LOS ANGELES, June 30—At some unknown moment between now and July 1, 2001, if demographers are right, California will become the first big state in which non-Hispanic whites are officially no longer a majority. Or, to put it another way, California will become by far the largest proving ground for what it may eventually be like to live in a United States in which no one racial or ethnic group predominates.
The California of postwar popular imagination, of the Beach Boys and the John Birch Society, of Disneyland and monochromatic Pleasantvilles full of aerospace workers, is not dead. But it is, literally, dying fast. Non-Hispanic whites now account for about three-quarters of the deaths in California, and barely a third of the births. As recently as 1970, the state was 80 percent white.
Some experts argue that this shift, fueled by millions of new immigrants, mostly Latin American and Asian, and the higher birth rates of foreign-born residents has already taken place and has yet to be reflected in estimates by the state Department of Finance only because of counting glitches. It has already had striking social, political, economic and psychic effects, including bitterly fought ballot initiatives to cut government services for illegal immigrants, and to end state affirmative action programs and bilingual education. Polls show that the disappearing white majority is generally more pessimistic than other groups.
But with the state’s economy booming again, and the overall population expected to grow by close to 18 million in the next 25 years, Californians are grappling anew with the meaning of this momentous shift, which the State Department of Finance now projects will happen sometime in the next year, and many are finding reasons for optimism.
“Who knows when that line is crossed, but it surely will be,” said Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat. “I believe leadership requires one to look on the bright side. There’s no question that a more diverse population creates some potential discomforts and even potential conflicts, but it also brings great strengths.”
The demographic shift has begun to change the state’s politics as scores of Hispanic voters have registered as Democrats in a backlash spurred by Republican-led campaigns against illegal immigration. That is complicating efforts by Gov. George W. Bush of Texas to make inroads in a state where his aides believe his Southwestern brand of Republicanism should be appealing.
In Los Angeles, where the demographic transition has already occurred, it is at once invisible and omnipresent, apparent in the miles of neighborhoods where signs are printed in every language but English. This city has the largest population of Koreans outside Korea and the largest concentration of Iranians in the Western world, a polyglot port of entry comparable to New York at the turn of the last century. The region’s latest gang battle is between Hispanics and Armenians in the once lily-white suburb of Glendale.
California is not the first state where non-Hispanic whites will not constitute a majority; they do not in Hawaii, whose population is mainly Asian and Pacific Islander. In the past, there have been times when they have not been a majority in New Mexico, while before the Civil War, South Carolina had a black majority.
But California is the biggest state to experience the shift, and for longtime residents, the changes seem breathtaking. Just 40 years ago, the most common language of foreign-born Californians was English, reflecting the population of British and Canadian immigrants, said Peter Schrag, the former editorial page editor of The Sacramento Bee and the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” (1998), a study of the state government’s failures to deal with social and economic change.
“In the history of the state, we’ve gone up and down on this issue, and there’s a kind of inherent ambivalence,” Mr. Schrag said of the demographic diversity. “But a lot of it is conditioned by economic circumstances. When times are good, we like these folks, because they give us cheap labor. And when times are bad, we say, ‘Who are these damn Mexicans taking our jobs away or using public welfare?’ I’m not saying that’s a cycle we’re fated to live with for the rest of our existence, but it’s been the pattern.”
The prevailing classification scheme of demographic groups is itself fraught with anomalies. “Hispanic” is an ethnic description, not a racial one, that lumps together Latin Americans of all descriptions: whites, blacks, mixed-race people, and descendants of Mayans, Aztecs, Incas and other Indian groups.
Similarly, “white” in the California usage can include immigrants from the Middle East who may be dark skinned. By this standard, some analysts argue that Californians of Anglo-European ancestry have actually been a minority here since sometime in the late 1980’s.
One such analyst is Ron Unz, the Republican millionaire who sponsored the 1998 measure to end bilingual education in the public schools in an effort to help forge what he sees as the state’s best hope: a new multiethnic assimilationism that could avoid the racial wars of the past.
“Asians and Latinos are intermarrying at 30, 40, 50 percent rates, so the reality of the melting pot is stronger than ever,” Mr. Unz said. “But the ideology has been driven out of the public arena. Very few members of the media or politicians are talking in terms of glorifying and ratifying the melting pot, so whether assimilation is doing well or not depends a lot on how you define the terms.”
When California joined the union 150 years ago, it was the nation’s most diverse state, with a population of international adventurers drawn by the Gold Rush. But beginning with the Southern California real estate boom of the 1880’s, Midwestern whites poured in, and ever since, the state has followed cyclical patterns of welcoming, and then rejecting, immigrants, from the Asian exclusion laws of the late 19th century to Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure sponsored by the Republican governor at the time, Pete Wilson, to cut off social services for illegal immigrants. Blacks have never been the presence here that they have in other large, industrialized states.
The current estimated population of 34 million includes 17.4 million non-Hispanic whites, 10.7 million Hispanics, 3.9 million Asians or Pacific Islanders and 2.3 million blacks.
Anxiety over immigration seems to have abated. By 1998, polls found that fewer than 10 percent identified either legal or illegal immigration as a major concern, and recent surveys by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research group, show residents about evenly divided over whether immigrants are a benefit or a burden, with whites the most skeptical. In various surveys, Hispanics, who are expected to surpass non-Hispanic whites in total population by 2025 and become an absolute majority by 2040, express more optimism about the future.
“Optimism is alive in the barrios,” said Harry P. Pachon, a political scientist who directs the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization with branches at the Claremont Graduate University and the University of Texas. “It is constantly being renewed by an influx of immigrants and however bad things are, relative to the home country, things are better here.
“The dispersion of a population of color throughout California means that white Californians now routinely see others who are unlike them,” Dr. Pachon added. “So at a political level, the anti-immigration rhetoric has subsided. But nativist groups are sitting out there in the wings, and we can’t underestimate how some of that is bubbling under the surface and may erupt in an economic downturn.”
Nearly three million legal immigrants came to California between 1980 and 1994, and perhaps another two million entered illegally. Analyses are divided over the net costs and benefits, though a rough consensus suggests that the short-term costs have been high and the long-term benefits are potentially great, as new generations of immigrants assimilate and fuel the economy.
“This plurality that we have is what allows us to be so creative,” said Maria Contreras-Sweet, the state’s Mexican-born secretary of business, transportation and housing. “In Silicon Valley or wherever, as you’re developing a product, you’re doing so mindful of the different needs and cultural nuances of world markets.”
The political implications of the change are hard to predict. Hispanics accounted for nearly all of the increase of one million registered voters over the last decade, and went from about 4 percent of the electorate in the 1990 gubernatorial election to 14 percent two years ago, while whites declined to 74 percent from 84 percent in the same period and blacks shrunk to 7 percent from 8 percent. The new Hispanic voters are predominantly Democratic, in what is regarded as a protest against Mr. Wilson and Proposition 187.
Yet in other ways, surveys show, including a recent extensive statewide sampling by the nonpartisan Field Institute of San Francisco, the overall ideology of Hispanic voters is similar to California voters on the whole, with nearly half calling themselves middle-of-the-road. On some issues, like abortion, Hispanic voters tend to be more conservative than other groups as a whole.
And though California is often celebrated as the crucible of trends, and other big states like Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois are on the road to becoming similarly diverse, demographers note that the nation will not catch up to California’s diversity until midcentury, and even then small, interior states may remain disproportionately white.
“It’s not the precursor for the rest of the country,” said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica. “A lot of white, baby-boomer retirees are going to be moving to the Rocky Mountain West and the South Atlantic states and other high-amenity states.”
But even some of the most pessimistic critics of California’s experience find hope in the prospect of diversity and rising intermarriage.
“The California that I love is incipiently Hawaii,” said Mike Davis, who wrote “City of Quartz” and other studies of the California dream’s downside. “That’s not to embrace multiculturalism, everybody in their little box, but to embrace all the leakage and the fact that the boxes don’t work anymore. Here in L.A. you have this seashore that could be Polynesian, but it’s been owned by Midwesterners for most of the 20th century who built this Puritan city on the edge of the Pacific. For generations, Hawaii’s been trying to break out of that, and there’s a real chance for that again this generation.”