MotherJones ND93: Can we all get along?

An ugly nativism is taking hold in our society. But blaming outsiders is hardly confined to conservatives: cultural separatists are also playing a part in the dividing of America.

INTRODUCTION As we approach the twenty-first century, no challenge presents a more profound test of our national moral resolve than how we accommodate our immigrants, legal and illegal. Neither stigmatizing "those people" nor withdrawing into racial or cultural factions will solve our urgent need to adapt our society to its changing demographics. This is the first in a series of articles following the lives of four very different California families as they try to make sense of the American dream.

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So long, KTC. His epigraph vanished beneath one quick sweep of my paint roller. In a world of worsening urban blight, there was something satisfying about wiping out graffiti, which seemed to cover every sign, wall, curb, truck, and freight train in Huntington Park, this neighborhood in Southeast Los Angeles.

For the past hour, no Anglos had gone by in the rush of cars on Slauson Avenue. I had the sudden realization that I might be the only white guy for miles around. And I was erasing gang members' vandalismo--akin to spitting in their eyes--an unwise act, even when in the company of local Latino kids taking part in a community anti- graffiti day. When an angry yell erupted from a passing car, it seemed a perfect opportunity to become a drive-by shooting victim.

As the car sped off, I recalled my first visit to Huntington Park a decade earlier, when it was a lot more white. Now the Census Bureau says it's the most Mexican town in the U.S.; nearly 60 percent of its fifty-six thousand residents were born in Mexico. This changing population recently elected the district's first Latina representative, Martha Escutia, to the state legislature.

In large part because of this kind of immigration influx, California will become the first mainland state in which whites will be less than a majority sometime between 1997 and 2003. By the year 2050, Census estimates show, whites nationwide will be about equal in number to what we now call minority groups.

We can blame or salute J. Hector St. John for our nation being called a "melting pot." During the American Revolution, the Frenchman wrote of the mix of ethnicities found nowhere else on earth: "Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men."

Four American families--named Northcross, Dunn, Escutia, and Ha--could accuse St. John of failing to predict the harsh truth that the melting pot does not work for everyone. The Northcross ancestors were snatched out of Africa and made slaves, and, until segregation ended, were excluded from assimilation. The Dunns left famine in Europe for the 1930s Dust Bowl, later fleeing Oklahoma only to encounter poverty and discrimination in California. Mexican and Chinese immigrants like the Escutias and the Has have long been seen as a disposable resource for picking crops or building railroads.

While success has come to these families, St. John's utopian theory remains largely unproven. The eighteenth-century America that the French writer praised was white and European. Today the continuing experiment called America is being put to the test of whether it can truly be a harmonious blend of races and social classes.

This test is occurring because of immigration, and it's happening in California first because California is a point where West meets East and North meets South. While the influx alarms some conservatives, there's little difference between many new California immigrants and my paternal grandparents, who came from the Ukraine at the turn of the century. They may be a different color but, as in the past, these immigrants bring fresh energy to our nation.

Unfortunately, the plentiful backbreaking jobs in coal mines and factories that were the entree to suburban wealth for my grandparents have disappeared. If recent events are an indication, today's immigrants may face a backlash equal to or worse than the anti- immigrant movements of the 1880s and 1920s--and the bashing could easily extend to minorities rooted here for generations.

Culture is becoming the defining issue of our times. Despite the predictions of optimists that the power of American culture would assimilate the new immigrants as it always has, America is segregating into camps beyond any past class or race differences. This separatism is tearing apart whatever bit of cohesiveness the mythical melting pot gave us, devolving into a free-for-all rainbow of hate pitting Koreans, blacks, Latinos, Hmong, whites, Vietnamese, and other groups against each other. The 1992 Los Angeles riots may have been the warm-up act for some very disagreeable times.

American separatists come in three major forms. The first are the products of what Labor Secretary Robert Reich terms the "secession of the successful." This de facto oligarchy sends its children to private schools, sometimes employs private police, and lives behind literal or symbolic walls. They are often but not always white, often conservative but sometimes liberal. They believe they can shut out the urban nightmare, something like a passenger on the Titanic feeling secure in a locked stateroom.

The second kind of separatist is quite involuntary. They are frozen out of the globalized economy. They are the millions of working, service-sector poor, the jobless factory hands, the homeless.

The third kind of separatist withdraws culturally. While immigrants have historically rushed to assimilate, their modern counterparts often live in isolation. This is happening in tandem with the so- called politically correct movements, the "cult of ethnicity" that, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., argues in The Disuniting of America, is fragmenting American society. Vocal ethnic leaders, along with whites weighted with guilt and the best intentions, are disassimilating ethnic groups.

All three kinds of separatism are fraught with problems of Babel- like--or, to be more current, Bosnian--proportions. The cultural and involuntary separatists have formed societies within a society, while the oligarchical separatists have circled the wagons. Kirk Knutsen, a policy analyst for the state of California, sees California (and the U.S.) heading down a Balkan path toward the disconnection of different cultural groups. If a multicultural society is to be successful, Knutsen believes, cultural groups must overlap each other, with the overlap making for a common culture. In this manner, each group can maintain identity, but still be part of the collective culture that we call America.

Cultural fragmentation, however, was given a big boost last summer, when California Governor Pete Wilson proposed federal measures to curb illegal immigration, including banning access to government-sponsored health care and education to illegals, and denying citizenship to their U.S.-born children. Wilson made his announcement just days after the Census Bureau reported that there are four million illegal immigrants in the country, half of them in California. Liberal groups attacked the plan as veiled racism, but the Republican governor, down to just 15 percent approval rating in the polls and facing reelection in 1994, saw his rating jump to 22 percent. Wilson had grabbed an issue that has worked well for politicians at other points in history, when a bad economy has combined with fears of "those people" taking jobs.

For Wilson was really talking to whites. Even though whites in California are a fast-shrinking majority, they enjoy a virtual electoral apartheid. Whites are now less than 55 percent of California's population (down from 67 percent in 1980), Latinos 27 percent, Asians less than 10 percent, blacks 7 percent. But in the 1992 presidential election, 82 percent of the voters were white, 7 percent Latino, 3 percent Asian, and 6 percent black, according to a Los Angeles Times survey. Ethnic leaders say the low turnout is due largely to the view in Mexico and most Asian nations that government is corrupt, even dangerous, and something to be shunned. Many Latinos and Asians are culturally separate enough to believe that the same is true here. And, politicians also have not courted their votes.

How the changing demographics and politics play out in California, a nation-state of more than thirty million, will tell a lot about America's future: Florida, Illinois, Texas, and New York are on the same track, with other states not far behind.

This transformation is happening in a global context. According to Paul Kennedy, author of Preparing for the Twenty-First Century, the East-West rivalry has perished and been replaced by a North-South division between haves and have-nots. Noting that 95 percent of all population growth between now and the year 2025 will occur in the underdeveloped Southern Hemisphere, Kennedy posits that the "push" factor of overcrowding and poverty will drive many more in the South to emigrate to the U.S. and Europe, "pulled" by opportunity in the relatively empty and wealthy countries.

These migrations to the U.S., combined with the championing of ethnic identity, bring with them a danger of clashing cultures only now being fully realized.

Harvard Professor Samuel P. Huntington has written that cultural, not nation-state, rivalries now dominate world politics. He notes that the world has seven or eight major civilizations: Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, and perhaps African. The "fault lines" where these cultures meet (such as Bosnia) are where post-Cold War conflicts will occur.

At least five of Huntington's major cultures are clattering together in California: the dominant Western, along with Latin American, Confucian, Japanese, and African. The others are present as well, but in relatively small numbers. The L.A. riots were not a "rebellion," as some like to say, nor were they like the 1960s unrest that had clear black-white overtones. They were conflicts between the cultures within our own borders.

I came into this project with some deep-seated liberal notions, and despite some seemingly neoconservative statements, I still have them. I don't think it's incompatible to be progressive and question the cultural separatists. In the current atmosphere of left-right, anti- intellectual polarization, any inquiry is labeled as racism. But cultural separatists can be just as racist as any white rednecks, and sometimes cripple the very people they want to help. According to a recent report, more than one million kids in California schools aren't fluent in English. The multiculturalists, worried about the loss of heritage, have championed bilingual education. But the result of this approach has been that many students are locked into native-tongue programs for years, and then pushed out as adults unable to cope in English. No studies are needed to know that employers won't be in a rush to hire many of these one million kids for any but the most menial jobs--resulting in more poverty, more backlash. The ultimate racism is to not equip people with the skills to succeed.

Similarly, the oligarchical separatists must be held accountable for withdrawing from society. The haves must find some way to help the have-nots--the involuntary separatists--at least if the haves want to reduce their fear of crime and other ills associated with the disenfranchised. It's time that all ideas are placed on the table, as I want to do on these pages over the next few years. My goal in studying California will be to find ways in which this new society can work, how the worst of the hate can be curbed. It's clear we have to reconcile culture and what it means to be an American.

This is a work in progress. Many questions remain to be answered. I'll be talking with liberals, conservatives, and those in the middle as the state goes through its demographic change. In a larger context, I'll be looking at four different communities: polyglot Los Angeles, conservative Orange County, the liberal San Francisco area, and the state's Midwest-like capital, Sacramento. Taken together, these communities are representative of the United States.

Michael Dunn

In 1930, Lillian Counts Dunn left the poverty of Oklahoma with her husband and two young children. The family strapped mattresses and quilts to the roof of an old Chevrolet and headed west. When they made it to California, the Dunns worked the fields, picking oranges. On May 4, 1931, Donald, then seventeen months old, was fed some windfall oranges the farmers gave them. The Dunns didn't know they were frostburned and rotten. The baby fell ill. "We don't treat nonresidents," Lillian was told at the hospital. That meant Mexicans and Okies. On May 10, Donald died of "acute enterocolitis."

The family endured. But when the price for picked cotton fell to sixty cents for a hundred pounds, Lillian went to the Cannery & Agricultural Workers' Industrial Union to join a strike. She had called hogs back in Oklahoma, and the leaders had her use her voice to "clean" fields by calling out to nonstriking workers.

On October 10, 1933, during a strike rally in the San Joaquin Valley town of Pixley, things took an ugly turn: farmers opened fire on several hundred strikers, including Lillian. Two pickers were killed, seven wounded. The violence tipped the strike, and seventy-five-cent cotton was won. It was one of the most successful farm strikes in California until Cesar Chavez came along many years later.

But that success wasn't enough. In early 1934, Lillian was forced to seek county relief food. When this was cut back on March 22, 1934, Lillian helped another woman lead a protest. The following day, the Visalia Times-Delta, the largest newspaper in the county, carried the headline:

COMMUNISTS LEAD ATTACK ON PIXLEY FOOD DEPOT

Communist Organizers Lillian Monroe and Lillian Dunn Incite Followers to Violence

The word "Communist" was new to Lillian. She had no idea what it meant. After a long court battle, she was jailed, even though pregnant. When released, she gave birth to a boy and named him Mike, after a sympathetic farmer who'd bailed her out.

Six decades later, Mike Dunn is semiretired, having been a partner in a chain of convenience stores. Mike lives in the two-year-old city of Laguna Hills, in the heart of southern Orange County, the most conservative area in California. Laguna Hills is very white--86 percent, according to an information sheet on the counter at City Hall. But the many who have moved here--often fleeing Los Angeles-- aren't necessarily ideologues; they just want a safe community away from gangs.

Mike doesn't feel all that safe, however. He often listens to a police scanner. The night before I first interviewed him more than a year ago, he heard a call about an elderly woman mugged by Mexican nationals at a nearby shopping center. Mike and his mother, Lillian, now eighty-seven, worry about immigration.

Mike echoes Governor Wilson's call to clamp down on illegal immigrants, saying that poverty among Latino immigrants has worsened, leading to more crime. His worry has led him to put his home up for sale; he wants to move into a gated community. "In ten years, I can see what's happened," Mike said. "And in twenty years, it will be unbearable. When my people came from Oklahoma, they settled in; they went to work; they went to school; they didn't go on welfare; they assimilated."

Crime came still closer to Mike not long after we first met. I wanted to meet his brother, Pat, and chatted by phone with Pat's wife, Sandy. She marveled at the success of the family. Ten days later, Sandy vanished. In another week and a half, her mummified body was found in the Mojave Desert.

Pat was convicted of Sandy's murder, largely on the grounds that he stood to inherit more than $2 million from her. He maintains his innocence. Mike believes his brother--at first he blamed Mexicans--and has spent $200,000 on the case, which is now on appeal. Lillian was crushed by what happened, and is now in an Orange County nursing home. The last time I talked with Mike's wife, Katie, she said that Mike's blood pressure was high and the family didn't want to talk to me further. "I've got to think about my grandchildren," she said. The whole family has been consumed by a crime that no walls could stop.

Martha Escutia

South of Orange County at the Mexican frontier, the U.S. Border Patrol makes the conservative estimate that each day 2,700 people enter America illegally. Most are Mexican nationals, coming to what Chicano activists call "Aztlan," the area from Texas to California, lands taken during the Mexican-American War.

On September 13, 1847, at the height of that war, General Winfield Scott's troops stormed the fort at Chapultepec, outside Mexico City. Juan Escutia and five other young cadets, refusing to surrender, wrapped themselves in the Mexican flag and leapt two hundred feet over the cliff that the fort stood upon. They became known as Los Ninos Heroes for their martyrdom against American imperialism.

Growing up in Mexico City in the 1930s, Raul Escutia was told he descended from Juan Escutia's kin. He was proud, but he didn't hate the U.S.; in 1946 he moved to Chicago. When Raul became a citizen in the early eighties, his patriotism was fierce, as was his attachment to the Republican party--he voted for both Reagan and Bush.

In 1955 Raul married Martha Sandoval, whose parents came to the U.S. as legal "guest workers" in 1944. In 1957 the couple had their first child, Martha. When the marriage crumbled, Martha Escutia moved in with her mother's parents, Ricardo and Marina Ovilla, who raised her in their East Los Angeles home.

In those days, East L.A. was the center of the awakening Chicano movement. In the summer of 1970, when Martha was twelve, a riot erupted between Chicano activists and police in a park eight blocks away; Los Angeles Times journalist Ruben Salazar was killed by sheriff's deputies. At that time, Latinos had no real voice in politics--there was only one in higher office.

Martha was a child of "firsts": first generation born in the U.S., first in her family to graduate from high school, then college, and finally Georgetown Law School. In 1992, she was elected as a Democrat to the California Assembly, becoming the first Latina to represent her newly created district in Southeast Los Angeles; she joined a record eleven Latinos now in the 120-member legislature in Sacramento.

"I always tell myself if it weren't for the generous immigration policy of the United States, I would not be here," Martha said. She is no career politician: she worked for nonprofit agencies such as the National Council of La Raza in Washington, D.C., specializing in immigration issues--a particularly tough job during the Reagan-Bush years. But neither is she like the Chicano activists who view Aztlan as theirs to retake from the American invaders.

"I came from a very conservative family," she said. "My family always told me, 'You're not Chicana, you're not Mexican-American. If you have to identify yourself as something, don't hyphenate yourself; you're either American or you're Mexican, but you can't be both.' So I never related to the so-called Chicano movement."

Martha is something of a Clinton Democrat--she's largely pushing economic issues. Her attitude is that you can't advance the social agenda if people are jobless. But she spent last fall keeping up with the rush of xenophobic developments that followed Governor Wilson's comments on immigration. Both U.S. senators from California, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, subsequently tried to outdo the governor, with Boxer calling for the National Guard to protect the U.S.-Mexico border.

Martha and the Latino caucus responded with a press conference to offer a moderate plan to stem immigration. But it ended in chaos when Cruz Bustamante, a farm-country Fresno Democrat, said, "We could not conduct business without the immigrant." Dumbfounded reporters asked if he supported illegal immigration. "My district requires it," he answered.

Bustamante, speaking for California's $18 billion agribusiness industry, exposed the ugly class edge of the immigration debate: Bustamante's farmers have trouble finding citizens willing to stoop in the rich California fields to pick the food the nation eats, at least at the wages the farmers want to pay. It's the same issue that Lillian Dunn confronted back in 1933.

Democratic lawmakers later introduced a bill proposing asset forfeiture of those who repeatedly employ illegal aliens, in the same way the government now takes assets of drug dealers. The bill, to be argued in 1994, will be the Democrats' weapon against Governor Wilson, hitting below his business-interests belt.

At the end of the legislature's 1993 session, lawmakers voted on their first major anti-immigration bill, which would require proof of citizenship or legal status to obtain a driver's license. Proponents argued that it would deny the undocumented the most common form of identification. But Martha spoke vehemently against the bill, saying it would do nothing to stop immigrants, who come to work, not to drive.

"I think our country is treading on thin ice," she said. "Voting for this bill is going to lead us down a slippery slope to Big Brotherism and race discrimination. In the final analysis only people who look like me and speak like me will be asked to show proof of residency. I cannot help the fact that I have dark hair, dark eyes, and I'm Latina--and that I speak with an accent."

Martha didn't convince her colleagues; the bill passed 51-13.

She fears that the backlash has only begun. "Maybe we're going into a second enlightenment," Martha said. "I hope it's not the Dark Ages. I think we're on the brink right now. It could be something great. Or it could be very, very dark."

Donald Northcross

Nearly four hundred miles north of Los Angeles is Sacramento, spiritually more like Des Moines or Oklahoma City than a California town, a resemblance not lost on the Hollywood filmmakers who come to make movies supposedly set in the Midwest.

While Martha Escutia is trying to make big changes from beneath the capitol dome, Donald Northcross, in the Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova, is working for change on a different scale, with a small group of black youths.

Sacramento is a long way from Ashdown, Arkansas, where Don, 34, grew up in the last days of the Old South. Ashdown is just north of Texas and west of Hope, President Clinton's hometown. In 1968, when students were offered the choice of attending either school, Don was one of the first black students to go to the white school. The black school, across the tracks, didn't have a pool; the white school did. Don wanted to learn how to swim, but when integration came, officials cemented over the pool at the white school.

Don's father worked at an Army depot, and also raised truck crops-- sweet potatoes, greens--plowing with a mule. The family picked cotton to make extra money. Unlike his father, who didn't make it past third grade, Don went to college at Northeast Louisiana University. He was idealistic in his ideas about fixing things in the black community. After an injury derailed a professional football career, he moved to Sacramento and became a sheriff's deputy.

His first assignment was working in the jail, where he grew angry at what he saw. "All the young black men, healthy, strong men, coming to the jail. I said, 'What a shame. We're not born that way.'" He read a newspaper story reporting that one in three black men is behind bars or on probation or parole, and later discovered that the number-one cause of death for young black men is homicide. Asking himself why, Don figured that many blacks come from broken homes.

"That was the power of the black community when I was a kid. We worked hard, but we took time out for each other. If we had that attitude today, we could get along instead of selling drugs and killing each other."

Don decided to create a community. In 1991 he began the OK Program, which stands for "Our Kids," at Mills Junior High School in Rancho Cordova. The idea was simple--black officers would each mentor several African-American boys. He involved all the African-American boys at school, hoping that in an atmosphere in which learning rather than ignorance was a status symbol, they would excel.

"You can't clean a fish before you catch him," Don said. "You got to catch him, then you clean him. So I don't care if a kid is gang- banging--those are the kids I want."

In each of its first two years, the voluntary program had more than sixty members--almost all the black youths in the school. Teachers report that the program has transformed most of the youths into responsible students. Each Saturday they attend a study hall, followed by basketball. Those who maintain good grades and behavior are rewarded with tickets to major-league sports events. At the end of the year, those who have succeeded are taken to Disneyland.

"We're doing this program because I'm concerned and because I'm a black man and I'm proud to be a black man," Don said. "There are some problems affecting us in this nation. It's my responsibility as a black man to straighten them out." The program at Mills costs about $10,000 per year, not counting his salary. The only thing keeping it from branching out is a lack of funds.

On one level, it seems the OK Program may be feeding into cultural separatism. One day when I was at Mills with Don, a girl asked him why there wasn't a program for girls.

"The Asian kids, the Hispanic kids, the white kids, they ask the same question," Don said. "It's important for them to understand that with limited funds and personnel, you attack the problem where it's the worst. Black males are more qualified to be a role model for young black males than anybody else."

Don's main priority is to extend the program, now in its third year, to girls and Latino students. He thinks of society as a football team. Position coaches train the different members, and in the end, they all come together as a team, which is analogous to Kirk Knutsen's collective culture. "If you train them all together, you get chaos," Don said. "We can have different positions and train for [them] individually. Once every ethnic group does that, we can start to move the ball."

Don works beyond the kids. Last spring, he organized a conference at a local state university to discuss the role of blacks in society. The panelists agreed that blacks have fallen into "victim mode"--that racism has been used as an excuse for not succeeding, though of course many blacks are involuntarily separated from society.

"My message to the students is that there is racism and discrimination, but you have to achieve in spite of it," Don told the audience. "There's not a white man in this country who stands outside my house and says I can't spend time with black kids."

Maria Ha

When the Japanese government challenged the regime of China's Chiang Kai-shek in the late 1930s, events were set in motion that would lead Maria Ha and her family to emigrate to the United States many years later.

During the Chinese-Japanese war in 1939, Maria's grandmother fled China for what was then the safety of Hanoi, Vietnam. A businesswoman and trader, she often stole back across the Chinese border to sell goods. Her son, who would become Maria's father, studied to become a mechanical engineer. He and his Vietnamese wife endured the war with the U.S. Near its end their daughter Maria was born.

When China invaded Vietnam for four weeks in 1979, the ethnic Chinese of Vietnam came under bad times. In 1980 Maria's family made the dangerous boat trip to Hong Kong, where they remained before being accepted as refugees by the U.S. Becoming sick to her stomach on the plane is the only recollection Maria has of the journey.

Her father could not get work of the stature he had had in Vietnam, so he took a job as a mover in San Francisco's Chinatown, where the family lives. But he instilled in his daughter the value of education, and she excelled. First she was accepted to academically exclusive Lowell High School and then to the University of California at Berkeley. Maria started her freshman year this past fall, at an institution at the heart of the multicultural debate.

A few years ago, Berkeley came under fire for a quota system limiting both white and Asian applicants. In one recent year, two thousand straight-A students from both groups were rejected. Whites now seem to be abandoning the school--applications by whites fell by 32 percent between 1986 and 1992. In their voting patterns and choices, whites are defunding public institutions.

Immigrants like Maria are the most harmed by the cutbacks. She worries that she won't be able to get by. Last summer, she worked two jobs, six days a week, to save money for school. "I guess my Dad likes education in the family, he likes us to have opportunity, so I just kind of followed," Maria said of what motivates her to work hard. She studies until 11:00 p.m. most nights, and two days a week she is in classes from morning to evening.

Next term, Maria will take a mandatory course on multicultural education. The issue is still raging on campus: last year, students rallied for a separate Asian-American studies department, battering their way into an administration building.

Not long after that confrontation, I interviewed a member of the Asian-American Student Association who took part. He said, "There's a broad distrust of whites," and informed me that students in his group might not want to talk to a white man.

"Are all whites looked at as being bad?" I asked.

"There were some white students in the takeover," he said. "These are white students who want to do the ethnic thing. They're not being accepted."

The ethnic-studies debate will continue. Maria said she's heard about the factionalism but does not understand why things should be so fragmented. Yet at Lowell High School, which has a policy that restricts Asians and whites each to 40 percent of the student body, Maria found that even though there was little tension, people hung out with their own ethnic group.

"It's like usually Asians hanging around Asians and Caucasians around Caucasians. I don't know why. It just happens that way. I mean, you have more in common with them or something."

UC Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien, whose cultural background is similar to Maria's, feels strongly about the power of new immigrants. "This is the future vitality of the society," he said when I told him about Maria and how hard she is working. He points out that immigrant-bashing is not new. "In the nineteenth century, the same statements were made by many political leaders. People forget the fight has gone on and on."

When I began this project more than a year ago, I didn't know what to expect. Now, after dozens of interviews and thousands of notes, I have more questions than when I started.

In the coming year, I hope to find more answers. Does having a shared culture mean we have to be Eurocentric, or is there a different path? I want to better understand why, in Orange County last summer, out of 240 housing projects under construction, 68 are gated communities. I don't yet know that walled culture any better than I know Maria Ha's. But of those I've interviewed so far, I know Maria least of all. Perhaps the Asian student leader was correct when he said it would be impossible for me to understand Confucian culture. But I want to try.

I'll be talking with young men in the OK Program, to determine whether it is separatist or team-buildi