Over the last few weeks, the state Senate has been locked in battle with the governor over the placement of a state prison in downtown Los Angeles--the heart of California's largest Latino community.
Everyone, including the Legislature, agrees that more prison beds are needed to alleviate overcrowding. Most Californians, particularly those who don't live in Los Angeles, agree that the state's biggest county, which generates nearly 40% of the inmate population, should host at least one prison. Yet the matter has been hung up on a very important principle: the right of a community to have a say in what the state will or will not impose upon it. And the nature of that community, and the governor's relationship to it, has profound implications for California's political future.
The governor insists on this course of action despite the community's objection to yet another project that may debase its quality of life and inhibit its development. Most communities reject the notion of a prison in their midst; that is hardly remarkable. What is significant in this case is the fact that the Deukmejian Administration chose to disregard this particular community's objections.
Los Angeles County certainly is not short on empty land, away from residences, which might accommodate a correctional facility (particularly in its northeastern corner). But these areas tend to be Republican precincts, places where George Deukmejian's friends live. Places with political clout. Their objections to a prison, as valid as anyone else's, are respected and heeded. Not so for East Los Angeles and its Latino community.
Deukmejian is not a racist--far from it. Because of the pain associated with his own ethnic heritage, he is sensitive to racial concerns. But the cavalier attitude of his Administration in dealing with the Latino community on this issue gives evidence of a basic flaw throughout the California body politic: Most public figures have been more or less unable to grasp the significance of this state's largest minority group. They have been unable or unwilling to appreciate the needs and aspirations--and the importance--of the community that may some day constitute our majority, that in any case always will have been our "Founding Fathers."
The location of many Latinos in barrios and rural areas tends to disguise the fact that this state is very Latino, and becoming more so every day. This isn't meant to imply that there is some insidious Reconquista afoot, some attempt to steal back by demographics what was stolen in the first place. It is merely a statement of the fact that California faces a hard task of melding disparate cultures into a new political, economic and social entity.
California now is approximately 66% Anglo, 19% Latino, 8% black and 7% Asian. By the year 2030, an adult generation from now, it will be 38% Anglo, 38% Latino, 17% Asian and 7% Black. This is a profound shift with spectacular implications. Yet the dominant Anglo culture largely ignores this trend. Rather, it seems to anticipate a future California like the present--a middle-class kind of place where the Latino population has either been assimilated or lives somewhere down the road.
That mind-set is evident in this problem of the Los Angeles prison. The Administration seems to have been treating Latinos as something alien, something that can easily be pushed around. One can at least understand the Administration's position from a pragmatic political point of view. For cultural and historical reasons, the Latino population is woefully under-active in state politics. It has tolerated powerlessness in a skewed economic structure, with the exception of the farm labor movement. Historically, it has existed as a submerged cultural current under the Anglo surface--living on the political and economic fringes, alienated from the power process, buffeted by the dominance and brusqueness of the Anglo majority. If any community was perceived as an easy target for the unpleasant business of housing a prison, it was the Latino community. But it was inevitable that their patience would erode. The L.A. prison controversy is a first sign that the attitude of a 20% minority will not be the attitude of a 40% minority.
Many believe that the former Crown Coach bus company site on the east side of downtown was picked primarily because the Administration thought it would be a pushover. Because the Latino community is perceived as weak and disorganized, state officials thought they could stick something there that would have drawn absolute outrage in any other urban (or suburban) area.
This time, however, they simply underestimated community response. The people of East Los Angeles stood up and demanded the same kind of consideration that would normally be granted to any other community: the right to participate in the decision-making process, and ultimately to reject the facility if it proved to be unsatisfactory to them.