The Quiet Race War

THERESA CANADY REmembers when contractors in Moreno Valley were building 4,000 houses a year. It was the mid-'80s, and this bland strip of California desert, 90 minutes east of Los Angeles, was one of the fastest-growing towns in America. Families swarmed in from Orange County and L.A.--Latino and Anglo commuters, Vietnamese boat people, Guamanians, Filipinos, inner-city blacks--seeking safer streets or cheaper housing. But when the California recession struck in the early '90s, it hit Moreno Valley hard. Canady, like a lot of her neighbors, found herself unemployed, with a daughter to support. "I hadn't been without a job since I was 15," she says. "The idea of collecting unemployment was horrifying. I went out and got two jobs."

Like many here, as she eyes the presidential race, Canady, a real-estate agent and consultant, worries about the economy. She is a wary Republican. "All these other issues--abortion, school prayer--I don't want to hear about." Instead, she is moved by issues closer to home. Pointing to her daughter, who has a mild learning disability, she says, "She's supposed to get one-on-one help. But she's in a class with too many kids because of illegal immigrants."

Illegal immigration and affirmative action, which haven't yet caught fire in the national campaign, stir passions in places like Moreno Valley--struggling suburbs where multiculturalism has brought both promise and growing pains. The area, known as the Inland Empire, is considered a political indicator. Moreno Valley's congressional district, the 44th, voted for Bush in '88 and Clinton in '92; two years ago it swept conservative Sonny Bono into the House. Many here now blame minorities for a rising presence of gangs and violence. According to the national NEWSWEEK Poll, people around the country share these worries. And as the economy has stalled, anxieties over contracts--and minority preferences--have grown bitter.

This is ideological turf that either Bill Clinton or Bob Dole might exploit. But the traditional pigeonholes-Democrats arguing against discrimination, Republicans against preferences--seem obsolete here. Voters hold more elaborately calibrated positions: equally strong disgust for both discrimination and racial preferences, or ardent passion in favor of immigration and against illegal immigration. "People are sensitive to the fact that we're paying for people who are on the dole," explains Dave Briggs, who sells insurance and securities. "Washington makes the rules, and we have to pay for illegals' education, health care and welfare. The government is codependent. They're enablers."

At Canyon Springs High School, Don Miller presides over a class out of a Benetton ad--black, Latino, Asian, even a blond kid with a new mohawk. But the school has been divided by racial unrest, and last year Miller was called a racist over his support for a white administrator. "This was a small town," he says. "We weren't used to the urban, confrontational behavior. The idea of a 14-year-old getting in my face-I'm still shocked." Miller, a Democrat, is "ambivalent" about affirmative action. "When a charge of racism comes, for a white person there's no defense. I'm convinced I've been a victim of minorities. A lot of people have."

Charlie Ledbetter, at 73 a pillar of Moreno Valley, knows what it's like to lose a job over affirmative action. In the late 1970s, as the only African-American on the school board, he pushed to hire the first black teacher. He was promptly voted off the board. These days, back on the board, he wants no part of preferences, just a level playing field. But he is under attack again. Many blacks are furious that the black-majority board recently hired a white superintendent. "Let's not play this race game," he counters. Of his critics, he says, "I'm doing this so their kids can get a job."

In a knotty twist, Ledbetter, a Democrat, finds himself supporting Clinton despite his support for racial preferences, rather than because of it. But affirmative action, like immigration, is a thorny issue in 1996. It cuts in a more complex mesh than the parties like to acknowledge. In Moreno Valley, the crosshatchings draw the topography of a community in anxious flux. It is a map of the city, waiting for a candidate who can read its intricate code.

Affirmative action and immigration are slowly simmering in Campaign '96.

54% of voters who have seen a recent influx of immigrants say the newcomers have hurt their communities; only 21% say they have helped.

By a 2-1 margin--39% to 18%--more voters believe reverse discrimination against whites is a bigger problem than racism. But 78% of employed white voters don't think they would have a better shot at promotion if they were of a different race.

The Quiet Race War | News