O.C. Minorities Upbeat About Future

TIMES STAFF WRITER

June Foley and Gloria Garcia may both live in Orange County, but they have vastly different visions of where the place is headed. Where one sees murky and difficult times, the other envisions a future full of promise.

Garcia, who moved to Orange County 10 years ago from Mexico City, is so pleased with her Garden Grove neighborhood that she and her husband are saving to buy their first house there. Foley, who moved south from Los Angeles 43 years ago and now lives in Orange, feels less secure.

"As long as the county keeps getting more and more people, I don't see how it could possibly get better," she said. "At the apartment complex I lived in four years ago, I was the only one who spoke English. It's kind of odd to think you're living in the country you were born in and you feel like it's a foreign country."

As Orange County rolls toward a new millennium, a recent Times Orange County poll finds that the county's racial and ethnic groups are split about the future, with Latinos, Asians and other minorities more upbeat and more bullish about growth and development than white residents. When asked to describe the quality of life in the next decade, given Orange County's increasing diversity, 31% of whites said it would get worse and only 18% said it would improve.

For nonwhite respondents, the outcome was nearly reversed: 33% said it would improve and 20% said it would get worse.

To be sure, most respondents were in the middle, with more than 40% in both groups saying the quality of life would stay the same. But those with more extreme views tended to split by ethnicity.

"It's a divided county, essentially two different places with a divided view of the future," said Cheryl Katz of Baldassare Associates, which conducted the poll. "Nonwhites have a brighter view of the county and the way things are going. Whites are losing what had been a dynasty, but for nonwhites, it's an opportunity."

In the span of a lifetime, as its population has grown tenfold, Orange County has been transformed from a white enclave to a stew of races and ethnicities. The county is now diversifying faster than almost any other place in the nation, charging ahead of Riverside and San Diego counties.

Within 10 years, Orange County's white population is expected to drop below 50%, joining Los Angeles and 225 other U.S. counties where other ethnic groups outnumber whites.

Although the poll results divide along racial lines, they are open to interpretation because of many factors--from age and class to length of residency.

Some said the attitude gap confirms that, despite years of coexistence, whites and minorities remain separate. Others, focusing on the optimism of minorities, found cause for celebration. They said the results showed that the county had turned a corner in tolerance.

"Orange County has had some difficult history in regard to its treatment of ethnic minorities and their feeling unwelcome here," said Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the county Human Relations Commission. "There was pretty open discrimination against blacks and Latinos in housing in the '50s and '60s. But clearly with the change in demographics over the last 20 years, those attitudes have dramatically changed too. I see it as a very positive development. It's good for us all."

Among respondents themselves, there were conflicting emotions. R.D. Mitchell, 48, a former building contractor born in Huntington Beach who now lives in San Juan Capistrano, had fond boyhood memories of a sparsely settled county and worried that development would consume all that was good about it. At the same time, he said he hoped that the county could find innovative ways to blend its cultural groups.

"I don't think diversity itself is good or bad," he said. "I think what we do with it is good or bad, how we handle it. Our county could be a model [of integration]. Unless that happens, Orange County is going to turn into an L.A."

Most experts said it was too soon to tell where the county's evolution will lead. .

"If there is any hope that we're going to live in a melting pot, it should be in a place like the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area," said demographer William Frey of the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan. "I would at least hold out the hope that, especially in Orange County with its high income levels, in the long run, there's more opportunity for assimilation and integration and intermarriage."

There is little doubt that the face of Orange County will continue to change. In six years, 43 U.S. counties have lost their white majorities.

Some of the new majority-minority counties are within aging metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia and St. Louis, where blacks now outnumber whites, as well as California and Texas counties that are drawing large numbers of Latinos and Asians, including Fresno, Monterey and Merced.

What distinguishes California's diverse areas--such as Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles--from East Coast models is that they are home to several ethnic groups rather than one.

They have become "multiple melting pots," in Frey's words. And this, he said, is cause for optimism. "There's not just one target minority," he said, "and studies have shown that people are more likely to accommodate others when there's a mixture."

Two signs of the change: The 1996 election of Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) in a congressional district monopolized for years by conservative Republican Robert K. Dornan; and the growth of the Latino business community.

But the rapid transition to a multiethnic region has not come without difficulty. Once home to the John Birch Society and the birthplace of Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative to limit public services to illegal immigrants, Orange County has been linked in public perception to intolerance.

"Whenever you have this kind of change, you're going to see that," said Kennedy of the Human Relations Commission. "The aging formerly majority white population is slowly seeing the community as they knew it change into something completely different. There are natural tendencies toward fear, and it points to the importance of taking measures to limit those fears so people aren't driven to do hostile and hateful things."

Indeed, progress has come unevenly, with income and education levels of Latinos lagging behind those of whites. But several community leaders said they expect that to change over time, as the county's lightning-speed demographic shift stabilizes.

John Palacio, a business consultant and Latino community activist, said he was heartened that despite the split shown by the poll, a majority of whites--65%--said the county would be the same or better with growing diversity.

"That means there's acceptance," he said. "It shows Orange County is a place where diversity is valued, and that's a big difference from just a few years ago."

As the numbers grow, and as the offspring of immigrants stabilize and move into the middle class, the distribution of minorities also will change, said William Gayk, who directs the demographic research center at Cal State Fullerton.

"What you will see over time is that the disparity tends to disappear," he said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Orange County Population Trend

Orange County's white population will shrink as the overall population grows.

1950 (216,224)

White: 99%

Non-white: 1%

1990 (2.4 million)

White: 65%

Non-white: 35%

2020* (3.2 million)

White: 40%

Non-white: 60%

* Projection

Sources: U.S. Census, Cal State Fullerton Center for Demographic Research

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