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Why the World Needs a Taste From L.A.'s Melting Pot

May 14, 2000|James Ricci

Prediction: a generation from now, maybe two, Los Angeles is going to be the exemplar of racial harmony in the United States.

I do not come to this conclusion easily. Living for a decade and a half, until 1996, in metropolitan Detroit, I absorbed a media image of race relations here consisting of:

(a) Laurence Powell beating the hell out of Rodney King;

(b) Damian Williams beating the hell out of Reginald Denny;

(c) black and Latino denizens of South-Central riotously beating Korean store owners out of their inventories.

Not exactly your peaceable kingdom.

After living here a while, however, I began to realize that, occasional viciousness by fringe characters aside, race relations in L.A. are really a piece of cake compared to those in the last place I lived. And they're going to get nothing but sweeter.

In Detroit, as in many older cities to the east, the racial divide is almost exclusively between blacks and whites. It is wide and gouged deep into the psychological landscape. Every racial argument instantly conjures centuries of unspeakable black oppression, white fearfulness, black lawlessness, white flight. Politics long since have hardened the polarization in amber.

With smaller Middle Eastern and Latino populations watching from the sidelines, the contest is an old, bitter game of one-on-one between seven-footers, with all the intractable prejudice, anger and hostility concentrated on a single, familiar other.

Things are different here.

The sheer number and variety of racial and ethnic groups in Los Angeles and throughout Southern California make it difficult to sustain the necessary vociferous pitch of race- or ethnicity-mindedness. Ordinary people's natural impulse to mark and defend their group differences inevitably gets diffused. With Samoans, Iranians, Armenians, Cambodians, Lithuanians, Ethiopians, Romanians, Ukrainians, Peruvians and an almost endless list of others on the scene, you'd really have to work at it to hate all the people who are not your own. It's a lot easier to just go eat in their restaurants.

The gradations of color on the faces of the people here undercut the traditional American black-white dichotomy. UC Santa Barbara sociology professor Reginald Daniel, a scholar of racial identities, says "the visual factor in racism is so critical. What you see is going to affect how you treat a person, and as it becomes more difficult to code what you see, your behavior is going to be influenced by the fact that you're not absolutely certain of whom you're dealing with at any given time."

The sheer number of racial and ethnic groups is not all that makes the racial situation in L.A. so much cheerier than elsewhere. The ongoing physical blending of groups augurs for an even better one.

The racial and ethnic intermarriage rate in Los Angeles County is five times higher than the national average. According to county statistics cited by author Gregory Rodriguez, a fellow of the New America Foundation:

-- A young Anglo man here is four times likelier to wed a woman of a different ethnic group than was his father or mother;

-- more than a quarter of married U.S.-born Asian American women have husbands who aren't Asian;

-- one-fourth of married U.S.-born Latinos have spouses who are not Latino;

-- almost one-fifth of young, married African American men have wives who are not black.

Even more telling--rather, foretelling--is that 15% of babies being born in the state are of mixed race or mixed ethnicity, according to an analysis of birth records by the Public Policy Institute of California.

For much of this blending, we can thank the state's Latinos, who are perhaps the least ethnocentric group of all.

Latin Americans are practically all of mixed ancestry to begin with. The concept of racial purity so dear to Anglo America just doesn't compute with Latinos. Maybe that's why a large majority of California's new mixed-ancestry babies have a parent who is Latino.

Of course, as professor Daniel points out, the fuzzing of racial and ethnic lines doesn't automatically eliminate social and economic hierarchies based on skin tone. Just look at such historically mestizo cultures as Brazil and the Middle East, where darker people tend to occupy the lower reaches of society.

In our more open, opportunity-filled society, however, I like the chances of all this coming-together producing in L.A. a new reality that Detroit and other cities exhausted by race mindedness can only envy.

*

James Ricci's e-mail address is james.ricci@latimes.com

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