What is to be Done in the Aftermath of Proposition 187?: Racist Anti-Immigrant Politics Remain and "Separate But Equal" Gets a New Lease 

 by E. Wayne Ross

 In late July, Governor Gray Davis and civil rights organizations reached a mediated agreement ending the legal challenges to Proposition 187, effectively killing the California ballot initiative targeting undocumented immigrants. Proposition 187 was approved by 57% of Californians who voted in the 1994 referendum and continues to be a symbol of the racist, anti-immigrant politics widespread in the United States. The deal, if approved by the courts, which seems likely, would permanently bar the enactment of the measure's core provisions, which would have forced the expulsion of tens of thousands of undocumented immigrant children from California public schools and required educators to report them and undocumented parents to federal immigration authorities. The measure would have also prevented undocumented immigrants from receiving social and health care services.  

The relatively subdued response to the announcement of Proposition 187's demise is in marked contrast to the tumultuous debate subsequent to its passage in 1994. The garroting of Proposition 187, however, is not indicative of a new era of political or racial tranquillity, indeed, the perpetrators are still breathing. That is not to say the struggle against Proposition 187 failed to produce advances, but what has changed since 1994 on the political landscape? 

On the positive side, there are reports of a "political awakening" among Latinos, many of whom "saw themselves, regardless of their citizenship status, as being targets. In Los Angeles, with it emerging Latino majority, Proposition 187 inspired one of the largest protest demonstrations ever--activism that eventually translated into growing Latino political participation" (McDonnell, 1999, p. A1). Record numbers of new immigrants have become U.S. citizens and registered to vote. Latino and Asian American voter registration has increased, which potentially translates into more clout at the ballot box, but does not directly challenge the corporate domination of major political parties and the government. The death of Proposition 187 also short-circuited what was likely to be an opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to undo more civil rights by revisiting, and perhaps undermining, Plyer v. Doe (1982), which guaranteed "illegal" immigrant children the right to a public education. 

In our corner of the world (i.e., CUFA , NCSS, and social studies education), Proposition 187 made it clear to many that politics cannot be separated from the study and practice of education. It also gave us an opportunity to consider how Elie Wiesel's counsel--"neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim; silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented"--applies to social educators. That debate around the politics of social education resulted in CUFA's bold move to join with other professional organizations in boycotting California as meeting site, a stance that was later rescinded to allow the organization to meet in the heart of California's anti-immigrant political movement, Anaheim.1 CUFA also responded by creating a Social Justice and Diversity committee, which has brought together a committed group of activists members with the goal of diversifying an overwhelmingly White organization, and continuing to highlight the role of social educators in working against injustices. The Commission on Social Justice in Teacher Education, co-sponsored by the Association of Teacher Educators and NCSS, is another important advance. 

These debates also spawned questions that are reshaping what it means to research and teach social education: How can we teach against racism, national chauvinism and sexism in an increasingly authoritarian and undemocratic society? How can we gain enough real power to keep our ideals and still teach--or learn? Whose interests shall school serve in a society that is ever more unequal? These are questions that the Rouge Forum, Whole Schooling Consortium, and other groups are using to frame efforts to learn about equality, democracy, and social justice as they simultaneously struggle to bring into practice present understandings of what that is. The primary challenge for this new breed of social educators is to build a caring inclusive community that understands an injury to one is an injury to all, while at the same time, decisively confronting a sometimes ruthless opposition.  

Which brings us to the downside of the aftermath of Proposition 187. While Proposition 187 was bottled up in court, the measure's provisions inspired Congress to include many bans on immigrant aid as part of welfare "reform" in 1996, including making undocumented immigrants ineligible for most non-emergency public aid--a key component of Proposition 187 (McDonnell, 1999). 

The "Save Our State" campaign emerged in the suburbs of Los Angeles and Orange County, California and led to the creation of Proposition 187 successfully tapping into (and fueling) unease among Whites and the middle class as California has undergone a dramatic demographic shift. The racist and classist perspectives undergirding the success of Proposition 187 are still strong. Public opinion polls show the same level of support for Proposition 187 now as in 1994 and analysts report the demise of Proposition 187 has embittered advocates of anti-immigrant measures. "[Advocates] are more perturbed now than before," and " the court-condoned undoing of Proposition 187 gives them yet one more reason to be mad" (McDermott, 1999). 

Roberta Gilliam, described by the Los Angeles Times as an activist in Ross Perot's 1992 presidential run and a "foot soldier" in the pro-Proposition 187 campaign, calls the demographic shifts in California "an invasion" and suggests the solution is to: "Shoot 'em. Shoot illegals at the border. If people knew they were going to get shot dead they wouldn't come" (McDermott, 1999, p. A-1).Ron Prince, the original proponent of Proposition 187, recently met with Gilliam and other Perotists briefing them on a likely court challenge to the agreement killing the measure and plans for a new initiative. 

Not every supporter of anti-immigrant measures advocates murdering undocumented immigrants. The Anaheim Union High School District board recently approved a measure demanding the U.S. government collect money from the nations of origin of undocumented immigrants attending Anaheim schools. According to Board Trustee Robert Stewart the resolution is a purely financial matter, not motivated by racism (Manfredi, 1999).  

As the news of Proposition 187's demise broke, a poll of 18-29 year-olds views on race relations indicates many young Americans are comfortable with the notion of a segregated society (Racial survey, 1999). Over 52 % of respondents agreed it is all right for the races to be separate as long as everyone has the same opportunities (nearly, 60% of African Americans in the same age-group disagreed). The poll found the vast majority (77.4%) of these young people rate race relations as being fair or poor and not improving. While respondents supported multicultural education and the notion of "equal opportunity," they also reported frequent exposure to examples of racism. By small, but consistent margins, respondents were less likely to describe African Americans as equally intelligent, peaceful, and hardworking as Whites. 

This news comes at a time when many school districts are dismantling integration efforts and schools are increasingly segregated (Karlin, 1999; Ross, 1999). The new de facto racial segregation is no less harmful than Jim Crow, though apparently more widely accepted. 

What is to be done in the aftermath of Proposition 187? I see no alternative to a concerted action to make social education a movement the primary aim of which is combating racism, sexism, classism and national chauvinism. To do anything less is to shirk our duty as social educators to contribute to the creation of democracy in society and schools. 


1 For more on CUFA's response to Proposition 187, see: Cornbleth, 1998; Fleury, 1998; Gibson, 1998; Hursh, 1998; Ladson-Billings, 1998; "More on CUFA's resolution," 1997; Ross, 1997, 1998. 

2 In New York, the 35th state to enact charter schools legislation, the first three charter schools will enroll African American students almost exclusively. The charter school in Albany, New Covenant School, will have a student body of 550, 90% of whom are African American, when it opens this fall. The grade K-5 school, is sponsored by the Urban League of Northeastern New York.  

The local media and supporters of the charter school have declared racial segregation in schools a non-issue (see Karlin, 1999). There is no doubt that many public schools are failing students of color. The increasing racial isolation that results from segregated schools, however, is a formula for educational and social disaster for us all, rather than salvation for ill-served students, whether they be poor or non-white.  

It should be noted that the curriculum of the New Covenant School, according to the interim-principal, who is an executive with the Boston-based for-profit corporation hired to run the school, will focus on traditional classics, including Tom Sawyer, Homer's Odyssey, and "'character education,' meaning subjects ranging from table manners to William Bennett's Book of Virtues." The school will use Direct Instruction, a scripted format in which teachers engage their students in numerous call-and-response drills to learn the fundamentals of reading, math, social studies, and English. 


Cornbleth, C. (1998). [Letter to the editor]. Theory and Research in Social Education26, 6. 

Ladson-Billings, G. (1998). [Letter to the editor]. Theory and Research in Social Education26, 7-8. 

Fleury, S. C. (1998). A Sunday afternoon in the House of Delegates. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the College and University Faculty Assembly of the National Council for the Social Studies, Anaheim, CA. 

Gibson, R. (1998). [Letter to the editor]. Theory and Research in Social Education26, 8. 

Hursh, D. W. (1998, November). The first amendment and free speech at the National Council for the Social Studies: The arrest and trials of leafleteer Sam Diener. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the College and University Faculty Assembly of the National Council for the Social Studies, Anaheim, CA. 

Karlin, R. (1999, August 15). Racial balance a fading issue. Times-Union (Albany, NY), p. E 1. 

Manfredi, R. (1999, August, 20). Board votes for billing the U.S. Orange County Register. Available on-line: http://www.ocregister.com/search/19990820/politics/board020w.shtml  

McDermott, T. (1999, August 2). Some are embittered by fate of Prop. 187. Los Angeles Times, p. A-1. 

McDonnell, P. J. (1999, July 29). Davis won't appeal Prop. 187, ending court battles. Los Angeles Times, p. A1. 

More on CUFA's resolution to boycott the NCSS California meeting. (1997, Spring). CUFA News, 4-5. 

Racial survey reveals optimism, pessimism among young Americans. (1999, August 16). Zogby News [On-line]. Available: http://www.zogby.com/news/home.htm#/raceresults 

Ross, E. W. (1997). A lesson in democracy?: CUFA, Proposition 187, and the Boycott of California. Theory and Research in Social Education25,256-258, 390-393. 

Ross, E. W. (1998). Democracy and disagreements. Theory and Research in Social Education26, 9-11. 

Ross. E. W. (1999). Re-segregating schools. Z Magazine12(4), 8-10. 


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