The contention that California is the nation’s bellwether is so common that you want to argue with it–and of late many have, contending that the state is now too Democratic, too liberal socially, too rabidly environmentalist to be a national trend setter. But in its demographic patterns, on immigration and related issues, California’s experience in the past fifteen years has run a course that eerily foreshadows today’s bitter national immigration debate. In particular, the way California, with its unprecedented ethnic diversity, now manages its social and economic challenges, and the way immigrants assimilate, is almost certain to be a crucial test for the nation and, very likely, for the rest of the world.
Demographically, what California was a generation ago, America is now; what California is, America is likely to become. The Golden State, for all its reputed liberalism and its rapid Hispanicization, may not be so different from the rest of the nation, just a generation or two ahead of it. And the score so far is not nearly as dismal as the nation’s rabid immigration opponents think it is. It may even be surprising.
The most obvious element in the story is demographic. As recently as 1960, 80 percent of Californians were Anglo whites; in that year, the most common native language of California immigrants, the largest number of whom came from Britain or Canada, was English. Just forty years later, California, the world’s seventh- or eighth-largest economy, became America’s first large minority-majority state. Currently, according to the state’s demographers, roughly 41 percent of California’s 37 million residents are Anglos (what the census calls non-Hispanic whites), 37 percent are Latinos, 12 percent are Asians and 6 percent are African-Americans. About 27 percent of California residents are immigrants, the vast majority of them from Latin America or Asia. One-fourth of its schoolchildren come from a home where students are studying English as a foreign language. In another generation Latinos will be an absolute majority, and there will be 2 million fewer non-Hispanic whites than there are now.
That picture isn’t all that different from what the nation will be. By 2050, according to Census projections, the US population will look very much like California’s in the late 1990s. It will be barely half Anglo. Hispanics, now already the largest minority in the country, will constitute 24 percent, blacks 15 percent and Asians 8 percent. Today Texas is already a minority-majority state, and others will soon follow.
The ethnic numbers are hardly certain, especially since the sharply increasing rate of intermarriage among Anglos, Hispanics and Asians (themselves overgeneralized statistical conglomerates) fuzzes up all future ethnic distinctions. Those uncertainties are already apparent in a browning California, where it’s increasingly hard to tell who’s what, either from names or complexion or cultural proclivities. The children now born in California, says essayist Richard Rodriguez, don’t look like–or talk like–their grandparents. What’s certain is that as the country’s baby boomers retire, the nation, like California, will be increasingly dependent on today’s immigrants and their children for its labor force, a labor force that will have to support almost twice as many retirees per worker as it does today.
Given California’s–and America’s–historic ambivalence about immigrants, it’s hardly surprising that a demographic change of the magnitude that California has experienced since 1960 would generate backlash. It was indirect at first, with the severe tax limitations of Proposition 13 in 1978 and a string of other tax and spending limits (all those illegal immigrants, said Howard Jarvis, the chief sponsor of Prop 13, “just come here to get on the taxpayers’ gravy train”) then with Proposition 187 in 1994, an initiative that sought to deny all undocumented residents access to public schools and the few other public services they were still eligible for. The measure also ordered physicians, nurses, teachers and other public officials to report any undocumented person who sought services to California law-enforcement authorities or federal immigration officers.