Demographic Revolution

Mayor's Race Ignored the Biggest Issue

By MATT WELCH

Los Angeles Daily News, June 24, 2001

THE conventional wisdom -- that same brain trust which almost unanimously backed Antonio Villaraigosa for mayor -- now agrees that the election turned on James Hahn's crack-pipe ad, and the way it appealed to possibly racist whites in the San Fernando Valley.

This neat theory, beyond insulting Valleyites, performs the nifty trick of absolving Villaraigosa and his supporters from any responsibility for even bringing up one of the most important public policy issues affecting L.A.: immigration.

Some in the local and national media were captivated by the historical sweep of possibly electing the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles since 1872, and how that would symbolize the new Latino emergence around the country.

Fair enough. But that new political clout, especially in L.A., was made possible by mass immigration and white flight. If the election was supposed to be a celebration of our new diversity, shouldn't it also have been a referendum on just how we feel about this demographic revolution?

It probably was, but not through any effort by Villaraigosa. The Latino candidate barely campaigned in East L.A., was largely invisible in the robust Spanish-language media, and rarely explored his roots beyond saying he was a "poster child for the American dream," and that he came "from the heart of L.A."

This was deliberate, to avoid arousing latent racism among whites, especially in the Valley. But as real as that racism might be (and it's hard for me to believe that the Hollywood Hills separate me from a nest of Aryan agitators), Villaraigosa's refusal to make the case for why exactly we should be excited about a Latino candidacy actually encouraged paranoid speculation (both in the Valley and South L.A.) about the candidate's "hidden motives."

Worse yet, this politically correct cop-out reinforced the paralyzing inability of adult Angelenos to talk calmly about immigration.

Latinos are now, or will be soon, the majority in Los Angeles. In only eight years, their share of the electorate increased from 10 percent to 22 percent, while whites plummeted from 72 percent to 52 percent. Two-thirds of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District are Latino.

Those are awesome, epoch-shifting numbers.

Whole neighborhoods and cities have been transformed, seemingly overnight. The same areas in Orange County that once elected lunatic- right Republicans like Robert Dornan now routinely support Democrat Latinas. Famous centers of L.A.'s black culture -- Crenshaw, Central Avenue -- are suddenly bilingual.

That's fine by me -- ever-shifting demographics are part of what makes great cities great. But we shouldn't be overly callous to the concerns of longtime residents, and we would be foolish to ignore the very real impact large-scale immigration has on our social services.

When third-grade teachers (like one friend of mine) have to resort to crude pantomime gestures to get points across to non-English- speakers, immigration qualifies as a public policy issue worth debating.

When the county health service nearly goes bankrupt, partly due to skyrocketing emergency bills for uninsured Latinos, doesn't that qualify as a talking point?

And to get right to the heart of the "smear and fear campaign," what about the links between immigration and crime? Most reasonable people would agree that large youth populations, crammed into dense neighborhoods, are the fundamental ingredients for high crime rates.

According to the latest census data, the seven most dense areas in the country (measured by number of residents per housing unit), are all Southern California destinations for Latino immigration -- Santa Ana, El Monte, East L.A., Oxnard, Pomona, Norwalk and Fontana.

Despite having no skyscrapers, East L.A. has the third-highest ratio of humans to acreage in the country.

It is not, I think, racist to say any of these things, on account of them being true. Unfortunately, for fans of civic debate, many of those who bring up such issues (such as Van Nuys' anti-Villaraigosa campaigner Hal Netkin), tend to mix the legitimate concerns with ill-tempered ranting about "third-world" yard sales and lealowers who "snub ... their noses at us."

There is no doubt Pete Wilson and the anti-immigration hysterics of the mid-1990s deserve most of the blame for poisoning the debate. But now that the Republicans have been routed up and down California by allegedly tolerant Democrats, isn't it high time to lift the moratorium on even talking about, say, the pros and cons of providing "amnesty" to illegal immigrants?

Personally, I believe immigration boosts the economy, enriches an already great city, and reinforces L.A. as the mestizo capital of the world. I supported Villaraigosa, and was disgusted by Hahn's ads. But ignoring the demographic revolution, and the public policy challenges it poses, will not cure the "racism" my kind has spent the last two weeks whining about.

Matt Welch lives in Los Angeles and is a frequent contributor to the Daily News.

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