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Immigration is changing the nation's face

This article was written for The Economist magazine. Economic expansion may have transformed the physical face of California, but by far the greatest social and economic changes in the past 10 years have been wrought by foreign immigration.

The signs are everywhere. The port city of Long Beach, once known as "Iowa by the sea," is now home to 40,000 Cambodians. Daly City outside San Francisco, once a mostly white, blue-collar town, is now called "Little Manila" because of its large Filipino population. Fresno, a farming town in the Central Valley, has become home to 30,000 Hmong, a Laotian hill tribe.

A stretch of shops and malls between Garden Grove and Westminster in Orange County conjures up a vision of what Saigon might look like, if it were lucky enough to enjoy American-style affluence. Some 80,000 Vietnamese refugees live in the area and thousands more visit it on weekends to shop and socialize.

Los Angeles's Hispanic barrio, the destination of a flood of new Latin American immigrants (both legal and illegal), has spread far beyond its traditional core in the east side of the city out to a string of suburban towns.

Asians and Hispanics helped to build California, even if they got little of the credit. But the speed with which the racial makeup of California's population is changing is probably unprecedented anywhere else in peacetime. Of the nearly 6-million people added to California's population in the 1980s, an estimated 40 percent came from abroad, according to the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, a private think tank.

Immigration and the higher birthrate among ethnic minorities have meant that 75 percent of the population growth has been accounted for by Hispanics, Asians and blacks. Minorities made up 33 percent of the state's population in 1980. This year that figure is 40 percent, and soon after 2000 whites themselves will be in a minority _ or so the Center predicts.

Such an influx of newcomers has touched almost every aspect of life. Though racial discrimination exists, modern Californians are admirably tolerant of each other. Few other societies could have absorbed so many different types of people so rapidly without violent conflict. Instead, Californians are proud of their cultural diversity.

Able to draw on the talents and energies of a huge pool of people, the economy has boomed. Silicon Valley boasts some 400 electronics companies owned by Asian-Americans. Many Chinese from Hong Kong and Taiwan arrive with plenty of money. Japanese firms have invested over $8-billion in California, about a quarter of total Japanese investment in America, and employ 68,000 workers. Koreans have become shopkeepers everywhere. Mexicans and other Latin Americans have filled millions of low-wage jobs.

And yet California's experience is challenging the conventional American ideal of assimilation. The melting pot took generations to work even among racially similar European immigrants. Among the array of skin colors and racial characteristics in California's population, it may never work. And though the state's Asians and Hispanics have readily embraced American ways, they also want to change them to reflect their own histories and values.

In addition, divisions exist between new immigrants and the second, third and fourth generations, who often share no more than surnames and appearance. Even within immigrant groups, the differences can be significant. Though lumped together as "Asians," Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotian hill tribes have little in common, except perhaps histories of mutual animosity.

The first wave of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees in the 1970s was drawn from those countries' educated, urban elites. The second wave in the 1980s consisted mostly of poor, illiterate farmers. Education has been where tensions have surfaced most visibly.

Last year Stanford University in Palo Alto, one of the country's top institutions, altered a required humanities course by adding Asian, Hispanic, black and female authors to a reading list of conventional European classics. Though such revisions are normal at universities, the move provoked attacks from political conservatives.

Berkeley, the state-owned University of California's most prestigious campus, has infuriated Chinese and white parents by operating a complex quota system (though it does not like the word quota) to achieve a racial balance which reflects that of the state as a whole.

"We want to create a mixed leadership group for 15 years down the road," says Michael Heyman, Berkeley's chancellor for 10 years until his retirement in July. But admitting more blacks and Hispanics has meant keeping out better qualified Asians (mostly Chinese and Japanese) and whites. If admissions were made on academic criteria alone, concedes Heyman, these two groups would account for 98 percent of undergraduates. This year's class of new entrants is 22 percent Hispanic and 7 percent black.

Despite such efforts, the behavior of Berkeley's students is not an encouraging omen. The campus is balkanized, with undergraduate groups organized along racial lines and little fraternization between students of different ethnic types. To break down these divisions, Berkeley plans to double the amount of university supplied undergraduate housing.

Heyman's successor as chancellor is Chang-Lin Tien, the first person of Asian ancestry to hold such a senior post in any big American university. His assignment is to lead Berkeley toward its declared goal of building "a multicultural, multiracial university community."

Tien has his work cut out for him. In fact California's educators have got it upside down. Rather than lowering standards at the university level, the effort to create a more equitable racial mix should be in the primary and secondary schools, where students from every background could be raised to the standards of privileged whites and so could compete on an equal basis.

Unfortunately, California's schools are barely able to cope because the state's aging, mostly white voters do not want to spend more on schools. They are making a terrible mistake. One in six Californian schoolchildren was born abroad. Nearly 30 percent of school children have parents who speak a language other than English at home, and half of these children do not themselves speak English well enough to be taught in it. Over 80 different languages are spoken by students in the city of Los Angeles's public schools, where only 15 percent of students are white and 62 percent are Hispanic.

Alarmingly, the number of bilingual teachers in Los Angeles is actually declining, and they are in chronically short supply throughout the state. Dropout rates among Hispanic students are high. Since well over half of new workers over the next 10 years are expected to be Hispanic, this bodes ill for the state's labor force. Hispanics now represent a quarter of California's population. By 2000 the number is expected to be 30 percent.

Some fear that a huge, unskilled Hispanic underclass will emerge whose poverty and alienation will rival that of America's poor blacks. That does not have to happen. But if Hispanic children are not brought more directly into California's affluent mainstream, primarily through education, it could.

An impoverished Mexican peasant may be grateful for the chance to be a janitor or fruit picker. His American-born children will expect something better.

1990 The Economist Newspaper Limited.