NYT's Badger Blames Limbaugh's Radio Show From '80s for CA's Immigrant-Hostile Past

February 2nd, 2017 7:25 PM

New York Times Emily Badger dominates all of page 3 of Thursday’s print paper, with “Immigrant Shock: California Offers Hint of Nation’s Future,” a long “Upshot” analysis operating under the unspoken assumption that Donald Trump voters were prejudiced and skitterish of different-looking people invading their neighborhood. She even roped Rush Limbaugh’s 1980’s Sacramento radio show into her essay, as a marker of racist anti-immigrant hostility.

The political ads warned that illegal immigrants were dashing, by the millions, over the Mexican border, racing to claim taxpayer-funded public services in California.

“They keep coming,” the announcer intoned over grainy aerial footage and a thrumming bass line. When viewed on YouTube today, these ads hardly seem the stuff of multicultural California as we know it.

In 1994, though, that message helped lift California’s governor, the Republican Pete Wilson, to re-election. That same year, voters adopted a referendum, Proposition 187, denying state services to undocumented immigrants, including public education and health care.

California is often held up as a harbinger of the demographics -- and, Democrats hope, the politics -- of the nation to come. Mr. Wilson’s bet against immigration is thought to have hurt Republicans in the long run in the state. But in the dawn of the Trump era, the state is also a cautionary tale of what happens during the tumultuous years when that change is occurring rapidly.

Donald J. Trump has taken office in a nation that is not only growing more diverse, but also growing more diverse everywhere, because of both foreign immigration and shifting internal migration patterns that are touching the last bastions of nearly all-white America.

After an election in which Mr. Trump appealed to unease about the nation’s changing identity -- and a month when he alarmed civil rights leaders and immigration advocates -- his presidency poses a very different question from his predecessor’s.

Not: Are we post-racial? But: How will we handle the racial change that is only going to accelerate?

Badger managed to drag Rush Limbaugh as part of the anti-immigrant xenophobia.

Sociological studies suggest that increasing contact between groups can yield familiarity and tolerance. But it can also unnerve, especially in communities where that rapid change is most visible -- and when politicians stand to gain by exploiting it. California lashed out at diversity before embracing it.

“There’s a very rich history of xenophobia, of racism, of trying to wipe each other out,” said Connie Rice, a longtime civil rights lawyer in California. “It’s not like we were all of a sudden born the Golden State.” State leaders pushed for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. “This is where the Chinese weren’t even allowed to own property,” she noted.

Rush Limbaugh started building his following as a right-wing radio talk show host in Sacramento in the 1980s. The ’90s in California brought the Rodney King riots, a strict three-strikes law, the contentious Proposition 187 fight and ballot measures in which voters rejected affirmative action and bilingual education. “We went through a pretty chaotic last 20 years,” said Manuel Pastor, a University of Southern California sociologist.

But this is the same state that today vows to defend immigrants from deportation, a place where voters have supported a higher minimum wage and prison reforms that benefit minority residents. “You would not have predicted that from amid that chaos,” he said.

No conservatives or skeptics of affirmative action or bilingual education got a say.

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“The United States just went through its Prop. 187 moment,” Mr. Pastor said of this presidential election. The question is whether the rest of the country can adjust faster to demographic change -- or with less conflict -- than California did. “Why go through all of our pain? That was no fun, and it dashed a lot of people’s lives. We underinvested in education. We over-imprisoned, so we got a lot of people locked out of the labor market. We broke apart a lot of families because of anti-immigrant sentiments. We did a lot of stupid things to ourselves.”


The long-term Democratic bet on demographic destiny assumes that minority voters who support the party today will continue to in the future. But it also assumes that today’s white Democrats will stay with the party as the context around them shifts. Evidence like Mr. Enos’s suggests there’s no guarantee, particularly regarding the timeline of tolerance. White voters in California may have eventually been persuaded that their Hispanic neighbors were no threat to the local economy or their children’s classrooms, but white voters in Midwestern small towns may have been unnerved by the change around them enough for a meaningful shift in votes in this past election.


That sense of lost identity and ownership echoes how white communities often reacted to desegregation, Mr. Hopkins said. It is not, however, abrupt demographic change alone that unnerves, his research has found, but that kind of change amplified by politics.

“In this brew that generates anti-immigrant sentiment, there needs to be a politicizing factor,” Mr. Hopkins said. “There needs to be a politician, a set of politicians, or a party who call attention to immigration, who make it an issue.”

There needs to be, well, a Mr. Trump.

Badger found the most loaded language to bring her hostile analysis home under the subhead, "Does Contact Disarm Prejudice?"

There is no neat tipping point, no level of diversity beyond which the backlash inevitably gives way to greater tolerance. The volume of political bluster matters. So does the level of segregation, because diversity doesn’t necessarily mean communities are integrating. So does the kind of contact that occurs when different groups bump up against one another.


In Mr. Enos’s earlier work, he found that white voters in the most segregated counties nationally were five to six percentage points less likely to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 than white voters in the least segregated places, with a similar effect within states. That suggests that the nature of contact matters not just for disarming prejudice but for shaping politics. And often, when new groups come into a community, they immediately segregate.

Badger embarrassed herself in early January when she declared an accurate Trump statement about the rise in crime to be false, as NewsBusters documented, with the Times quietly attempting to correct the error but then failing even that.