Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963 (Americans and the California Dream)
Oxford University Press, 2009
564 pp., $34.95
Reviewed by Preston Jones
A California State of Mind
The sense that California has gone wrong isn't new. Starr tells us that, already in the late 19th century, Californians were romanticizing a "golden memory of pastoral days." But the fruitless hope that California could somehow carry on in all its sun-soaked goldenness was dashed by the fact that people never stopped coming. The truth that Californians, from San Francisco down, have liked to groan about ceaseless growth doesn't change the reality that development has been an entrenched element of the state's identity. Street signs in East Highland have picturesque oranges painted on them in memory of the groves that were plucked for the sake of subdivisions. Post cards and railroad advertisements decorated with paintings of those vanished groves once served to lure an earlier wave of settlers. Now residents with lone, sickly citrus trees in their yards can feel like pioneers.
People kept going; they keep going. The result is that many are leaving; in my little Arkansas town, one regularly meets Golden State refugees. But California's overall numbers continue to increase. Obviously the single greatest wave of recent migrants to California has come from the Deep South. In the past few decades, Mexican immigrants, legal and not, have changed California. Starr cites observers who think of L.A. as Mexico's second-largest city. Perhaps one could say that these latest comers have, in a sense, returned California to what it was before it was lost to Mexico in a conflict that, even the fiercest Yankee patriots must admit, would have a difficult time standing up to the rigors of just war theory.
The surge of immigration to the United States since the mid-1960s has provoked an endless flow of commentary, pro and con. In his 2003 book Mexifornia: A State of Becoming, Victor Davis Hanson, a classics professor and fellow at the Hoover Institute, argues that immigration to the U.S. is a basic component of Mexican government policy, movement to the States serving as a safety valve and holding place for folks who would otherwise be a drain on the already flaccid Mexican system. Hanson complains about the mass importation of habits that have done nothing to mitigate poverty in Mexico, and he supports his case with tales of what has happened on and around his forty-acre farm in California's Central Valley. Perhaps Hanson also worries about what follows when such habits meet America's popular culture, with its fixation on violence and brainlessness. One consequence—which Starr discusses—has been the problem of mutual murder between black and Hispanic gangs, chiefly in Los Angeles and its environs, though a Catholic priest told me the other day that the same problem has arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas. It also needs to be said that the mortifying bloodshed in Tijuana, which is joined culturally and economically to the San Diego area, is tightly linked to the American demand for drugs, not to mention the weaponry that flows from north to south.
Focusing on the American side of things, Hanson worries about people living for decades in an American state and never feeling compelled to learn English. "If we were committed to metering immigration and demanding language immersion and complete assimilation of all new arrivals," he writes, "California could handle a steady stream of legal Mexican immigrants." One problem, he says, is a self-defeating American reluctance to require assimilation, based partly on doubts among Americans of influence about the merits of their own country. Thus, he suggests, "a big state with plenty of room is already too crowded for what we have become"—a society in which the wealthy of Malibu and the poor of L.A.'s barrios couldn't talk things out even if they wanted to.
I've already noted that Starr too often mistakes ponderous labeling for explanation—"[r]acist contempt," "racist abuse," "racist mythology," "lurid racism"—but the man has eyes and can see real problems. In 1997, he writes, California alone had over 40 percent of the entire country's English-limited students in its schools, and some 80 percent of these were Spanish speakers. Starr recognizes that it was never plausible, as some argued, that California's popular, bilingual-education ending Proposition 227 was driven chiefly by ethnic animus. Many immigrant voters supported the measure. But whatever anti-immigrant animus there has been in California has found sustenance in numbers like those provided by the U.S. Justice Department, which stated in 2003 that some 108,000 prisoners in California jails were illegal immigrants who had committed post-entry crimes.