Pouty White People
Once known as the land of futurists and dreamers, California is increasingly home to pessimists. Often nostalgic, newspaper commentators, novelists, journalists and social critics issue jeremiads about paradise lost and the coming dystopia. California has always had its share of apocalyptic prophets, but these voices are no longer cries in the wilderness; they reflect a growing public mood in the once Golden State.
There is a racial dimension to all the gloominess. The downbeat outlook is in large part driven by Anglos, the state’s largest minority. Although they enjoy the highest per capita income and are significantly more likely to own a home than any other group, Anglos appear to be suffering from a bad case of “declinism.”
One reason for California’s post-World War II success was the willingness of government and civic institutions to invest in the aspirations and hard work of newcomers to the state. California built an extraordinary infrastructure -- aqueducts, roads, universities and schools -- to enable largely Anglo migrants to realize their dreams. Taxpayers gladly footed the cost because their future depended on the improvements. Because the electorate had an optimistic vision, they were willing to bear the sacrifices. California’s leading social, political and cultural institutions echoed this sentiment and articulated the goals of the ascendant Anglo population. The editorial visions of the state’s leading newspapers resonated with the energy and outlook of a hopeful, striving population.
Whites still make up a disproportionate share of the electorate. They dominate the state’s business, intellectual and cultural elites. They remain the principal authors of the California story. And they have become the most pessimistic of any group in the state, according to an August survey of the Public Policy Institute of California. Fully 57% felt that the state would be a worse place to live in two decades. At 49%, blacks were the second most pessimistic group. Latinos (39%) and Asians (34%) were significantly less downbeat.
Anglo pessimism in California is not a new phenomenon. In a similar poll taken five years ago, Anglos were considerably more pessimistic about living in the state in 2020 than were Latinos, the group with the lowest per capita income and second-lowest homeownership rate.
This apparent disconnect between wealth and outlook suggests that Anglo declinism does not stem from material circumstances. Indeed, pessimism tends to increase with education and income. Are Anglos simply better informed about the state’s problems than everyone else, and thus gloomier?
If educational achievement is an indicator, the answer is no. Asians in California have higher rates of academic attainment than whites, and they are far more optimistic.
What these polls do measure is expectations. A majority of Anglos clearly believe that their best days in the state are behind them.
One explanation for what is happening is what journalist David Whitman calls the “I’m OK, you’re not” phenomenon. Anglos have less faith in the future of today’s immigrants than the immigrants have for themselves. Over a generation, immigrants from Asia and particularly Latin America have changed not only the cultural landscape but also the state’s image of itself.
The newcomers have punctured the idea of California as a middle-class utopia. They are associated with high rates of poverty, density, diversity and social ills reminiscent of New York City and Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. Whites don’t easily identify with the aspirations of these emergent groups.
With the exception of the much-maligned “Oakies” and “Arkies” in the 1930s, native-born white migrants were generally welcomed to California by the state’s establishment. The new arrivals’ enthusiasm was not greeted with dread.
Anglo declinism may stem from the aging of the Anglo population. Of all the state’s major demographic groups, Anglos are the most likely to have lived in California the longest. As a result, they are both more able -- and more likely -- to remember the ways things used to be, to compare the present with the past. Furthermore, the median age of whites (40.3) is significantly higher than all other groups. As such, Anglos are not only racially but increasingly generationally disconnected from the younger nonwhite population. Brookings Institution demographer Bill Frey calls this a “racial generation gap.”
“The newcomers have the enthusiasm whites have lost,” Frey said. “Whites are the landed aristocracy that don’t see themselves as part of the new dynamism of the state.”
Life in California is more complicated than it was a generation ago. It takes much longer to drive from Los Angeles to San Diego. Competition to land a spot on a University of California campus is far keener. High housing prices can bring even the financially mighty to their knees. But greater population density and stiffer competition don’t necessarily translate into catastrophe.
“Anglos are pouting,” California historian Kevin Starr said. “They still think California is the unearned increment, that just by coming here you’d be prosperous.”
The gritty reality of a generation of enormous international migration has collided with Anglo illusions of the good life. It isn’t that Asians and Latinos, two groups with large foreign-born cohorts, don’t still see California as a land of opportunity. Rather, it’s that the Anglo myth that dreams should be achieved without struggle is gone. Today’s newcomers don’t come to the land of perpetual sunshine to reinvent themselves in a Mediterranean climate. Their story is a more hardscrabble version of the American dream, one we associate with the East Coast.
In his 1998 critique of the New Left, Stanford philosopher Richard Rorty asserted, “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement.” A similar judgment could be said about a state’s orientation toward the future. Like individuals, bodies politic must have a modicum of faith in the future if they intend to plan constructively for one.
California’s crumbling infrastructure can be rebuilt, and its broken education system can be repaired. But that’s not going to happen until we re-create the social contract that built postwar California. That contract must be founded on a shared vision of the future. If Anglo California is not willing to provide one, then at the very least it should make way for those who do.