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Column: Are diversifying suburbs like Irvine ready for a conversation about race?

Irvine City Councilmember Tammy Kim
At a recent Irvine City Council meeting, a resident said that Councilwoman Tammy Kim was American “only because she was allowed to be.”
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Southern California suburbs, at their best, are inspiring tapestries of what an emergent cosmopolitan society could be when different cultures and races share space and create community.

At their worst, the suburbs incubate some of the most antiquated forms of racist and xenophobic thought that you can find anywhere.

Take the city of Irvine.

Last month, at a City Council meeting, Councilwoman Tammy Kim, an Irvine resident since 2005, was asked by a constituent how she felt about the “36,574 Americans who died trying to save your country for freedom” during the Korean War.

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Kim interrupted to say she was an American. The resident retorted that she was American “only because she was allowed to be.”

“I just thought, here we go again,” Kim said. “It’s never explicit, just in coded language and microaggressions and these litmus test questions. People during public comments ask, ‘Did your son serve in the military?’”

Over the last two years, racial conflicts have become more common in Irvine. Just a few weeks ago, a pair of Islamophobic banners were unfurled at freeway overpasses in the city, attacking Mayor Farrah N. Khan’s religion.

“I’m often questioned on my leadership and whether I truly have the city’s best interests at heart,” Khan said. “No matter how much we do or give back, it never seems to be enough.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When immigrants began settling in Irvine in the 1980s, scholars theorized that the town would bypass the racial strife of the inner city because there was such an abundance of available property that people didn’t have to fight over space. Irvine’s residents, both new and old, were united in their ambitions for a quiet, upper-middle-class lifestyle. Irvine schools were glowingly described as mini-United Nations.

These insights were premised on a theory of white flight that proposed that white residents left the inner city not because of racism, but because they wanted a better quality of life.

But new research on migration patterns in diverse middle-class suburbs firmly debunks that glowing picture of white flight. New studies found that whites fled diversifying suburbs even when there was no decline in quality of life. Race motivated white flight, and now there is even the growing acknowledgement that white flight itself, and the destructive economic changes that accompany it, actually created slum conditions.

Irvine is hardly alone in its struggles with race. After U.S. immigration restrictions were lifted in 1965 and racially restrictive land covenants were made illegal, immigrants of all kinds flocked to the suburbs rather than forming inner-city enclaves. Now there are Filipinos in Carson, Koreans in Irvine, Indians in Sherman Oaks, Cambodians in Long Beach. These new Americans make their homes next to the residents who fled the inner city’s diversity, and it can be a volatile mixture.

Irvine recently marked two milestones. The latest census revealed that sometime in the last decade, white residents became a minority in Irvine. And last year, the city elected a majority minority City Council for the first time in history.

But Irvine has long been the promised land for a lot of immigrant families. Cultural institutions all over the city facilitate meaningful and real cultural exchanges. Many Irvine residents are authentically proud of the city’s polyglot nature, and work to make it a reality.

People make fun of Irvine for its beige blandness, but you know who loves beige? My mother. Our living rooms have always been furnished in beige, and why not? It’s a classy neutral color that’s not black, white or gray.

But with all the promise of the American experiment come the predicaments.

I cut my teeth as a reporter covering city council meetings in these far-flung suburban towns. Being Asian American was never a major hindrance to my reporting, but it certainly wasn’t helpful. At a City Council meeting in San Gabriel, I was told go “sit over there with your people.” I got used to explaining my heritage before I asked a question, and leaned on my Tennessee upbringing to culturally comfort my subjects.

What little racial discourse that occurs is often incoherent and polarizing. Resentments are expressed through euphemism. Clear racial lines form on each side of hot button issues, but race and racism are rarely discussed. It lurks in the simmering hostility over mansionization in cities in the San Gabriel Valley; the surprising fury over old grocery stores closing; the profusion of dog-eating jokes under a Facebook post about a new Korean supermarket; and the ever present grumbles about “too many” Asian businesses.

We live with the impossible quandaries of a mistold history that failed and is failing to properly examine and account for racism and white supremacy.

So it is truly a shame that we prefer to condemn a straw man called critical race theory rather than wrestle with the very real gaps in our understanding.

It is a shame that we employ convenient, vague labels such as “cancel culture” and “wokeism” to mock and shut down any attempt to critique racism.

And it is a shame that ethnic studies in California has become such a contentious issue, because we need the facts, today, right now. We are tilting at windmills while ignoring the dragons slumbering beneath.

Here in 2021, the racial question we face is not whether different races can get along. Nearly every Southern California suburb can answer that question in the affirmative.

The more pertinent question: How will white residents handle becoming a minority? How will fears of racial replacement be expressed, then weaponized? And how will we ever find harmony and agreement on these subjects when we can’t even settle on which terms to use?

Should Councilwoman Kim be grateful for the Korean War? Does supporting the troops mean agreeing with the last 100 years of U.S. foreign policy? Why are some new residents looked upon as invaders and others as new neighbors? Are the suburbs ready for this conversation?

Only time can tell, but as events in Irvine show, we still have so much to learn.


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