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California Resettled

The future Golden State will be the home of ever-increasing bipolar, even tripolar, identities and styles. Will it have a common culture?

April 22, 2001|KEVIN STARR | Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, is State Librarian of California and university professor at USC. The latest volume of his history of California is "The Dream Endures, California Enters the 1940s."

The future of California, according to Census 2000, will not look like a scene from "Gidget" or the cover of a Beach Boys album. Rather, it will look like a Benetton commercial or a clip from the music video "We Are the World." It will, in cultural terms, be predominantly Latino and Asian. In chronological terms, it will be the Millennial Generation. All this could change should there be a surge in immigration from one part of the world or another. But there is little chance that this surge would come from Ireland, Norway or Sweden. If it comes, the likely source would be Mexico, Central America or Asia and would thus intensify the Latino-Asian dominance in the emerging culture of the Golden State.

Because it is possessed of such racial and ethnic clarity, this up-and-coming Latino, Asian and young California prompts an obvious question. What will California be like when they come of age? What will California be like when they come into dominance?

Certainly, we have evidence aplenty with the baby boomers as to how a generation can dominate its era. As a member of the pre-boomer Silent Generation, squeezed between the Depression-World War II generation and the baby boomers, I have had ample experience of the power of generational identity. Only within the last decade has the Depression-World War II generation begun to let go, and this only because it is reaching the end of its allotted life span. Ever since the 1960s, the baby boomers have taken for granted that the central generational drama of American life has been them. If it weren't for 60-year-old Vice President Dick Cheney, my Silent Generation would have never gotten near the White House, which passed from a Depression-World War II president (George Bush the elder) to baby boomer Bill Clinton.

The baby-boomer phenomenon was significantly, but not exclusively, white. It was also significantly, but not exclusively, middle class in orientation. It was baby boomers, after all, who fought the Vietnam War as grunts on the ground and protested it back home on campus. Yet, there is little in the baby-boomer phenomenon to suggest color, ethnicity and the working and lower-middle classes, despite the fact that so many Americans born between 1946 and 1964 were people of color and blue-collar whites.

The current Generation X, by contrast, which is just ahead of the under-18 Millennial Generation, is not only more conservative (or should we say realistic?) than the baby boomers, it is also more racially and culturally diverse. It represents a demographic transition from the white-dominated baby-boomer generation to the Latino-Asian-dominated Millennial Generation. It also shows characteristics that will intensify when the Millennial Generation comes into its own.

First, young California, Latinos and Asians especially, will sustain a certain bipolar cultural identity and style. Since there will be a less powerful white culture to assimilate to, as was the case when whiteness dominated the mainstream, Millennial Generation California will not feel the pressure to assimilate that second-generation Irish, German, Slavic, Italian, Greek and Jewish young Americans experienced in an earlier era. Their cultural styles and identities, in other words, will remain more discernibly rooted in their prior cultures and heritages. Nearly everyone--and this includes a growing number of whites-- will be bi- or even tri-lingual.

Mainstream culture will not only reflect the diversity of the population, it will also reinforce this growing condition of bipolar, or even tripolar, identities. A few years ago, certain Anglo Southern Californians were shocked when Mexican Americans cheered for Mexico's team, as opposed to America's team, at the 1999 World Cup soccer championship games in Pasadena. For the Millennial Generation, such dual or even triple responses will be commonplace.

Will there be a common culture, a common California? Yes, but it will be on a different model. Certainly, interacting cultural identities will affect and flavor each other. Already, Southern California can boast Korean American bagpipe players, Japanese American surfer dudes, white homeboys, Latinos who do stand-up shtick. Already, we Californians are beginning to resemble each other. Even our bloodlines are coalescing, as indicated in Census 2000, which reveals a growing number of Californians, especially the 7.3% in the under-18 category, who see themselves as a blend of two, sometimes three, racial and ethnic identities. Given Hawaii, can California be far behind?

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