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Washington Journal: A Demographic Explosion Shakes California

  • Bruce Keppel

Bellingham, Washington; 23 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- California is notorious for earthquakes of the sort that devastated San Francisco in 1906 and, less than 10 years ago, parts of Los Angeles. But its latest earthquake is of a different kind -- a demographic shaking that, however it works out, may provide a glimpse of the kind of community that will be at home in the emerging global economy of the new century.

Take as an indication last Wednesday's "Los Angeles Times," with a headline saying: "Tet Dawns Peacefully." Tet is the Vietnamese new year. But this Tet headline ran in the Los Angeles paper's edition destined for readers in adjacent Orange County, home of Disneyland, and it referred not to events in Southeast Asia but to Vietnamese immigrants living in the suburban town of Westminster. In this town, which a few years ago was mostly white-skinned, Vietnamese residents are now so numerous that part of its business district is called "Little Saigon."

As that nickname suggests, most of Westminster's Vietnamese residents arrived as refugees -- the so-called boat people -- from defeated South Vietnam, whose capital was Saigon. Since the victorious North Vietnamese have reunited the country, Saigon has been renamed Ho Chi Minh City, in honor of the conquering North Vietnamese leader.

But in "Little Saigon," Ho Chi Minh is no hero to many. Tempers flared on Monday when a merchant named Truong Van Tran put up a picture of the former North Vietnamese leader in the window of his video-rental store this week and tried to hoist over it a Communist Vietnamese flag. Angry Vietnamese neighbors noisily demonstrated against the display, and mounted a round-the-clock vigil, despite a California court's finding that the merchant's unpopular actions are protected by the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of free speech.

So far, the continuing protest has not erupted into violence. But what makes such an event particularly newsworthy is that it took place in California. While its ranking as the most populous of the 50 United States is well known, the composition of that population has also made California what may be the world's most demographically diverse region.

Today, one-fourth of California's 32 million residents were born in countries other than the United States. Nowhere is the diversity of these people more pronounced than within the primary circulation area of the "Los Angeles Times," in the southern third of the long and narrow Pacific Coast state. This diversity shows up most clearly in the public schools, which in the United States are organized, run and largely financed by local residents and local taxpayers living within each school district.

Los Angeles Unified School District is responsible for educating 697,000 students in grades from kindergarten through high school. That makes it second in the nation to New York City's public schools with their 1 million students.

But the Los Angeles district must educate a student body whose native tongues embrace 80 languages -- ranging from Armenian and Bulgarian to Russian, Serbo-Croation, Ukrainian and Vietnamese. Most of the foreign-born, however, speak Spanish, and more than two-thirds of all students claim Hispanic roots, mostly in neighboring Mexico but also from the other countries comprising Central America.

The law requires that all the district's students be educated, preferably in their native languages until they can handle English -- a process that educators say averages five years.

The head of the Los Angeles school system is himself Hispanic. And this man, Ruben Zacarias, calls the school system "a microcosm of the city, even the nation."

Zacarias might point to Hollywood High School, famous through the 1950s for its movie-star alumni. Hollywood High School recently named an Armenian, Norik Simonian, as second-in command, partly to deal with Armenian-speaking parents having a hard time adjusting to the ways of a new and ethnically diverse world -- including, he says, settling disputes through legal means rather than by seeking to avenge wrongs personally.

Expanding the "microcosm" of the school district's enrollment to the state of California reveals a population that is today only 54 percent non-Hispanic white. And that share is declining. Another 28 percent are Hispanic, and that share is rising, very rapidly.

Another 10 percent is designated as Asian-Pacific Islander, a category that includes Vietnamese, but also Filipinos, Samoans, Koreans, Cambodians, Thai and Chinese. That, too, is a growing share.

Only 7 percent of Californians today are black, most of them born within the United States with roots extending back into slavery. And the black share is just holding its own, seemingly more of a minority than ever.

That such diversity creates earthshaking social tensions was graphically shown in the rioting that erupted in a part of Los Angeles in 1992. The riot broke out in Los Angeles' Crenshaw District and spread into adjacent Korea Town after a court acquitted white policemen of charges of unnecessary brutality in the beating of a black motorist who had resisted arrest for a traffic charge. Unknown to the officers, the beating was captured on a private videotape that later was widely telecast. The ensuing violence pitted enraged blacks against uninvolved whites -- even a passing truck driver -- and against the equally uninvolved Korean merchants who served the racially mixed community.

It also led the man whose beating lead to the rioting, Rodney King, to ask the question that still resonates in California: "Can we all get along?" -- that is, live together peacefully?

King's question is one that California cannot avoid answering, since it is destined to become the first state to lack a single, majority population group. Demographers forecast that by 2010 minorities will make up two-thirds of California's workforce. The white population will, by then, be the state's newest minority group. It will also be an increasingly aged one, amounting to three-fourths of the state's retired people. This means that some of their retirement income will be provided by contributions made into the federal Social Security System from all those former immigrants. That's because they will be doing most of the work in an economy that, despite being that of a state, ranks among the world's top ten.

Edmund G. Brown Junior, who like his father before him served as California's governor, last November was elected mayor of his adopted hometown of Oakland, a city at the eastern end of the Bay Bridge from San Francisco. Jerry Brown, as he prefers to be called today, says he settled in Oakland precisely because of its diverse population.

Brown says, "We're equally balanced among whites, blacks, Asians and Hispanics -- and we're talking to each other." He calls Oakland "an early-warning portrait of California" to find ways to accommodate its diversity. He maintains that "there's no reason why it shouldn't succeed as a multicultural state." But, he adds on a warning note, there is no choice.

Lou Cannon, who relates these comments by Brown, agrees with the former governor's assessment regarding the state's future. Only while Brown refers to Oakland, Cannon focuses on much larger and even more diverse Los Angeles. And he finds cause for hope.

"Without fanfare," Cannon writes in a recent demographic survey undertaken by the nonpartisan monthly magazine "California Journal," "metropolitan Los Angeles has become a world culture where multiracial diversity in the workplace and social situations is taken for granted and ethnic intermarriage is commonplace."

Working to ease the inevitable tensions of getting along, he says, is a rapid breaking down of former ghettos through increased social mobility and a rising living standard. In addition, minorities -- partly the large Hispanic population -- is learning to translate their numbers into political power in their communities and in the state government.

Cannon cites demographers as forecasting that "this pluralism -- if not necessarily the precise ethnic balance of Los Angeles -- will be the face of California in the next generation and, eventually, the face of the United States."

Over the last century, California on the Pacific Coast has come to replace New York on the Atlantic Coast as the main port of entry for newcomers entering the United States. Cannon writes that, "in the early decades of the 20th century, European immigrants came to New York in the hope of exchanging the poverty and oppression of the old world for the opportunity and freedom of the new. Modern immigrants with similar motivations," he continues, "arrive daily from Armenia, Russia, Iran, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and a variety of Latin and Asian nations. After all, he reasons, Los Angeles is home to more Mexicans than any city except Mexico City, and to more Koreans than any city except Seoul.

Al Martinez is a longtime local-news reporter and columnist for the "Los Angeles Times." He, too, sees that California cannot escape a future that hangs on how it answers Rodney King's question -- "Can we all get along?"

Writing in the same survey in "California Journal," Martinez concludes that, "existing in a single political climate, elements of the differences between us can either lead to wars bloodier than any we've ever seen, or to a rainbowed paradise more glorious than any we've ever imagined."

That's as true in "Little Saigon" as it is in Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and the other urban centers of the so-called Golden State of California.