Tustin High School students had gathered in the gymnasium to watch an “air guitar” competition between a black group performing Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation and a white group lip-synching the Rolling Stone’s “Start Up,” when things turned ugly.
After an announcement that the Rolling Stone routine had won first place, groups of blacks and whites seated in the bleachers suddenly began calling each other “honkies” and “niggers.”
“I couldn’t believe what was happening,” Rose Silguero, 16, a junior said after the confrontation. “I was so panicky my hands were shaking. I wanted to cry. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, why does this have to happen here?’ ”
The incident last March offers evidence of what some say is a disturbing trend in Orange County: that as this onetime outpost of white suburbia becomes increasingly urbanized and ethnically diverse, racial tensions are increasing.
There have been reports of skinhead attacks in Huntington Beach, of racist literature distributed on high school campuses and at shopping centers in Fullerton, and of mud and paint splashed on Little Saigon freeway signs. And recently, a black family in Laguna Hills returned home and found their house vandalized, its walls spray painted with racial slurs.
While there are no Orange County statistics on hate crimes, the rash of recent incidents comes at a time when hate crimes are on the rise nationally and in Los Angeles County, where they jumped 32% in the first half of 1990.
Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, said the county is at an important crossroads: It must either accept a destiny as a cosmopolitan area with a harmonious blend of cultures, or cling to the parochialism of the past, paving the way for future racial discord.
” . . . Right-wing groups that spew a lot of bigotry are all that some people know about Orange County,” said Kennedy, who runs the county-funded commission formed to promote racial understanding. “This is a time for us to change that perception.”
The Laguna Hills incident was roundly condemned by community leaders, including Sheriff Brad Gates.
“These are the most despicable individuals that I can think about,” Gates said. “Anybody that can steal about in someone’s home and terrorize a family should be handled accordingly.”
He added, “We had several incidents in the last month or so. It’s pretty hard to gauge whether (hate crimes) are on the rise. But obviously any responsible person would not like to see this continue in our community.”
In addition to speaking out after the Laguna Hills incident, Gates also recently sent a memorandum to his deputies urging them to be alert to possible hate crimes and sensitive in their handling of such cases.
Some community activists say that relations among the county’s multitude of racial and ethnic groups are tenuous at best and likely to deteriorate if economic conditions worsen.
“I think at this point the economy has been viable enough to keep potential tensions under wraps,” said William Billingsley, a UC Irvine doctoral candidate studying race relations. “But if there are serious economic difficulties in the future, this could be a potentially explosive situation.”
Only recently, with the unprecedented infusion of minorities, has Orange County begun to grapple with the complex social and economic conflicts inherent in a multiethnic society.
Historically, the county evolved as a homogeneous, bedroom community for whites fleeing urban crime, pollution and other ills that some attributed to increasing numbers of blacks, Latinos and Asians moving into Los Angeles. A Ku Klux Klan stronghold in the 1920s and later a place where the John Birch Society was active, Orange County earned a reputation as a national symbol of unbridled conservatism.
Richard Orozco, the first Latino appointed as an Orange County Municipal judge, based in Santa Ana, remembers his initial impression of the county when he took office in 1976: “lily white.”
“You’d go to a restaurant or to the movies and it was white,” said Orozco, who was raised in Los Angeles. “I went to a Mexican restaurant in Laguna Niguel and I was the only Hispanic in there except for the waiters.”
But all that is changing.
For, just as Los Angeles became increasingly Latino in the 1960s, Orange County is undergoing a similar metamorphosis today. With a gross product about the same as the entire nation of Argentina, the county has become a magnet for minorities attracted by a wealth of economic opportunities.
The most dramatic changes seem to be occurring in the northern Orange County. Because of lower housing costs and proximity to Los Angeles, Koreans, Vietnamese, Mexicans and other immigrants are forever changing the complexion of middle- and working-class white neighborhoods in Fullerton, Garden Grove and Westminster.
In addition, more affluent non-white families are forging farther south into planned communities such as Mission Viejo and Laguna Niguel, challenging Orange County’s reputation as the land of suburban white flight.
“What is so astonishing about this current transformation is that it has occurred almost overnight,” said County of Orange demographer William Gayk. “If the trend continues, we will have something similar to what’s occurred in L.A. County.”
Consider, he said, that 20 years ago 90% of Orange County residents were white; in 1990, that number dropped to 75% of 2.2 million people. And according to current projections, one in three residents will be Latino or Asian by the year 2000. Blacks will account for another 2% of the population.
A better barometer of the county’s future is the public schools. In 1970, whites made up 86% of students in grades kindergarten through 12. This school year, 44% are Latino, Asian or black.
In Santa Ana, only a few schools have any white students left, said Khamchong Luangpraseut, director of the Indochinese program for Santa Ana Unified, the county’s largest school district.
Orange County has no central clearinghouse that keeps track of racially motivated crimes. They can be reported to local law enforcement agencies, the FBI or the Human Relations Commission, among other agencies. Often they go unreported because the victims fear further repercussions.
However, a number of racially motivated incidents have drawn attention in recent months:
* Late last month, in Orange, a newlywed couple--the wife is Jewish and her husband Catholic--found that their car had been vandalized, its dashboard marked with a swastika and an anti-Semitic death message scrawled in the dust on its side. The couple reported a similar incident earlier this year: Someone drew a swastika in the dust of the husband’s windshield. Orange police said they were investigating the incident as possible religious terrorism. The couple has since moved.
* Twice in the last three weeks, rock-wielding vandals shattered a glass door at the front of the Anaheim Korean Presbyterian Church in attacks that Anaheim police said appeared to be hate crimes. In the first incident on Nov. 13, messages including “get out now” were written in chalk on a church sidewalk and an office blackboard.
* In August, a 15-year-old Garden Grove girl was disfigured in a brawl between two groups of young people. Amber Jefferson, the daughter of a white mother and black father, initially told authorities that she had been attacked because she was black. The district attorney rejected her claims, saying that the incident was sparked by a confrontation between two girls over a boy. Still, for a time the incident became a cause celebre for civil rights activists and helped to focus attention on racial tensions in the county.
* In June, three young whites described as skinheads attacked a 26-year-old black man in the back parking lot of a Huntington Beach shopping center. The victim told police his assailants were working on a car when one of them yelled a racial slur at him. When he yelled back, they began beating and kicking him. He said he managed to run away after one of the men threatened him with a knife.
* In January, a white supremacist from Anaheim was arrested after allegedly walking into a Fullerton pizza restaurant and threatening to kill a Jewish cook. Martin Dayton Cox, 23, an ex-convict who was once bodily thrown off the “Oprah Winfrey Show,” also listed the cook’s name and place of employment on a white-supremacy group’s recorded message line that urges callers to hate Jews, blacks and other minorities.
* And in November, the Laguna Hills home of Delano De Silva was vandalized, its walls and furniture painted with racial slurs. De Silva, an insurance underwriter, was born in Panama but is now a U.S. citizen and Air Force veteran. It was his 14-year-old son, a student at Laguna Hills High School, who returned home and found the house vandalized. Sheriff’s investigators called the incident a “classic hate crime” and speculated that it was committed by youths, possibly members of a skinhead gang.
Officials such as Kennedy of the Human Relations Commission say incidents such as the one in Laguna Hills provide evidence that as Orange County becomes more ethnically diverse, it must change.
“I think the County of Orange more than any other area has a challenge to change,” said Korean American Assn. President Ho Young Chung, a 56-year-old insurance agent from Westminster. Whites “have no choice but to accept that challenge and find a harmonious way to live together.”
Many whites, however, apparently do not believe that racism is a major problem. A Times poll last year found that whites ranked prejudice lowest on a list of concerns including crime, drugs, unemployment, moral decline, the economy, the budget deficit, AIDS and foreign trade. Ironically, the same poll found that blacks believe they encounter more discrimination in Orange County than anywhere else in the Southland.
“A significant part of the problem in Orange County,” said Kennedy, “is that people do not acknowledge that racism is a problem. Everyone says, ‘some skinheads jumped a Vietnamese after school. It’s just an isolated incident.’ ”
Demographic experts say these kinds of conflicts are inevitable when the old order gives way to a more culturally diverse county. But how can a community defuse racial tensions before they escalate?
Latino rights activist Amin David is focusing his attention on the schools. David, president of Los Amigos, a Latino activist group, is among a growing number of community leaders and scholars lobbying for ethnic studies classes as a required part the college curriculum.
“I envision something that would embody the histories of the dominant minorities and their contributions to our society,” David said. “Something to give the Anglo a small handle on us.”
Ethnic awareness programs are already under way at a handful of county schools. At La Quinta, a public high school in Westminster, Youth Leadership for Action, a group of three white and four Asian students concerned about an increase in racial incidents, is working to fight prejudice by sponsoring regular cultural activities for their fellow students.
The demographic changes at La Quinta are typical of what has occurred at many public schools in the county: 10 years ago, 71% of the students were white. Today 42% are white, 32.2% are Latino and 24.7% are Asian.
The troubling results, some students say, are self-imposed segregatation in lunchrooms, racially motivated gang violence and mutual distrust of other ethnic groups.
“I think that unless there are programs initiated either in the school or community that will make people aware that things are changing and diversity isn’t always bad, there are going to be problems,” said Qui Nguyen, 18, president of Youth Leadership for Action’s ethnic awareness council. “We’ve got to do something to get that message out.”