I've Seen the Future and It's Keanu Reeves

July 04, 1995|By RICHARD RODRIGUEZ

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco. -- I saw the future on the back pages of the newspaper the other day: ''More Asians Than Whites Will Enter the University of California by 2005.''

In other parts of the United States it may still be possible to imagine the future through the antique lens of the Kerner Commission Report of the 1960s: Two Americas, one white, one black.

Here in California, where mixed-race Hispanics will become the majority population, where my Latino nephews and nieces carry Scottish and German surnames, where three years ago a vast riot in Los Angeles pitted black looters against Korean shopkeepers, here in California the future does not reduce to black and white.

About 150 miles from the Berkeley campus of the University of California, in Merced -- a town of around 100,000 -- a third of the population is white or black; another third is Mexican; the final third is Cambodian. The future of Merced, California, will depend in large part on a Cambodian-Mexican dialectic never before seen in America.

To generations of Americans who arrived in California from back East, the Pacific coast was the end of the line. Land's end. Perhaps that is why many in the West never lived easily with the Asian horizon: the end of us was the beginning of them. Westerners feared the Asian; saw the Asian as alien to our purpose.

In the 19th century, Chinese laborers built the railroads in the West, but the Chinese were otherwise excluded, persecuted, relegated to Chinatowns or to the outskirts of town. Immigration laws enforced our anti-Asian bias. After Pearl Harbor, up and down the West Coast, Americans of Japanese descent were packed off to detention camps.

Today, tourist San Francisco is famous for quaint Chinatown. But the real city of San Francisco is becoming Chinese. Also Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese. Also Central American. The complex future foretold on fluttering red ribbons at the new Chinese restaurant.

New York publishers, thousands of miles away, are selling bleak versions of the American future. Last season, we learned in a book called ''The Bell Curve'' that academic success is genetic -- whites are smarter than blacks; Japanese superior to Guatemalans. This season, a book called ''Alien Nation'' argues that America is a white nation and must remain so.

Here on the ''West Coast,'' many Californians are hoping to get enough signatures to put an anti-affirmative action initiative on the ballot next year. But what will affirmative action mean in a state where Asians outperform whites? Last year Californians voted to restrict welfare benefits for illegal immigrants. But it is not welfare that is bringing immigrants to California. Immigrants are everywhere transforming this state, famous for its leisure, into a place of work.

Native-born Californians say they loved the old way. Life used to be easier, they say. They came to California to get away from the Minnesota winters. They remember when it was easier to find a parking space . . .

This morning, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, planes from Asian capitals have landed. Many Americans would tell the Asians, ''Sorry, we have run out of land -- the West Coast is the end of America.'' Asians, of course, see America in reverse -- west to east. Through Asian eyes, California is where America begins. Many Asians deplane, bringing a Confucian optimism that sounds like a Calvinist work ethic America seems to have lost.

Asian names are not yet in the society pages of the morning newspaper. A few years back, one of San Francisco's gossip columnists breathlessly announced that some rich Japanese were buying a mansion in a fancy neighborhood. It turned out that ''the Japanese'' were, in fact, Americans two generations removed from Japan.

In a few years it will not seem news. Instead of blond California we will more quickly imagine a state of racial and ethnic complexity even greater than Hawaii's. There will be more and more Californians who will resemble the actor Keanu Reeves (Chinese father; English mother). By 2005, when Asians become the predominant population at the nine campuses of the University of California, we will not be asking about whites and blacks but about the future of African-Americans in the Chinese city.

My Chinese city: San Francisco, curiously also the homosexual capital. This city of Chinese bankers and accountants and doctors and short-order cooks will remake me. This city will remake my Hispanic nieces and nephews with their German and Scottish surnames, restoring us all to an American optimism we thought was lost at the ocean's edge.

Richard Rodriguez, author of ''Days of Obligation,'' wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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