The Agenda

Ron Unz on Immigration, Part III: What’s the Matter with California?

At the start of Ron Unz’s essay, he offers an intriguing hypothesis on how racial polarization shapes political contestation in the U.S. I first encountered the idea that there are “natural antagonisms” in our politics in the work of Kevin Phillips, the left-wing populist who was, much earlier in his career, a right-wing populist. That is, there are groups that will not sit comfortably in the same political coalition, for a variety of reasons that include but are not limited to prejudice, historical experience, and labor market competition, all of which intertwine. 

After a discussion and critique of the Rove strategy to expand the Republican coalition beyond white voters, Unz dives deeper to ask whether our politics are defined by a black/non-black antagonism or by a white/non-white antagonism, to oversimplify. Unz offers an unsentimental and thought-provoking argument for “African American exceptionalism.”

It is certainly true that the over the last century those states with the smallest white majorities have generally had names like Mississippi, South Carolina, and Alabama, and these have exhibited a very distinctive brand of white politics and race relations. But the least white state of all has actually projected a very different cultural image.

Whites were a minority in Hawaii at the time of statehood and have always been so, with the relative numbers of whites and Asians shifting somewhat based upon the various flows of migrants. Furthermore, the original white colonists and plantation elites historically had had a quite conflicted relationship both with the Native Hawaiian population whose leadership they supplanted and also with the large numbers of Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian workers originally imported as impoverished plantation laborers.

Yet although the local Republican Party has generally skewed toward the 25 percent of the population that is white, while the Democrats have been more popular among the majority Asians, the state’s reputation has overwhelmingly been one of easygoing race relations, a high degree of intermarriage, and a complete lack of vicious political conflict. Ideologically, Hawaii’s white minority seems to think and vote much more like the racially liberal residents of 95 percent white Vermont than as members of a racially polarized minority bloc, locked in endless political struggle with its non-white opponents.

Perhaps Hawaii is just a unique case, being a chain of small tropical islands located thousands of miles off the mainland and heavily dependent upon tourism for its economy. But there is an additional example. After Hawaii, the state with the next lowest white percentage throughout most of the 20th century was New Mexico, with the number of whites fluctuating at around half the total depending upon the ebbs and flows of the white and Hispanic populations, before eventually falling to 40 percent in 2010.

And although New Mexico hardly possesses Hawaii’s enormously positive social image—it is mostly rural with a small economy—it has also never developed the reputation of being a boiling racial cauldron, with whites and Hispanics locked in a bitter battle for power. Mention “New Mexico” and the popular images that spring to mind probably revolve around UFOs, vistas of great natural beauty, and government research laboratories, not longstanding racial conflict.

These examples lead to the suspicion that the history of bitter racial politics across most of the Deep South may represent less a conflict of white vs. non-white than one of white vs. black, and this seems quite plausible. After all, slavery and its legacy have for centuries constituted the deepest wound in American society, provoking a bloody Civil War which cost the lives of almost one third of all white Southern men of military age. The history of black/white racial relations is arguably the single most significant element in American political history, so we should hardly be surprised if it continues to heavily influence the politics of numerous states and cities, including those outside the South.

By contrast, although relations between whites and various other groups—Asians, Hispanics, and American Indians—have sometimes been hostile or even violent, these conflicts have never been nearly as long nor intense and are more like the often contentious relationships between various white ethnic groups. As our schoolbooks endlessly emphasize, black/white relations do indeed constitute a unique aspect of American history.

This, in turn, leads Unz to a larger thesis about the politics of immigration reform, which centers on his reading of California’s post-1990s partisan trajectory:


Although Hispanic and Asian numbers had been growing steadily for years, their support for Republicans had been growing as well, and by the early 1990s, a GOP candidate could regularly expect to receive around one-third or more of the Hispanic vote and half that of the Asian. For example, Pete Wilson’s narrow 1990 gubernatorial victory over Dianne Feinstein, which significantly relied upon his criticism of “racial quotas,” was achieved with 53 percent of the white vote, 47 percent of the Hispanic vote, and 58 percent of the Asian vote according to the prestigious California Field Poll used by the New York Times, though others placed his ethnic totals lower.

But all of this permanently changed following Wilson’s harsh 1994 reelection campaign, whose television ads relentlessly scapegoated Hispanic immigrants for the state’s terrible economic woes. Although his words were carefully chosen in lawyerly fashion to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants, his message was perceived very differently, and his loudest grassroots activist supporters certainly made no such distinction. Moreover, the resounding California Republican landslide that resulted soon emboldened the newly established Republican majorities in the U.S. House and Senate to focus on passing anti-immigration legislation, which thus placed legal Asian immigrants in the same political crosshairs.

As a direct consequence, Republican support sharply dropped among Hispanics and Asians and has never really recovered. Moreover, the immigration battle frightened and energized many traditionally apolitical Hispanics into finally naturalizing and registering, and during the 15 years that followed, their share of the state vote more than doubled to 22 percent, severely compounding the blow to Republican prospects. …


There is no logical contradiction between the powerful backlash of California whites against immigrants 20 years ago and the apparent lack of such political sentiments today. In the early 1990s, the state’s demographics had just undergone a period of very rapid change, and middle-class whites were naturally fearful and alarmed about the consequences of these changes and the possible behavior of so many millions of new immigrants from such different backgrounds, especially in the immediate aftermath of the deadly Rodney King riots. This left them easy targets for political demagoguery. But after a few years had gone by, most whites concluded that their new neighbors seemed like pretty reasonable people, not too different from themselves, and racial concerns dropped to the lower levels of most public opinion surveys, usually ranking below jobs, housing, healthcare, and sometimes even traffic.

Similarly, most Hispanic and Asian newcomers have developed perfectly amicable relations with their white counterparts, but still remain deeply suspicious of the Republican Party, whose leaders had spent several years defaming and attacking them. 

Unz goes on to argue that Arizona might go through a very similar prospect as the Latino share of the electorate starts to align with the Latino share of the state population, and more to the point of today’s under-18 population.

Most of the conservatives who believe, like Unz, that anti-immigration rhetoric can prove costly over the long-term thus embrace a comprehensive immigration reform agenda that includes a path to citizenship, etc. But Unz does not. Rather, he offers a distinctive solution. Before he gets there, however, he offers a case against mass immigration that has very little to do with the cultural concerns that are typically raised by paleoconservatives, but rather with the impact of less-skilled U.S. workers, including recent immigrants and Americans of Mexican origin, and to a lesser extent with the environmental consequences. I’ll discuss this aspect of Unz’s argument in the next post.


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