SAN FRANCISCO — The bald statistic released the other day informing us that the population of the state of California was no longer dominated by a Caucasian majority, having given way to a fast-growing coalition of Hispanics and Asians, should have surprised no one.
Looking at California’s profile — from population mix, technology, education to entertainment and culinary variety, among other things — is to take a peek at the United States of tomorrow.
No one is suggesting that Lincoln, Neb., is going to evolve into Los Angeles completely or anytime soon, but you get the idea — the West Coast is showing the way, which isn’t exactly breaking news.
What is new and revelatory is the thinking that has gone into explanations for the sociological development of California’s ethnic mix.
A new book by award-winning historian Ronald Takaki (“Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II,” published by Little, Brown) scrutinizes the contradictions of the “good war” with all the honesty and maturity expected of this distinguished scholar. The book goes beyond California’s border, and Takaki examines the hypocrisies of the period.
The war for the “four freedoms” was fought by a Jim Crow (segregated) army; jobs in the “arsenal of democracy” were not open to all regardless of race; bloody race riots in the cities denied “freedom from fear” to blacks, Mexicans and other minorities; the fight against Nazism was accompanied by the failure of the U.S. government to rescue Jewish refugees; and the leader of the free world signed the executive order for the internment of Japanese Americans into concentration camps.
Takaki contends that the minorities were not just victims, but important actors in history, insisting that their nation live up to its founding principle of equality and defend the world’s incomplete — but best hope for — democracy.
Takaki’s premise is that minorities fought for a “double victory” against fascism abroad and prejudice at home.
A uniform did not guarantee respect. Takaki cites many cases in which minority servicemen faced discrimination and violence during and following the war. Daniel Inoue, later to become a U.S. senator from Hawaii, lost an arm in the course of fighting in Italy. Takaki recounts his experience in San Francisco on his way home: “Entering a barbershop with his empty right sleeve pinned to his army jacket covered with ribbons and medals, Captain Inouye was told: ‘We don’t serve Japs here.’ “
So where do we go from here? Has the U.S. population matured out of its prejudices? Does the patriotic instinct among minority Americans mean race problems are over? Will California be overrun by Asian software programmers and their relatives, who will then get busy starting ethnic carry-out restaurants? Will education accomplishment levels be altered by kindergartens full of Hispanics?
The darker version of the argument goes like this: The Anglo-Saxon group of Americans in the 20th century contributed to a society that by all measures was the most advanced in history, “so why do we have to share it with newcomers?”
I suppose that mean and short-sighted view was akin to my own narrow but innocent, sort of tongue-in-cheek, quip expressed during university days that “Western civilization peaked in 1950, with its epicenter in West Los Angeles.” But, so what?
Takaki, who is a third-generation American of Japanese heritage, once asked rhetorically “You want to see how America will appear in the next century? Look at Hawaii.”
His prediction has come true in California, at least for now. California, and the great race and ethnic syndromes in the rest of America, are unfinished pieces of work. But as “works in progress,” they are not bad.
The positive changes that these syndromes highlight are reasons why California is on the leading edge of technological, intellectual, political and social change in the world.
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