Sometime in 1987 or 1988, my dad and I drove to Santa Ana for some reason I can no longer recall. While there, we saw the growing Latino community, made up largely of immigrants from Mexico. My dad pointed to a billboard in Spanish and said to me, “when I was a kid this whole area was white and everyone spoke English.” My reaction was a shrug – so what if that’s how it was in the ’60s, this is how it is in the ’80s. I didn’t care.
It’s one of many, many vignettes I recall from my youth in Orange County in the 1980s and 1990s that indicate white unease at the growing Latino presence in their communities – an unease that is still very much there (just a few years ago I was visiting my parents and stood in on a conversation with neighbors worried about their property values because a Latino family moved in down the street). But that unease, so often expressed as anti-immigrant sentiment and anti-immigrant politics, is a very generational thing.
Whereas my parents’ generation grew up believing Latino immigrants were strangers and foreigners, my generation generally views them instead as neighbors, sometimes as friends, sometimes even (in my case, after my marriage) as family. It’s a stark difference that speaks to the importance of social and political environments and attitudes in shaping the views of whole generations – and how those experiences shape our present politics.
In 1960s California, many young people grew up as supporters of the Civil Rights Movement. But that happened in a very specific context. 1960s California was seen as a white California, a place where white people of European ancestry dominated, a paradise for whites. People of color, primarily African Americans but also some Latinos, whether immigrants from the mid-century or descendants of the original European inhabitants of the state, were here in smaller numbers.
And more importantly, they lived in segregated neighborhoods. Blacks were seen as living in only Watts and Oakland, Latinos seen as living in only East LA and East San Jose. Reality was more complex and the patterns of settlement more diverse, but that was the overall assumption.
That made it easy for many white Californians to support the Civil Rights Movement – but only to a point. It was easy to say “don’t discriminate against those people living in another part of the state.” But when the prospect of sharing communities with non-whites was raised, white Californians reacted very negatively.
In 1964 California voters approved Prop 14, which overturned a ban on residential segregation, by a 2-1 margin (the US Supreme Court later threw out the law). Two years later one of the leading proponents of Prop 14, the actor Ronald Reagan, was elected governor on a platform of white backlash to the Civil Rights Movement in the wake of the Watts Riots.
Many Baby Boomers rejected those things. But they were still very much shaped by their time and by the notion that California is white, Latinos are foreign, and immigration is unusual, strange, and maybe even threatening.
My generation – the Millennials – are very much shaped by our time and by the notion that California is diverse, Latinos are just as much a part of this state as anyone else, and that immigration is normal.
The New York Times has found a very similar pattern across the country in a very good article in today’s paper. More over the flip.
In the wake of the new Arizona law allowing the police to detain people they suspect of entering the country illegally, young people are largely displaying vehement opposition – leading protests on Monday at Senator John McCain’s offices in Tucson, and at the game here between the Florida Marlins and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Meanwhile, baby boomers, despite a youth of “live and let live,” are siding with older Americans and supporting the Arizona law.
The Times shows research and statistics that back up the points I made, and quotes from poll respondents who say things I’ve heard very frequently in Southern California:
Some older Americans acknowledge that how they grew up has shaped their opinions. Mike Lombardi, 56, of Litchfield, Ariz. – one of 1,079 respondents in the Times/CBS poll conducted from April 28 to May 2 – said his support for his state’s new law stemmed partly from the shock of seeing gaggles of immigrants outside Home Depot, who he assumed were illegal. Comparing the situation to his youth in Torrance, Calif., in a follow-up interview, he said, “You didn’t see anything like what you see now.”
And younger folks are quoted as saying it’s no big deal, something older folks should get used to the way we younger folks have:
Nicole Vespia, 18, of Selden, N.Y., said older people who were worried about immigrants stealing jobs were giving up on an American ideal: capitalist meritocracy.
“If someone works better than I do, they deserve to get the job,” Ms. Vespia said. “I work in a stockroom, and my best workers are people who don’t really speak English. It’s cool to get to know them.”
Her parents’ generation, she added, just needs to adapt.
“My stepdad says, ‘Why do I have to press 1 for English?’ I think that’s ridiculous,” Ms. Vespia said, referring to the common instruction on customer-service lines. “It’s not that big of a deal. Quit crying about it. Press the button.”
To be clear, as the NYT article points out, younger voters aren’t uniformly unconcerned about immigration. The difference is that those young people who might agree that immigration is a problem are generally fueled by economic arguments and not by a sense that the immigrants are interlopers who don’t belong. Those young people who do see immigration as a problem tend to rank it very low on the list of problems we face, whereas older generations rank it much higher. And not all young Californians are accepting of our state’s racial diversity.
And while there are many Boomers who never did buy into the notion that Latino = immigrant = foreign = undesirable, a huge number still believes that their America is a white America, with room for other people, but that those others should behave a certain way – and if they don’t, then it is some kind of existential threat to the very fabric of the nation.
Ultimately the generation gap on immigration is another feature of the primary motivating force in American society and politics today – a battle between those determined to defend a failed status quo in order to reclaim some long-lost past vision of America, and those who understand the status quo has failed and who reject obsolete 20th century values in order to embrace change in a diverse, sustainable society.
Unfortunately, the dying lash of a vanishing society can cause a great deal of damage. As those in their 50s and 60s refuse to let go of the 20th century and accept a more diverse 21st century, they have the power and the means to impose quite a lot of ugly laws, backed by even uglier prejudices, as part of their effort to deny reality and delay change. It’s our job as progressive Californians to make sure that doesn’t succeed – and that we embrace the California of 2010, instead of pining for a warped misinterpretation of the California of 1960.