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Islands in the Sun and the Rising Tide that May Engulf Them

“How much can Democrats count on suburban liberals?” was the question columnist Thomas Edsall asked in a recent New York Times article. Edsall referenced a book by Ryan Enos, a Harvard social scientist, in which he described a study he conducted in the liberal, mostly White, Boston suburbs. Enos planted 2 confederate Hispanic people at 9 commuter train stations in the suburbs and had the plants speak to each other in Spanish. They appeared daily for several days at the time of certain trains. Afterward Enos asked the White commuters their attitudes toward illegal immigration and toward making English the official state language. Compared to a control subjects who took trains from the same stations at a slightly different time each day, those who had observed the Hispanic people speaking Spanish became less open to allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. and more in favor of a law making English the official state language. Enos summarized his results by concluding that, “The good liberal people catching trains in the Boston suburbs became exclusionary. Exposure to two young Spanish speakers for just a few minutes, or less, for just three days had driven them toward anti-immigration policies associated with their political opponents.”

Edsall goes on to cite research by Enos and others that demonstrates or suggests that liberal values of diversity and inclusion may be held more by White people who have little acquaintance with other races and ethnicities, or at least not in their neighborhoods, and that those values begin to disappear when they are actually faced with those who look different or speak another language. Additionally, Edsall cited research showing that such exclusionary attitudes can become stronger if they are stoked by politicians who support them. 

This is a troubling set of findings and a troubling suggestion. It means that as diversity begins to extend into the living spaces of White Americans, they become less welcoming to it and may become more prone to gravitating toward prejudicial and discriminatory viewpoints. A similar phenomenon can be observed in Europe in the reaction of White Europeans to the influx of African and Middle Eastern refugees into their countries. Attitudes went from welcoming before the refugees arrived, to hostile after they moved in to stay. A saving grace may be that Enos suggests that the result is not linear. According to him, “The relationship between the proportion of an out-group in an area and group-based bias is curvilinear: it becomes greater as the out-group proportion increases until reaching a tipping point and then starting to decrease. This means that when a group makes up a large portion of a place — for concreteness, say 40 percent — each additional person above 40 percent actually decreases group-based bias.”

People are protective of what they have and their protectiveness is brought out when their fear of losing their safety or their privileged position is aroused. In our country, a number of things other than language and ethnicity are associated with ethnic and racial differences. The ethnicities and races in this country differ in terms of wealth, income, education and crime rates, all of which are interconnected and all of which may work against integration of people from diverse ethnic or racial backgrounds. People can live in proximity, but rarely cross paths or socialize with one another. Housing and education patterns may reinforce and maintain racial and ethnic separation, while further solidifying prejudicial stereotypes among different groups.

Orange County, California, home of California’s “Riviera” or ”Gold Coast,” is a sun-drenched paradise in the eyes of many who live within its boundaries or who visit its beaches, resorts and theme parks such as Disneyland and Knott’s. Less than an hour south of Los Angeles, it has a population of over 3 million people. It has a very diverse population and is one of the so-called “majority-minority” areas of the country that reflect our changing demographics: 41.1% are non-Hispanic Whites, 34.35% are Hispanic or Latino, 20.4% are Asian, only 2.1% are Black and 2.1% are mixed or other races/ethnicities. But the diverse population is not spread evenly across the county. Spread of Hispanic and Asian members of the population centers around some “islands,” but, from those centers, spreads out gradually toward all areas of the county. Coincident with the changing demographics, the once firmly Republican Orange County has been changing over the years. In 1990, the Republican voter registrations were 22% greater than Democrats.’ In 2015, that difference was 9%. In 2016, it had dropped to 5.3% and today it is 4%.

When I began to write this essay, I was convinced that most of Orange County remained “islands” of cities that were either predominately White, or Hispanic or mixed White/Asian and that the integration of the county was an illusion. After combing census figures throughout the county, I found that my first impression was only partially true. Newport Beach, the richest city in the county is 80% White, and other “Riviera” cities such as Laguna Beach and San Clement are near that. Santa Ana, the poorest city, is nearly 80% Hispanic. The largest percentage of Asians is in Westminster, which is 48% Asian – mostly Vietnamese. The rest of the cities were a mixture, but there is a striking split between those cities in northern and southern Orange County. While Asians are present in percentage above the national figure of 5.7% in most of the cities in the county, they are well below the state figure of 14.8 % in virtually all of the southern cities, except Irvine, where over 40% of the population is Asian, the largest percentage of any race/ethnicity, and Aliso Viejo where Asians are at about the same percentage as the rest of the state. Likewise, percentages of Hispanics are near or just below the national average of 17.8% in most of the southern O.C. cities, except San Juan Capistrano and nowhere near the state figure of 38.9%. 

In northern Orange County, the picture is different. In the majority of the cities, both Hispanic and Asian citizens are strongly represented at percentages similar to the state average for Hispanics and higher than the rest of the state for Asians. Non-Hispanic Whites are less than 50% of the population in all but Huntington Beach and Yorba Linda. Throughout the county, Blacks, who aren’t concentrated in any one area, are represented by tiny numbers relative to their state or U.S. percentages. 

Incomes, house prices and political party registrations follow the demographics. In Newport Beach, Republican registrations outnumber Democratic registrations about 2.5 to 1. In San Clemente, they are double those of Democrats. But in Laguna Beach, an expensive city with the highest percentage of White residents in the county (84%), Democrats outnumber Republicans by a slim margin and the Democrats are notoriously progressive. Overwhelmingly Hispanic Santa Ana has 3 times as many registered Democrats as Republicans. Anaheim, home of Disneyland, and a city where Hispanics are more than 50% of the population, Buena Park, where non-Hispanic Whites are only a quarter of the population and fewer than either Hispanics or Asians, Fullerton, where Whites are a third of the population, Garden Grove, with only a fifth of the population White and non-Hispanic, and Tustin, with less than 30% White, are other cities in the county where Democratic registrations outnumber Republican registrations. Irvine, with an even split between Whites and Asians, but markedly few Hispanics, is decidedly Democratic, an exception for southern county cities.

There are a few northern O.C. cities where Republicans retain a slim lead over Democrats, despite the changing demographics. These include Westminster, where the Asian population is primarily Vietnamese, who remain loyal to the Republican Party, which they consider sided with them (the South) during the Vietnam War, and Costa Mesa, where the White population is just over 50% and there are few Asians. 

Income, house prices, poverty rates and the likelihood of having health insurance follow the demographics, with the higher the percentage of non-Hispanic White members of a city’s population associated with higher incomes, higher house prices, lower poverty rates and fewer people without insurance (over a quarter of Santa Ana residents are without health insurance‑more than double the national average and triple the California average). Irvine, where the Asian population is mostly Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, is an interesting case in point. Education rates in terms of percentage of residents with college degrees are higher than any other O.C. city (Newport Beach and Laguna Beach are next closest), but household and per capita income are lower than in cities with less educated but more White populations.

Edsall’s article and Enos’s research raise the fear that as non-White populations spread into liberal Democratic White enclaves, the White residents will move to the right in terms of their politics, or at least in terms of their views on immigration. Orange County shows a different pattern. As non-White populations increase, there is a general movement toward the Democratic party. In Orange County, the non-Whites are virtually all from recent immigrant backgrounds, given the absence of Black residents in the county. We don’t know if it is simply that non-Whites are more likely to vote Democratic or if the Whites in those areas are changing their politics. Enos would predict that this might happen as the percentage of non-Whites passes that of Whites, but in Orange County, most Whites were at one time conservative Republicans and that is different than starting out as a liberal Democrat, so we just don’t know.

We do know some other things from studying Orange County. Non-Hispanic White people still make more money and have more wealth in terms of the price of their houses. Those southern O.C. cities that have remained mostly White (and, with the exception of Laguna Beach, mostly Republican) are actually integrating Hispanics at lower numbers than not just the rest of the county, but lower than the rest of the state, and in many instances lower than the rest of the country. They are remaining “islands” in some sense. In fact, they are very protective of their real estate. When a federal judge ordered O.C. cities to plan shelters to accommodate some of its great numbers of homeless people, the northern cities, which had already accommodated hundreds of homeless in new shelter facilities, responded by adding 700 more, with Anaheim and Santa Ana taking the lead. In contrast, the southern cities, which had accommodated only 100 homeless up to the point of the court order, claimed that they were unable to build even a single new shelter facility. This was not just a Democrat-Republican difference, as Irvine, solidly Democratic (and with Asians being the largest group in their population), led the opposition to homeless shelters among the southern O.C. cities.

New, often times foreign born Americans, can affect the politics of an area when they are in large numbers. In Orange County and many other places, this means a swing toward the Democratic Party. But people with high incomes and pricey houses (which characterizes southern Orange County), generally are resistant, not just to Democratic politics, but also to an influx of immigrants and to accommodating those who are less fortunate than they are, such as the homeless. In Orange County, local zoning and housing regulations limit growth and many residents, particularly of more affluent communities, strongly favor such regulations. The spread of non-White immigrant groups into previously all White communities is limited by both attitudinal factors and economic ones. In Orange County, as in other population centers on the West Coast, low-income residents are being priced out of the housing market. House prices are 4 times higher in Newport Beach than in Santa Ana, but rents are only 1.5 times lower in Santa Ana and they are climbing out of reach of local residents. Gentrification (which is already happening in the downtown area) may soon drive low-income Hispanic residents in Santa Ana elsewhere. Although rents in Newport Beach are only 1.5 times higher than those in Santa Ana, per capita income in Newport Beach is 5 times higher than in Santa Ana, so low-income Santa Ana residents cannot afford to rent, even in their own city.

For those who value a diverse population, who don’t want ethnicity or race to determine how much one earns, one’s educational opportunities, or where someone can live, there are many factors working against achieving an outcome that mirrors those values. Hopefully, as non-White immigrant citizens become more politically aware and active, they will vote for policies that aim toward implementing these values. And hopefully, White people who say they value diversity, will not back away from it when it arrives at their front door.


Reader Comments (2)

I am fortunate that in the small town in which I live on Cape Cod, Centerville, the Hispanic neighbors have not driven white neighbors into white flight, the way people of color drove the whites the Detroit area. While there's a very small number of African-Americans in the population here, when a family moves to a neighborhood there generally isn't the panicked For Sale sign syndrome I witnessed in MI. That is not to say that a lot of white people, even those who define themselves as progressives, don't resent immigrants and people of color and wouldn't like to discriminate against them. And they probably do if they have the opportunity. But so far the pressure has been toward opening up instead of closing down.

June 15, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

If by "diverse population" you're simply referring to skin tones, that's a racist and valueless concept. People are not meant to be identified or fetishized by skin tone. If you're talking about diversity of thought, then that type of intellectual diversity has merit. The liberal mantra of "diversity is our strength" is the most untrue, nonsensical, and pathetic of lies. Uniformity of purpose and values is our greatest strength, wherein we can agree as a nation to properly care for our vulnerable, improve education, decrease crime, etc. The only way that truly happens is through a singular, sensible purpose. Diversity of purpose is what we have now and it's this disarray which perpetuates the social ills with which we're all most concerned.

Why in the world would you even suggest that ethnicity and race are the primary variants in a multivariate situation? They're not. Individual decisions and character apply equally to all people in similar circumstances. Anybody with purpose and intelligence has an equal opportunity to pull themselves out of the bottom quintile of economic strata. As I've stated before, if you are still seeking equal outcomes based on group identity- then you are a dangerous radical promoting a vicious socialist ideology that only goes to further promote the racism you so claim to despise....

A case in point: "And hopefully, White people who say they value diversity, will not back away from it when it arrives at their front door." I can tell you don't see the supreme incongruity in this statement. "White people" (as if they must intrinsically identify themselves as such) may or may not value "diversity" (which I assume you mean as referring to black and brown-skinned people) and thus may decide to accept or reject any new people in their neighborhood for a multiplicity of reasons and this in fact may be done without the slightest regard to skin color. Any assessment of this sort will be done individually by all people in the neighborhood, culminating in a diverse array of unique reasons. Yet somehow, you seem to want to judge the potential actions of these so-called "White people" collectively, attributing a veiled concept of racism to them if they should decide to leave the neighborhood for reasons which you will never take the time to ascertain because ultimately, you don't really care. It's much easier instead to label these people as soft racists and impugn their reputations so as to better virtue-signal to other liberals that you are more woke, more moral and more virtuous than other "White people." Militating on behalf of identitarian groups you've sought to create, perpetuate and then claim to represent is the worst sort of white savior complex imaginable. Isn't there a better way to ego-stroke oneself than to collect unearned, undeserved rewards to gird one's pseudo self-esteem?

June 15, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

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