During the 1980s, a series of international trends had transformed California, and by the 1990s, Wilson was able to exploit a number of simmering resentments arising from these changes. Wilson first took office in 1990 during the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union. In California, these events resulted in the collapse of Southern California's aerospace and defense industries, and in the early 1990s the state as a whole entered an economic recession. The Golden State also reeled from a series of terrifying and costly natural disasters: the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the 1991 Oakland fire, the 1993 Malibu fire, and the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The sense of economic stagnation and physical danger was only exacerbated by the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. By the time Wilson faced reelection in 1994, his statewide approval ratings had dropped to 15 percent.
While facing reelection, Wilson grasped an undercurrent of white backlash or "nativist" resentment in California against a rising tide of immigration. In the 1980s, Los Angeles had replaced New York's Ellis Island as the point of entry for the majority of immigrants coming to the United States. A 1988 census taken by the Los Angeles Unified School District counted 96 different languages spoken by the city's schoolchildren.
The 1990 Census had revealed that one in five residents of California were foreign born. The population of California's two major cities-San Francisco and Los Angeles-had shifted: the white population had dipped below 50 percent, and Latinos, Asians, and African Americans made up a majority of the residents.
Immigrants were arriving from all parts of Europe, Mexico, Central America, and the Asian countries of the Pacific Rim. But Wilson's ad campaign zeroed in on illegal immigrants crossing the Mexican border to San Diego County. The ads intoned the phrase, "They keep coming."
During the same time period, California saw an exodus of older, conservative, white residents, especially from Los Angeles. Although news reports told of people fleeing to Oregon, Washington, and Nevada because of California's perceived social problems, statistics revealed this internal migration came from the areas hardest hit by the aerospace industry's collapse.
The passage of Proposition 187 galvanized the Latino community. In California, the Democratic Latino Caucus, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the Southwest Voter Project, and the Salvadorian American Legal and Education Fund (SALEF) launched education programs to help Latino residents become naturalized citizens. They also began massive voter registration drives. In 1996, Mexico amended its own constitution, allowing citizens to hold dual passports. This change greatly aided the movement to enfranchise Mexican-born immigrants to California and the Southwest, and it has helped to transform and liberalize the emerging California electorate.
- Students analyze the major social problems and domestic policy issues in contemporary American society. (11.11.1)
- Students analyze U.S. foreign policy since World War II. (11.9.7)