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California and the West

O.C. Minorities Upbeat About Future

Race: But many in aging white population say they feel alienated, less optimistic as they view prospect of being outnumbered.

September 28, 1998|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

June Foley and Gloria Garcia may both live in Orange County, but they have vastly different visions of where the place is headed. Where one sees murky and difficult times, the other envisions a future full of promise.

Garcia, who moved to Orange County 10 years ago from Mexico City, is so pleased with her Garden Grove neighborhood that she and her husband are saving to buy their first house there. Foley, who moved south from Los Angeles 43 years ago and now lives in Orange, feels less secure.

"As long as the county keeps getting more and more people, I don't see how it could possibly get better," she said. "At the apartment complex I lived in four years ago, I was the only one who spoke English. It's kind of odd to think you're living in the country you were born in and you feel like it's a foreign country."

As Orange County rolls toward a new millennium, a recent Times Orange County poll finds that the county's racial and ethnic groups are split about the future, with Latinos, Asians and other minorities more upbeat and more bullish about growth and development than white residents. When asked to describe the quality of life in the next decade, given Orange County's increasing diversity, 31% of whites said it would get worse and only 18% said it would improve.

For nonwhite respondents, the outcome was nearly reversed: 33% said it would improve and 20% said it would get worse.

To be sure, most respondents were in the middle, with more than 40% in both groups saying the quality of life would stay the same. But those with more extreme views tended to split by ethnicity.

"It's a divided county, essentially two different places with a divided view of the future," said Cheryl Katz of Baldassare Associates, which conducted the poll. "Nonwhites have a brighter view of the county and the way things are going. Whites are losing what had been a dynasty, but for nonwhites, it's an opportunity."

In the span of a lifetime, as its population has grown tenfold, Orange County has been transformed from a white enclave to a stew of races and ethnicities. The county is now diversifying faster than almost any other place in the nation, charging ahead of Riverside and San Diego counties.

Within 10 years, Orange County's white population is expected to drop below 50%, joining Los Angeles and 225 other U.S. counties where other ethnic groups outnumber whites.

Although the poll results divide along racial lines, they are open to interpretation because of many factors--from age and class to length of residency.

Some said the attitude gap confirms that, despite years of coexistence, whites and minorities remain separate. Others, focusing on the optimism of minorities, found cause for celebration. They said the results showed that the county had turned a corner in tolerance.

"Orange County has had some difficult history in regard to its treatment of ethnic minorities and their feeling unwelcome here," said Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the county Human Relations Commission. "There was pretty open discrimination against blacks and Latinos in housing in the '50s and '60s. But clearly with the change in demographics over the last 20 years, those attitudes have dramatically changed too. I see it as a very positive development. It's good for us all."

Among respondents themselves, there were conflicting emotions. R.D. Mitchell, 48, a former building contractor born in Huntington Beach who now lives in San Juan Capistrano, had fond boyhood memories of a sparsely settled county and worried that development would consume all that was good about it. At the same time, he said he hoped that the county could find innovative ways to blend its cultural groups.

"I don't think diversity itself is good or bad," he said. "I think what we do with it is good or bad, how we handle it. Our county could be a model [of integration]. Unless that happens, Orange County is going to turn into an L.A."

Most experts said it was too soon to tell where the county's evolution will lead. .

"If there is any hope that we're going to live in a melting pot, it should be in a place like the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area," said demographer William Frey of the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan. "I would at least hold out the hope that, especially in Orange County with its high income levels, in the long run, there's more opportunity for assimilation and integration and intermarriage."

There is little doubt that the face of Orange County will continue to change. In six years, 43 U.S. counties have lost their white majorities.

Some of the new majority-minority counties are within aging metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia and St. Louis, where blacks now outnumber whites, as well as California and Texas counties that are drawing large numbers of Latinos and Asians, including Fresno, Monterey and Merced.

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