That liberal coalition is seen as resting on a bedrock of upper-middle-class white voters, alongside working- and middle-class Black, Latino and Asian voters.

In broad strokes, that…



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