Melting-Pot Blues

Michael Dear is the author, most recently, of "The Postmodern Urban Condition" and is the director of USC's Southern California Studies Center

If California’s 19th century belonged to San Francisco and the Gold Rush, the state’s 20th century surely belonged to Los Angeles. Based on a series of its own “gold” rushes, L.A. emerged with breath-snatching speed to become a world city, America’s No. 2 metropolis (soon to be No. 1) and a prototype for America’s urban future.

Southern California’s early growth was based on “green gold,” that is, exploiting the region’s agricultural resources to feed the gargantuan appetites of its Bay Area neighbors. Then came “black gold” (oil), followed by the irresistible luster of “gun-metal gold” (the defense contracts of World War II and the later aerospace industrial complex). Today, our fortunes are inextricably tied to “e-gold” and the prospects of the dot-com world.

Throughout its exuberant history, Los Angeles has relied upon a never-ending stream of immigrants from overseas as well as from elsewhere in the United States. People from Mexico and Central America, from China and Japan, all took their (unequal) places alongside Midwestern whites and blacks from the South. California’s history is fundamentally a story about racial and ethnic diversity. Yet when confronted by this fact, the eyes of most Californians tend to cloud over with cataracts of confusion. How, they wonder, can we make sense of the impact of prejudice in this polycentric, polyglot and polycultural metropolis?


Most great cities of the world have instantly recognizable signatures. Think of the boulevards of Paris, the skyscrapers of New York, the churches of Rome. Even if you haven’t visited these places, you know them from the movies: Jacques Tati’s Paris, Woody Allen’s New York, Fellini’s Rome. But what is L.A.’s signature? Is it Hollywood? The beaches? Smog? The freeways?

Whenever I encounter newcomers trying to get a grip on Los Angeles, I refer them to Reyner Banham’s “Architecture of the Four Ecologies” (originally published in the early 1970s, and now thankfully being brought back into print by the University of California Press). Banham suggested that L.A.’s complexities can be distilled into four easy pieces: surfurbia (“what other metropolises should envy in Los Angeles”); foothills (“where the financial and topographical contours correspond almost exactly”); the plains (“An endless plain endlessly gridded with endless streets”); and autopia (“a complete way of life,” according to Banham).

Newcomers aren’t the only ones to be puzzled by Southern California. Until recently, Los Angeles was the least studied major metropolis in the United States. But since Banham, a growing cadre of urban intellectuals (from all ideological persuasions, and all parts of the globe) has labored to provide the conceptual and factual bases necessary for informed public debate about our collective future. “Prismatic Metropolis” adds to that growing list of books. It invites us to adopt one more ecology to unlock the mysteries of Los Angeles: race and ethnicity. Its reference to “prismatic” is meant to conjure the many “colors, hues, and cultures” that make up the region.

The book’s purpose is to provide a “crisp descriptive and analytical focus” on the growing gap between rich and poor, especially as it affects people of color. At the heart of the study is a survey of more than 4,000 people in Los Angeles County, conducted in 1993 and 1994 under the auspices of the Los Angeles Study of Urban Inequality. Whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians were questioned in five languages at a time when the recession was biting hard and the region was still recovering from the civil unrest of 1992. The survey set out to discover how changing labor dynamics, racial attitudes and relations and residential segregation interact to foster urban inequality. The questions focused on demographic background and labor market experiences (including wages, commute times and immigrant status), neighborhood and community (including housing costs and preferences) and racial attitudes (including experiences of discrimination and perceptions of competition between groups).

The breadth and depth of the sample allowed a statistical analysis never before attempted. The researchers’ principal question was whether Los Angeles (the “quintessential multiethnic metropolis”) can actually work. The result is a unique and important portrait of racial and ethnic relations in the Southland.

Unfortunately, it is also a difficult book. Its 612 pages are packed with statistics, models and hypotheses, refutation, conjecture and qualified agreement. One typical sentence reads: “If, rather than examining within racial group determinants of affirmative action opinion, we pooled the data across race and estimated six equations (three racial minority target groups by two types of policies) and introduced race as a variable (a set of dummy coded variables with whites as the omitted category), the results speak plainly.” Well, perhaps. . . . But the book’s inaccessible writing style will be off-putting for all but the bravest hearts. This is unfortunate because it’s the only comprehensive report we have on race and ethnicity in contemporary Los Angeles, providing a unique portrait of how poverty and racial stereotyping affect the everyday lives of people of color--at home, in the neighborhood and at work.


The story begins with the stark facts of poverty in L.A. County, where nearly 2 million people live below the poverty line (roughly 19% of the county’s population). Another 1.5 million are just above the line. Affordable housing has all but disappeared. The proportion of people today paying more than one-third of their income on rent stands at 41%, up from 28% since 1970.

Needless to say, people of color are represented disproportionately in the ranks of the poor. Racial and ethnic antipathies emerge in the form of pervasive discriminatory practices in workplace and housing markets. And the geographical concentration of poor people of color intensifies the grip of poverty and deprivation.

“Prismatic Metropolis” pays special attention to the lives of women and immigrants in unequal Los Angeles. What the researchers discover is perhaps not totally surprising, but their findings are important and bear repeating. For women, class, gender and race act as a kind of “triple strike,” confining them to low-paying jobs. Immigrants--so vital to California’s continuing prosperity--have varying opportunities and experiences. The well-educated and skilled usually prosper, but the poorly educated, low-skill worker has a harder time making a go of it. Yet the longer immigrants stay, the better off they become. In short, given time, they usually will achieve their California dreams of homeownership and financial security.

Race is as fundamental a cleavage as you are likely to get in American society. In L.A. County, whites are on top and blacks at the bottom. Latinos and Asians are somewhere in between. Whites do not see themselves as being in competition with other groups, and consistently oppose affirmative action. African Americans are the most likely to view race relations in competitive terms and to favor affirmative action. Latinos resist thinking of themselves in terms of a racial group identity, tending to favor national ancestry-based affiliations (as do Asians).

According to the urban inequality survey, blacks are indisputably viewed as “least desired” neighbors by all other ethnic-racial groups. This is the first troubling glimpse of our possible future. The region’s much-vaunted diversity is typically regarded as a positive force for tolerance, but what this book implies is that greater diversity may actually intensify the marginalization of L.A.’s black population.

Many racial and ethnic cleavages center on the workplace, and they appear to be worsening. For instance, long-term joblessness among younger and older men is increasing, especially among African American men. (In 1990, one-fifth of African American men with no education beyond high school had been jobless for more than five years.) The majority of Latinos continue to be relegated to the lowest-paying jobs with few (if any) benefits, and little opportunity for advancement. Asian immigrants without skills tend to end up in the so-called ethnic economy--labor-intensive, low-wage jobs in marginal enterprises. Finally, the advancement of women is hindered not only by the “triple strike,” but also by the lack of quality affordable child care. This factor turns out to be as important as any other in perpetuating poverty and inequality for women of color.


“Prismatic Metropolis” leaves one with the conviction that we have learned little since the riots of 1965 and 1992. The many earnest commissions whose goals have been to remedy what ails us have left little impression on our collective psyche and have had even less influence on how we act toward one another. Thus it is frustrating that this book, for all its painstaking detail, pays little attention to matters of public policy. Yes, a few obvious nostrums are mentioned in passing: Jail is no solution, education is vital, and mentoring helps. But missing are the LAPD, the Christopher Commission and Proposition 187, which tell the story of how we have attempted to answer prejudice and hostility. The book’s contributors consistently shy away from the opportunity to examine the implications of their findings.

Even if the contributors to “Prismatic Metropolis” resist the temptation to gaze into the crystal ball, their findings serve as a timely warning for the need to share the region’s prosperity more equitably. Left unattended, five problem areas will continue to confound the search for peace and justice in race relations in Los Angeles:

* Prejudice and discrimination rooted in race and ethnicity are deeply etched in non-rational emotional feelings that are not easily transformed. Yet absent such transformations, marginalized groups will continue to suffer discrimination and unequal opportunity.

* Southern California’s dot-com economy continues to splinter into two separate spheres: one high-skill and high-wage; the other low-skill and low-wage. In the future, the under-educated will be doomed to join the ranks of the long-term jobless.

* Many people of color work in “secondary” or “ethnic” labor markets with low pay and no benefits. Lacking opportunities for advancement, they will likely continue in menial, dead-end jobs.

* The absence of good-quality, affordable child care acts as a “fourth strike” (to add to gender, class and race-ethnicity) against poor women of color, aggravating their struggle to exit the quicksands of deprivation.


* Poverty and discrimination confine people of color to limited housing and job opportunities in the ghetto and barrio, whose very embrace acts as a brake on advancement. As long as ghettoization persists, the status of people of color will remain compromised.

Very little has happened, or is being done, to lighten the burden of poverty and inequality among people of color. As this book makes clear, markets alone will not overcome prejudice, provide adequate jobs and training, ensure education and child care, or invest in low-income neighborhoods. At the same time, governments at all levels seem increasingly reluctant to confront these issues.

Today, seven years after the urban inequality survey, prosperity has returned to Southern California, or so we are told. The dream endures. Indeed, the mantra of the moment is that the region must accommodate 6 million newcomers during the next 20 years, the equivalent of two Chicagos. Yet it’s clear that a significant number of Angelenos are being left behind in the race for the California dream, even as our region’s prosperity is dependent upon their willingness to work. This is not good. Regions that grow together grow faster and more efficiently. Unless something is done to address the intertwined issues of ethnicity and inequality, which hang together promiscuously in the air like acrid smoke left over from 1965 and 1992, unless we find new ways to grow together, then everyone’s California dream is in jeopardy.