Like It's 1849: Latinos Are the Majority in California

For the first time since California became a state, Latinos outnumber whites. But will it translate to political power?

(Photo: David McNew/Reuters)

Mar 20, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

A significant demographic milestone that's been predicted for years has finally come true for the most populous state in the nation: Whites are no longer California's largest racial or ethnic group.

This month, 39 percent of residents—more than 14.5 million people—identified as Latino, making them the most populous racial or ethnic group in California for the first time since it became a U.S. state in 1850. That's slightly more than the 38.8 percent of residents who identify as white. Latinos significantly outnumer Asian Americans (14.9 percent) and blacks (7.2 percent) in the Golden State.

The demographic change is a little behind schedule: Last year California Gov. Jerry Brown issued a report predicting that the shift would take place in July 2013. Both Latino immigration and the Latino birth rate have slowed, causing the delay.

Does this numerical increase mean Latinos have real political power in California?

Unai Montes-Irueste, a Los Angeles activist and policy advocate who's been on the frontline of youth voter registration efforts, helped get the DREAM Act passed, and now organizes long-term care workers with SEIU, doesn't think so. Although "it's doubtful that an anti-Latino immigrant ballot proposal like the infamous Proposition 187 could get passed today," says Montes-Irueste, "there are very few Latinos at the top of the socioeconomic and political food chains in California."

Prop. 187, the 1994 "Save Our State" initiative, declared that people could not receive health care or public social services or be admitted to school until their U.S. citizenship had been verified. Days after it passed, a federal judge ruled that the proposition was unconstitutional, and in 1999, a court mediation decision invalidated it.

The ramifications of the proposition, however, continue to linger. Political analysts say one of the reasons Republican Meg Whitman lost to Brown in the 2010 gubernatorial election is that she brought former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Prop. 187 champion, on board as an adviser. Wilson's involvement was a reminder to voters of the nightmare of Latino patients being denied care at hospitals and teachers being required to tattle on students they suspected might not be citizens. Meanwhile, Brown, who supported Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers movement in his "Moonbeam" days in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was seen as an ally and advocate for immigration reform and Latino rights.

While Whitman's defeat might suggest Latinos have plenty of clout, Montes-Irueste compares the status of the new Latino majority to the state of women in our society.

"Although women are the majority of the United States population and even graduate from college in greater numbers than their male peers," Montes-Irueste says, "as much as they're told to 'lean in,' that doesn't translate into women being a majority in the seats of power in Congress—they're only 18.5 percent of Congress—or the Fortune 500, where they are a mere 4.4 percent of CEOs."

Because California is the eighth-largest economy in the world, what happens to the Latino population has implications not just for the state but for the rest of America and the world. Too many Latinos still are not going to college, not voting, and "live in poverty or at the brink of poverty, surviving from paycheck to paycheck," says Montes-Irueste.

According to Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project, 31 percent of California Latinos under the age of 17 live in poverty. The 5.9 million Latinos eligible to vote in California in 2012 are also only 42 percent of the state's Latino population. Meanwhile, 80 percent of white Californians are eligible to vote. On top of that, according to the Campaign for College Opportunity, Latinos in California make up 69 percent of adults who don't have a high school diploma, and "only 11 percent of Latino adults have earned at least a bachelor's degree compared to 39 percent of whites."

Boosting the number of Latinos graduating from high school and going to college and ensuring they're engaged in democracy is the obvious road forward. If Latinos can't be "successfully incorporated and invested in the social, political, and economic future of the state," says Montes-Irueste, our days of California dreamin' really could be over.