The Conflict to Come
By Jack Cashill
May 2006 issue
In one of those cool moments of cosmic justice, the success of Thomas Frank’s preposterous critique of red state America—What’s The Matter With Kansas—has inspired a retaliatory book, What’s The Matter With California, that yours truly has been contracted to pen.
To that end I spent a good chunk of this past month in Southern California. What I learned there has, I believe, future ramifications for Kansas City, especially along one fault line that the media here—and there—are busily ignoring.
I should admit up front that I like Los Angeles and the area around it more than I am supposed to. As a champion of sprawl, I do not suffer the planner’s anguish at seeing people transporting themselves at the time of their choosing from point A to point B comfortably and privately. Yes, there are a gazillion cars on the road at any given time. That they move as well as they do—indeed, that they move at all—continues to impress me.
Nor do I believe, as many in California do, that human beings have ruined the planet, let alone the state of California. As I see it, the more people the merrier. Hell, I grew up in New Jersey, which has nearly five times as many people per square mile as California. I know, a lot of California is desert and what not, but Palm Springs was pure desert, and now it’s pretty tolerable. Any place where the Sonny Bono Freeway intersects Bob Hope Drive has a lot to recommend it.
No, the most pressing problem—though by no means the most profound—is the presumption that there are many more people in California than documented. Conventional wisdom places the number of illegal immigrants in the country at about 12 million, maybe half of whom are alleged to reside in California.
I have come to distrust this number. Any time that the forces both pro and con have an interest in inflating a given figure—one side to threaten with, the other side to be threatened by—you can be sure that the number is out of whack.
I drove extensively through the barrios in East L.A. and visited with the administrators of the city of Maywood, a 97 percent Hispanic city that has boldly declared itself a sanctuary for illegal immigrants. And yet, truth be told, Maywood looks less like Mexicali than it does Mayberry RFD. In Maywood, there are no Hoovervilles or tent cities, no sprawling encampments Okie-style. If there are scores of thousands of illegal immigrants here as claimed, they are impressively well concealed.
Of the 25 or so Hispanic service workers with whom I had contact in California last month, 24 of them spoke solid English. It is highly unlikely that they are here illegally. The business classes have convinced themselves that the Southern California economy would collapse if the undocumented were sent home, but they have bought into the activist-spawned myth that most of the Hispanic service workers they see are here illegally. They are not.
Despite the concern about illegal immigration, there is minimal friction between Anglos and Hispanics in Southern California. White progressive Californians actually embrace the illegal cause because it allows them to feel more racially enlightened than their fellow citizens and still get their gardens tended at a bargain. Win-win.
If illegal immigration is a top of mind issue among the affluent in California, not one such person with whom I spoke mentioned black-white race relations as an issue. Indeed, there was no talk at all about African-Americans. It’s as if in the wake of Rodney King and OJ the collective California psyche had repressed all memory of black existence.
Blacks, however, are just as aware of their own existence as they ever were. They are also keenly aware of the illegal immigrant population as they are more likely to suffer its real consequences than are white Californians. Disproportionately, they share the streets with the undocumented, the schools, the job opportunities and, unfortunately for all, the prisons.
The prisons are the flashpoint. Hispanics, many of them illegal immigrants, now outnumber blacks in the state prisons and county jails and tend to be better organized. They are also allied with the white supremacist prison gangs like the Aryan Nation.
This power shift has led to chronic “brown-on-black” violence and numerous lockdowns through the state. Racial battles in the LA County jails in February lasted more than two weeks, involved more than a thousand prisoners, left several hundred injured and at least two dead. Black prisoners have had to ask the authorities for protection from their brown brothers.
“For those that don’t know,” observes one insider, “the streets of LA are ruled by prison politics.” The rioting has moved to the schools, and several of these have recently gone into lockdown mode as well. Says this same ex-con, “Lunchtime in the Los Angeles high schools has become something you can compare to year release in the state prisons system.” The one high school that I visited looked more like a prison than most prisons, ringed as it was by an eight-foot high iron fence with its menacing spikes turned outwards.
Terry Anderson, a native Californian and a long time resident of South Central L.A., has launched a weekly radio show around the issue of illegal immigration. “They told me a one-issue show would never last,” Anderson confided to me, “but that was six years ago.” The day I talked to Anderson he had just come from a rally of African Americans against illegal immigration staged in South Central. Among those speaking were members of the “Black Minutemen.”
“The anger was overflowing,” said Anderson. For Anderson, the issue was not just violence in the prisons and schools, but jobs. Given the choice between legal residents with high expectations and illegal residents with low ones, he asked, “Who would you hire?” A week later, a group called “Mothers On The March” staged a rally at LA’s Crenshaw High “to protest the loss of jobs in the Black community to illegal aliens.”
In a city as fragmented as Los Angeles, it is altogether possible to ignore everything unpleasant until it literally goes up in smoke. When I asked one young screenwriter how all this affected him, he shrugged, “It doesn’t. I’m a Roman citizen.” The problems, he implied, are left to the plebeians to sort out.
Life seems to happen first in California. If so, the sounds of head banging even in our own fair city may soon enough drown out the sounds of head patting among the suburban elite. The flash point problem isn’t the number of Hispanics, or even their legal status, but rather where they are located.
Jack Cashill is Ingram's Executive Editor and has affiliated with the magazine for 27 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this column are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ingram's Magazine.
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