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California’s Cultural Tectonics

August 27, 2010
by Peter Schrag
Image source: Getty Images

The magnitude of immigration since 1980 has radically changed the complexion of the state, creating new opportunities and dangers. And while traditional ways of describing race don’t fit, we as yet have little language for the changes.

No one will ever know what particular event did it—maybe the birth of a Latino boy, or a Korean girl, or the arrival of an immigrant—but sometime in the fall of 1999 the statistical clock ticked over and forever changed California’s demographic landscape. That it happened almost precisely on the 150th anniversary of the Gold Rush, when the settlement of California really began and when the long-dead Spanish explorers’ dream of El Dorado seemed momentarily to be realized, was only coincidence. As late as 1960, California had been so Anglo that the primary language of foreign born Californians, most of whom had come either from Canada or Great Britain, was still English. In those years Los Angeles was the most WASP city in the nation.

With the 2000 Census, a short 40 years later, California, whose population was then close to 34 million, officially became the nation’s first large majority-minority state. Anglos were still the largest minority—by 2004 they constituted roughly 46 percent of the population, Latinos were second with 35 percent, up from 11 percent in 1970, and Asians third with some 11 or 12 percent. African Americans, still regarded as the minority in much of the rest of the country, were fourth with about 6 percent, a relative decline freighted with social and political consequences.

But even those numbers are changing at a dizzying pace: Shortly after 2010, Latinos—primarily people of Mexican and Central American descent—are projected to become the state’s largest minority. And of the 51.5 million Californians projected by 2040, nearly 30 million (58 percent) will be Hispanics, and another 6.5 million will be Asians, partly through immigration but largely through natural increase. There will also be 2.5 million fewer white Anglos than there were in 2000.

In the Southern California region that includes Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Imperial, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties, Hispanics already outnumbered Anglo whites, who composed barely 39 percent of the region’s population. But since a rapidly growing percentage of children are born into mixed marriages, the categories will get fuzzier and the count itself will depend as much on self-identification as on any objective criteria. Nearly three of every ten marriages involving a Latino or an Asian is an interracial or interethnic marriage. In the third generation, 57 percent of Latinos and 54 percent of Asians marry a person of some other ethnicity. By the nation’s 19th-century standards of racial purity—in many cases running late into the 20th century—this is what the writer Gregory Rodriguez, in a sardonic reference to a century-old racist scare phrase, called “Mongrel America.”

Of the 34 million Californians in 2001, almost 9 million, among them the man who would become governor in 2003, were foreign-born, giving the state far and away the highest percentage of immigrants in the country. The growth in the percentage of foreign-born appears to have slowed and will peak within the next generation. In the meantime, the percentage of newcomers, as opposed to “settled immigrants,” is declining.. But because the rate of change in the generation after 1980 was so stunning—by 2004, 60 California cities had populations more than half of whom were foreign-born, the majority Latino—the backlash on issues like denying drivers’ licenses to illegal aliens or declaring English the state’s official language or seeking to deny them even emergency medical services was not altogether surprising.

Does their presence dampen the willingness of Californians to support high levels of public services? Whenever there’s a report about the need for more classrooms or teachers, there are letters and e-mails to the media and public officials declaring that there’d be no problem were it not for those illegal immigrants, if not all immigrants. Would states like California—indeed all of America—absorb immigrants at the rates they were coming and maintain their standard of living and their environment?

In the Central Valley—Fresno, Sacramento, Merced—there are some 75,000 Hmong, Southeast Asian hill people who had no written language, as well as other Laotians, Thais, and Cambodians, with thousands more arriving periodically from the refugee camps in Thailand where they, or their parents, have been since the Vietnam War. Some become small farmers or janitors, but as rural hill people who have never seen a kitchen or a toilet and have no written language, they’ve had particular adjustment problems. As with the Cambodians in Sacramento, there are high rates of depression and suicide. And while many of the kids have become valedictorians, joining the great march into the mainstream—and some are now doctors and engineers—some assimilate downward into drugs and gangs so they can feel safer. Says Pao Fang, director of the Lao Family Community: “They want to be protected.” They fight the Hispanic gangs even though their own English is laced with Hispanic inflections. Conversely, there also have been adjustment problems for county welfare, medical, and child-protection authorities who had no protocols on how to deal with their new arrivals’ arranged marriages for their 13-year-old daughters or their deep beliefs in the spiritual basis of illness and how to treat it.

There’s not much doubt, as Juan Arambula learned in his years as a Fresno County supervisor, that low-wage illegal immigrants in California’s San Joaquin Valley and in other poor areas place an enormous burden on communities, and particularly on schools, emergency rooms, and law enforcement. The most comprehensive study, published in 1997 by the National Research Council, concluded that overall, immigration benefits the economy and has little impact on native Americans other than those without a high school education. But the report also found that in 1994–95, the latest year for which the panel had data, immigrants were imposing “a net fiscal burden of $1,178 per native-headed California household.” According to another study, state and local taxpayers are effectively subsidizing the low prices of goods as well as the growers, contractors, restaurants, big-box retailers, and the other employers of low-wage workers, native and immigrant, that produce them.

At the same time, however, national data also indicate that illegal immigrants are heavily subsidizing the surpluses of the Social Security system, contributing as much as $7 billion a year—roughly 10 percent of the 2004 surplus—most of which they’ll never get back. Put all that data together and you seem to have a picture showing that while state and local jurisdictions bore the lion’s share of the short-term burdens, the long-term effects on the economy were positive, and the federal treasury and especially the Social Security Trust Fund were big gainers.

For the immediate future, the Valley’s economy, like California’s hotel and restaurant industry, and much of its construction business, will depend on those low-wage immigrant workers, most of them undocumented. “Without them,” Arambula said, the small-farm towns, many of which have lost most of their Anglos, wouldn’t be able to survive. “They’d blow away like tumbleweed.”

The establishment of a University of California campus at Merced, the first new UC campus in nearly 40 years, is seen by its local promoters as a great boost for business. But initially, at least, it’s likely to struggle, as Professor Kenji Hakuta, who now heads its division of humanities and social science, said, to “serve the survivors of a terrible education system.” In the Valley, a lot of people use the same image: The kids would rather have a pickup truck than an education. When UC Merced admitted its first class in 2005, only 38 percent of the students were from the Valley.

But in Silicon Valley or San Francisco, an immigrant is more likely to be an Indian engi­neer or a Pakistani entrepreneur or even a Mexi­can engineer on an H-1B visa—a cerebrero—than a Mexican farmworker. When the high-tech boom fizzled after 2000, one of the places that was hard hit was the East Bay city of Fremont, where engineers and technicians had sparked a shadow boom in Indian restaurants and shops. In the little city of West Sacramento, there are three Russian communities—Orthodox, Baptist, and Pentecostal. Given the enormous ethnic and, more important, the huge class differences, not to mention the differences between recent and settled immigrants, legal and illegal, there is no typical California immigrant.

Ethnic labels often conceal as much as they reveal. At Montebello High School in Los Angeles County, as at many other schools, the students, 93 percent of whom are Latino, divide themselves sharply between recent immigrants who call themselves “TJ” for Tijuana, whose primary activities are folklorico and soccer, and “Senior Park,” those who speak English comfortably and have assimilated to American sports, music, and institutions and some of whom never spoke Spanish at all. Those divisions, too—divisions of culture, of class, of loyalty—reflect similar splits within the larger Latino community, and indeed within other American ethnic communities as well, just as they have through much of the nation’s history.

“Asian” is a grab-bag term that includes everything from those Indian and Pakistani engineers and programmers to the newly arrived Hmong—Korean architects, Sikh farmers, Chinese physicians, Vietnamese entrepreneurs—but it generally doesn’t include Filipinos, who with nearly 700,000 immigrants are the second-largest group of foreign-born Californians. At the University of California, Asians, who make up a disproportionate part of the student body, have long ceased to be counted as a minority. The same is true for Filipinos. UC’s diversity agenda focuses only on “underrepresented minorities,” meaning Hispanics, African Americans, and American Indians.

The toughest questions of all, however—and those that clearly trouble middle-class intellectuals most—are the cultural ones. What’s the justification for putting the newly arrived children of illegal immigrants—or indeed any of the nation’s millions of new immigrants, most of them Hispanic—in the front of the line in affirmative action programs that, if they are still appropriate, were designed to mitigate the effects of historic discrimination against blacks and, inferentially, American Indians? Is multiculturalism, as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put it, sinking the country into too much pluribus and not enough unum?

But if there is one thing Latino parents—like all other immigrants—wish, it’s for their children to learn English as fast as possible, to finish school, and to succeed. In 1996, working class Latinos boycotted their children’s Los Angeles elementary school to protest the poor education the kids were getting in their bilingual classes. Alice Callaghan, the community activist who organized the boycott, stated, “Parents do not want their children working in sweatshops or cleaning downtown office buildings when they grow up. They want them to get into Harvard and Stanford.” (The polls also show that Latinos are no different from other Americans in their high educational aspirations for their children.)

Despite the apparent—and puzzling—lag in college attendance rates among second- and third-generation Latinos, there are now so many Latino (and, of course, Asian and black) lawyers, doctors, college professors, accountants, city and county officials, and so many corporate executives of Fortune 500 companies—not to mention the nurses and dental techs, the teachers, journalists, and social workers—that the changing face of the state’s professions and corporate leadership, which would have been remarkable 40 years ago, is now largely unnoticed. Even the parade of capped and gowned graduates across the platform at Berkeley or UCLA commencement exercises defy spot categorization: Chinese, Korean, Cuban, Mexican, Chilean, Pacific Islander, Iranian, Saudi, Palestinian, Israeli, Filipino, Vietnamese, Thai, Russian, Polish, American Indian, West Indian, Anglo American, African American, North African, East Indian, Pakistani. Which was what? Which were combinations? What language did their parents or grandparents speak?

And as with the Jews and other groups in New York or Chicago, the tectonic plates between cultures produced yet another wave of distinguished immigrant and first-generation writers—Maxine Hong Kingston, born in Stockton, and Amy Tan, born in Oakland, both of Chinese immigrant parents; Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, born in India, with a Berkeley Ph.D., whose stories are set largely in Northern California, where she lives; novelist Bharati Mukherjee, a professor at Berkeley; novelist and memoirist Khaled Hosseini, born in Afghanistan, now a resident of Fremont; Richard Rodriguez, son of Mexican immigrants in Sacramento—all exploring the space, or lack of space, between those plates.

Rodriguez, the Sacramento boy who, along with Joan Didion, also from Sacramento, is one of the nation’s most elegant essayists, said, “The most important theme of my writing now is impurity. My mestizo boast: As a queer Catholic Indian Spaniard at home in a temperate Chinese city in a fading blond state in a post-Protestant nation, I live up to my sixteenth-century birth.”

Mexico, he points out, has no notion of multiculturalism. “Most Mexicans are some blend of races, usually a blend of the Indian and the Spaniard. But many of us also are African. We are totally all of that—we are that before anything else.” The inference, of course, is that in another 40 years, a lot of America will be like that too. “It is your job,” Rodriguez told a group of California librarians, “to introduce California to itself, and we don’t have a vocabulary yet… Something else is going on here.” As to the conventional meaning of “diversity”—that’s not diversity in any real way. That’s “brown, black, and white versions of the same political ideology.” In California and much of the Southwest, the brownness of Mexican Americans, combined with the high rates of ethnic mixing, itself a Mexican norm, is not only changing the shade of what qualifies as American, it’s undermining the nation’s centuries-old binary black-white racial structure.

Peter Schrag is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and author of Paradise Lost.
Adapted from California: America’s High-Stakes Experiment, University of California Press, 2006. This is the first of two articles; the second will address the initiative process and its role in California’s dysfunctional political culture.

From the May June 2006 What’s Happened to the Animals of Yosemite issue of California.

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