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Manuel Pastor: The Ongoing Struggle Against Racism

- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Ricardo Palavecino

Find more firsthand accounts of the campaign against Prop 187 here.

On the day of the march against Proposition 187, Professor Manuel Pastor marched alongside a hundred thousand others, along with his wife and children. Being of Cuban origin did not diminish his desire to be part of the march. At the time, he was a professor of economics at Occidental College, born in New York to Cuban immigrant parents.

“It was a formative moment, not just for me, but for my family,” says Pastor. "This is the first major demonstration that my wife and I took our children to, and it was great. They remember that we were teaching them that, as a family, we show up for other people's rights and dignity; we show up against injustice.”

So much of the rhetoric around Proposition 187 was racialized and very particularly against Latinos, but eventually it became clear that it also threatened undocumented Asian immigrants, he says, and that it was followed by another proposition two years later, which dismantled affirmative action programs, and later, another that eliminated bilingual education.

"By the time 187 had passed, my dad, who is born and raised in Cuba, had started calling himself a Latino instead of Cuban.”

Pastor sees the nineties in California and the political tensions that showed up in several racially charged ballot initiatives as a reaction to rapid demographic change.

“It is no mistake that by 1999, the state had become majority people of color. And that was in transit through the 1990s. And it was that deep concern about a state changing demographically that really drove the underlying politics of that era,” says Pastor.

Moving forward in time to today, Pastor clearly says a similar dynamic at play in the larger United States.

“The United States seems to be passing through its own Prop 187 moment that is a sort of widespread attack on immigrants, but one that's actually deeply informed by fear of the demographic change that's occurring in the United States as a whole,” he explains.

Economic uncertainty and political opportunism created the perfect storm for the Trump administration, he adds. And given what happened in California, the results may be unexpected in the long run, he theorizes.

“California is America, just sooner,” he says. "The States has made tremendous progress over the last 25 years; the level of racial tension and racist policy that was typical of the 1990s seems like something of a bygone era. We've got significant Latino political strength, and that translates into representation and ability to shift policy on education, wages and the environment!"

But California has a way to go, and its contradictions remain. “We still have a lot to do in terms of economic advancement, educational equity, environment and housing. We should be very aware of the shortcomings that we've got.”

Dr. Manuel Pastor is Turpanjian Chair in Civil Society & Social Change, Distinguished Professor of Sociology (formerly in Geography) and American Studies and Ethnicity, Director, Program for Environmental and Regional Equity and Director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.

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