SAN DIEGO -- In a commencement address at a scenic University of California campus here tomorrow, President Clinton will urge Americans to take stock of their actions, their words and even their hearts as the nation hurtles toward a more multicultural and ethnically diverse future.
The setting would seem to be fitting. In the last decade of the 20th century, Southern California has been the scene of a deadly race riot and the divisive murder trial of O. J. Simpson. Angry California voters passed one controversial initiative, Proposition 187, outlawing social spending on illegal immigrants, and Proposition 209, that does away with state-sanctioned affirmative action programs.
Yet the portrait of race relations here is best painted, not in the usual colors of black and white -- or even shades of gray -- but rather in all the hues of human pigment. For the truth is that Southern Californians are already living the multiethnic future that Bill Clinton envisions.
"Out here cultural diversity is not an academic concept, it's an everyday fact of life," says Harry Pachon, president of the Thomas Rivera Policy Institute at Claremont College.
The evidence is everywhere: at Los Angeles' kosher Chinese restaurant, Genghis Kohn (not to be confused with the Kosher Burrito); on the evening news, where the Spanish-language nightly news on Channel 34 is the top-rated news show in Southern California; in the huge increase in interracial marrying -- and of mixed-race children.
"What California is doing, to use the 'Star Wars' parlance, is treading in territory where no one has gone before," says Joel Kotkin, a research fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy. "California is becoming a mestizo society."
And change seems to be moving at warp speed.
In Los Angeles County, there are 5,000 inter-ethnic marriages a year now -- five times the national average, say population experts at Pepperdine. O.J. Simpson's children are a product of such a union; so are film star Keanu Reeves and golfing phenom Tiger Woods.
Southern California pollster Sergio Bendixen says that in April's Los Angeles mayoral election, Latinos nearly doubled their percentage of the vote from four years before, from 8 percent to 15 percent. He expects it to double again in the next election in 2001.
The California Department of Finance projects that non-Hispanic whites will be a plurality -- the largest ethnic group but less than 50 percent -- within five years. But according to UCLA demographer David Hayes-Bautista,this change has already occurred; he says it came last year.
"We're all minorities now," says Gregory Rodriguez, a California demographer and writer. "We're actually working on the second level now. By the year 2020, Latinos will be the majority group in the largest state in the country. In other words, the center of the cultural matrix in the state that sets America's cultural trends switches from Anglo to Latino."
In this society of the future, African-Americans are no longer America's second largest racial/ethnic group -- or even third, if current trends hold up -- but fourth, behind Asian-Americans.
For this reason, some Californians wonder if Clinton, with an experience rooted in the black-white civil rights struggles of the old South, understands the complexity of the racial mix here.
This criticism is aimed less at Clinton than at an Eastern establishment that seems less aware of the changes sweeping America. A Gallup Poll on racial attitudes released this week -- and embraced eagerly by the White House -- didn't ask questions about Hispanic or Asian concerns.
"Curious when you consider that the Census Bureau says Latinos will be the largest minority by 2006," said Pachon. "That's less than 10 years away."
President is aware
White House aides say the president is keenly aware of the evolving and complex nature of race in California and the rest of the country -- and, indeed, it's one of the reasons he chose to make tomorrow's speech here. One of his top advisers on the much anticipated race initiative he is launching with tomorrow's speech is a Latina, Maria Echaveste.
In addition, the president's new seven-person advisory commission on race, announced yesterday, includes a Korean-American and a Latino, and his new deputy attorney general for civil rights is Chinese-American.
"We're a nation that is changing," said deputy White House chief of staff Sylvia Mathews. "The president wants to highlight that reality."
The advisory panel is to report to Clinton sometime next year. In the meantime, Mathews said, the president will make a speech or take some kind of action related to race relations once a month.