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California’s 1994 fight over immigration parallels the present-day U.S. AP Photo/Nick Ut

When the next generation looks racially different from the last, political tensions rise

The election of Donald Trump may have surprised some observers, but many Californians felt a sense of déjà vu.

Just over 20 years ago, the state passed Proposition 187. The campaign around this ballot initiative, later deemed unconstitutional, portrayed undocumented immigrants as criminal invaders and sought to ban them from using nonemergency public services, including even primary and secondary education.

The anti-immigrant sentiment occurred against a backdrop of wrenching economic change. Nearly half of the country’s net job losses in the early 1990s occurred in California, with a decline in manufacturing as steep as what would later occur between 2007 and 2010 in auto-heavy (and Trump-sympathetic) Michigan.

In another eerie parallel to today, profiting from political polarization was the order of the day: Rush Limbaugh arrived on the national stage in the late 1980s after perfecting his style hosting a talk radio show in Sacramento.

This toxic trio of immigration concerns, economic shocks and political blood-letting may be more than enough to demonstrate the parallels between California in the 1990s and the U.S. today. But there’s another important indicator: the “racial generation gap.” This is a straightforward measure of the relationship between the share of seniors who are white and the share of youth who are of color. But its interplay with public will and public policy is complex and consequential.

Understanding the gap

The racial generation gap is technically measured as the difference between the percent of those 65 or older who are white, minus the percent of those aged 17 and younger who are white. The bigger the gap, the more demographically distinct the generations.

Such gaps can emerge for several reasons, including new immigrants having children and an overwhelming white boomer generation living longer lives. But the problem is that when seniors have trouble seeing themselves in children and young adults, social cohesion is at risk, as are investments in the future.

Take Arizona, for example. It’s the state with the largest racial generation gap in the U.S., where snowbirds arrive from elsewhere to retire even as young people of color are remaking the state. It’s also known for its fractious politics (and pot-stirring politicians) around immigration and state legislation banning the teaching of ethnic studies in schools. And in a clear sign of retreating from the future, Arizona also made the largest cuts in K-12 state spending per student between 2008 and 2015.

In research published in September, several colleagues and I looked at factors that predict state expenditures on students, such as median household income, home ownership levels, and the underlying age and race makeup of the population. Even when you take all those other factors into account, the larger the racial generation gap, the less the state spends per student.

In California, the racial generation gap was just about the same in California in 1970 as it was in the U.S. in 1990. In effect, the nation lags the Golden State by 20 years (something proud Californians often insist is true in a number of ways!).

The peak of the racial generation gap occurred in California around 1994 to 1998. During this era, Proposition 187 passed, followed by a series of “racial propositions” that ended affirmative action, banned bilingual education and stepped up the incarceration of young men of color.

In the U.S., according to projections, the gap peaks around 2016. And much like in California in the 1990s, we have seen a racialized “whitelash” which in this case brought the election of Donald Trump, the racist violence in Charlottesville, and the revocation of DACA, the program designed to protect undocumented youth brought to this country at an early age.

This too shall pass?

When the racial generation gap peaked, the damage to the California Dream was deep – and the state is still trying to work its way back from the wreckage.

California fell from among the top spending states on education to become one of the stingiest. Our state prison population increased by more than sixfold between 1980 and 2006, twice as fast as in the rest of the country. And we went from being roughly in the middle of the pack in terms of income inequality back in the glory days of the late 1960s to the sixth most unequal state in 2012.

Protesters gather during a Los Angeles City Council meeting to discuss the city’s response to threats by the Trump administration to cut funding from sanctuary cities. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

As the demographics continued to shift in California, the politics eventually moved in the direction of the needs and politics of a younger and more diverse generation. California once wanted to strip immigrants of services. Now, it’s declared itself a “sanctuary state.”

California once launched a nationwide grassroots revolt with a tax-slashing Proposition 13 – a measure tinged with a sense of an older and whiter generation drawing up the fiscal drawbridges just as a younger and more diverse generation arrived. Now, a very different grassroots revolt has helped to rebalance the books with progressive tax hikes in 2012 and 2016. And, although public schools are still languishing, a local control funding formula passed in 2013 is steering dollars to those students and schools that are most in need.

Would California have gone through the same turmoil had the generational gap been narrower? It’s hard to know for sure, but it’s also not prudent to wait around for elders to come to their political senses or for the younger generation to age into power. We need a national game plan that can accelerate what the slower pace of demographic change might push along.

Making our future

California still has far to go, of course. Housing is too expensive, income divides are too wide and good-paying jobs are too scarce. But the state no longer seems to be tearing at the seams over issues of race and representation.

In my new book, “State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future,” I suggest that the U.S. can draw lessons from California’s political and social shifts.

Term limits, for example, opened up opportunities for new politicians of color. Easier voter registration helped lower the barriers for new and young voters. The power to “redistrict” – to draw the lines for state and congressional seats – was taken from a state legislature eager to protect incumbents and given to a citizen commission less invested in the past.

However, such structural reforms are only effective if there is a citizenry ready to take advantage of them. To make that happen, a new generation of community-based organizers became more adept at linking together communities, mobilizing voters and promoting winnable policy change.

This same strategy of combining structural shifts with grassroots organizing and pragmatic policy may help restore the American Dream as well. But to get there, the nation will need to overcome the tension between what journalist Ron Brownstein has called the “coalition of restoration” – older Trump voters seeking a way back to what they see as American greatness – and a “coalition of transformation” that consists of younger and more diverse constituents.

Closing that social distance will be crucial. The California Dream was never just about one person (or one generation) and their route to individual success. It was about the promise of a state that welcomed newcomers, confidently invested in its children and looked forward to its future. That’s a recipe for progress in the Golden State and America alike.

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