Wall Street Journal

Thursday, June 4, 1998

American Hispanics

A dumb idea isn't forever, even in government. This is our first reaction to the landslide decision by California voters Tuesday to end the strange 30-year experiment known as "bilingual education." It can take awhile, but democracies usually get around to doing the right thing.

The 61% support for Proposition 227 is all the more amazing because it was achieved despite opposition from elites of all kinds and from both political parties. All four of the major candidates for governor opposed it. The politically correct big city dailies all fought it. The owner of the biggest Spanish-language TV empire threw $1.5 million of his own cash to defeat it. President Clinton piled on.

Only average voters liked it, apparently voters of all ideologies and ethnicities. As of this writing, we don't have the final exit poll figures. But a Los Angeles Times poll 10 days before the vote showed 62% support for the measure even among registered Latino voters. White support was 64% in the same poll. Ron Unz, the software entrepreneur who was 227's main backer, says the measure did better than any contested initiative since Proposition 13 on taxes 20 years ago.

The sweep of this victory tells us several things of national import.

One lesson is the value of the initiative process in breaking up special-interest logjams. Bilingual education began 30 years ago as a well-meaning liberal experiment. But it grew to become another bureaucratic entitlement, even as it provided no real benefit to kids.

The original bilingual program expired in California as long ago as 1987. But it lived on because neither party would challenge the potent combine of a state bureaucracy that wanted the bilingual cash subsidy and Latino pols who played the race card. The California legislature wouldn't reauthorize the program, but also wouldn't challenge self-sustaining bureaucratic orders to local school boards. Only when Mr. Unz put the issue on the ballot did the political process begin to respond to the numerous complaints from parents who wanted their kids taught in English.

The success of 227 also bodes well for the American model of immigrant assimilation. These columns have resolutely favored open immigration. But we are the first to admit that such a policy is sustainable only if immigrants are able and willing to become part of the broader American culture.

Prop. 227's victory is a reassuring sign that most Latino immigrants understand that becoming American means being able to speak English. It's a rebuke to those liberal multiculturalists who favor separate cultural enclaves--in particular to MALDEF and the National Council of La Raza, two professional Hispanic lobbies that have shamefully played sectarian ethnic politics. And it's a rebuke to those nativist conservatives who want to build a Buchanan Fence to keep out anyone with a brown complexion.

If we're really lucky as a democracy, the Prop. 227 vote will also restore a more healthy political competition for Hispanic votes. The 1994 fight over anti-immigrant Prop. 187 had a polarizing effect on Hispanics that is dangerous to social comity. Democrats began to think they could demagogue on matters of ethnicity the way they have so often on race to lure black voters. They tried it again on 227, but, thankfully, without much result.

Republicans, for their part, have been so skittish since Prop. 187 that they've barely had anything at all to say to Hispanic voters. They fled from 227 because they thought they could be branded anti-Hispanic. The only prominent Republican to endorse 227 was Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who had built up a store of credibility among Hispanic voters and so couldn't easily be stereotyped. (He also knows the problems of Los Angeles schools up close.) The 227 vote should tell Republicans they can appeal to Hispanic voters even on controversial subjects if that appeal is rooted in substance and principle.

The American political process is so balky it sometimes seems like nothing ever changes. But over time it usually gets to the right conclusion. The landslide for 227 looks to us like a big political event, a populist blow for a common language that signifies the desire for at least a basic common national culture. Like the tax revolt of 20 years ago, it is likely to spread nationwide. Maybe even the politicians will notice.