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A Protectionist Elite With a Multiethnic Face Is Still Dangerous : Elections: By passing the 'Buy American' amendment, L.A. ceases to be a world city and returns to a time when xenophobia was policy.

June 14, 1992|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, who teaches in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at USC, is author of "Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s."

SAN FRANCISCO — Passage of the "Buy American" Charter amendment represents a failure of nerve on the part of Los Angeles residents. It also gives new expression to a streak of xenophobia that runs deep in the L.A. psyche.

For nearly 25 years, L.A. boosters have made much of the arrival of Los Angeles as "a world city" keyed to the culture and commerce of the Asian Pacific Basin. The poignancy of such boosterism is that any city that has to trumpet itself as "a world city" most likely suspects, in its inner collective consciousness, exactly the opposite is true.

With the exception of the movie industry and, recently, banking and academia, Los Angeles has never been fundamentally internationalist in its orientation. Quite the contrary: This was the city, in its American phases, of an aggressively Anglo-Saxon oligarchy for whom Mexico and the Asian Pacific represented the heart of darkness--and Folks of the middle classes whose orientation was over their shoulder to Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, certainly not in the direction of Mexico City, Djakarta, Tokyo and Hong Kong. The Los Angeles of the pre-World War II era did everything in its power to recreate a white utopia, Midwestern and middle class, on the south coast of the western United States.

In 1913, Los Angeles spearheaded the passage of the Alien Land Law, which prohibited Japanese immigrants from owning property in California. In 1920, 1923 and 1927, the law's restrictions were expanded and strengthened.

And now, the city of Los Angeles has inscribed another Alien Land Law in its Charter, as if to say to the world: "In your face! Los Angeles is fearful of Mexico and the Asia Pacific. Los Angeles fears foreign competition. Los Angeles is a xenophobic, protectionist enclave."

Now wait a minute. Was not Charter Amendment G passed by the multiethnic population of the city? How can one equate the anti-Nippon racism of 1913 with a Charter amendment intended to protect local jobs in a multiracial city?

Precisely. The anti-internationalist oligarchy of the early 20th Century has re-emerged as a protectionist elite. The subliminal fears of L.A. 1992 remain the same as those in 1913. In 1992, the Latino work force is still willing to put in long hours for lower wages, as it was in 1913; the Japanese continue to create wealth and invest it wisely in California, just as they were doing almost 80 years ago.

This time, however, protectionist elites have not banned the Japanese from owning in California as they did in 1913. That would be too crude--hence disquieting to the protectionist elite's image of itself as yearning with multiethnic sensitivity. Playing on the fears of Los Angeles, rather, the protectionist camp has merely succeeded in banning the municipal government from doing business with companies in which there is a preponderance of non-L.A., non-California (read: non-Japanese) ownership.

One cringes at the insult hurled at off-shore investors. Japanese investors have quite clearly judged the "Buy American" amendment, despite its lack of anti-Japanese language, to be a slap in their face. As in 1913, Japan-bashing reasserts itself as the cutting edge of Los Angeles public life.

Ironies abound. The Japanese, for one thing, have kept downtown Los Angeles viable for nearly two decades. Far from looking for a quick return on their money, Japanese investors have sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into square blocks downtown, where other square blocks, because of social and economic instability, remain vacant, choked in weeds, awaiting the return of coyotes.

Los Angeles acts as if it has been doing Japanese investors a favor by allowing them to pump their money into the center of a city that has not learned to behave itself. Far from it: the Japanese have shown exquisite patience with a city that has proven itself, again and again, a chancy place to do business. Ask the Koreans.

Proposition G has at least one salutary effect. It should end, once and for all, L.A.'s stylization of itself as a world city, whatever that is. Beirut, Damascus, Havana, Los Angeles and similar places cannot be world cities. Truth is Los Angeles is afraid of the world--specifically, afraid of the dynamic example and competitive presence of Asian cultures and economies--and it has memorialized this fear by approving Proposition G.

Now ensues a field day for those who fear freedom, competition and, most of all, the example of other people (people of color, no less) taking care of business, public and private, in a way that Los Angeles cannot manage.

Soon there will be political, as well as residential, tests for companies wishing to do business with L.A. government. The principle of exclusion, which is at the core of Proposition G, will reproduce itself, exclusion upon exclusion, until only a favored commissariat and its approved vendors will be given permission to feed at the public trough; not serve it, mind you, merely feed at it.

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