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Articles Blog

California's Ethnic Diversity

Karyn Planett

From Multicultural To Omnicultural 

It’s probably no secret that California is the most populous state in the Union. What may not be as well known is that it has become the most ethnically diverse as well. Consider that the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District speak 90 different languages! 

While you might think this is a result of the state’s benign climate, natural resources, or sheer size, California’s ethnic mix is really the result of geography. As the last frontier for settlers crossing the country from east to west and the first port of entry for immigrants and refugees crossing the Pacific from west to east, California has gathered them all to her ample bosom. But this social phenomenon is a work in progress. While the state has provided space enough for all to keep out of each others’ ways, this elbow room has slowed the pace of real assimilation for many of the newest cultures and even some of the older ones. 

The Chronology Of A Melting Pot 

First to arrive, of course, were the people we now refer to as Native Americans. Extensions of the tribes that crossed the Siberian land bridge to Alaska then drifted south, these were the state’s first citizens. Fueled by the granting of additional rights in the 1960’s, California now claims more Native Americans than any other state and, unlike some other groups, they have opted for integration rather than separation. 

The Hispanic influence came next. Spanish explorers arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries establishing the foundations of many of today’s cities. You cannot travel anywhere in California without being aware of the Spanish names that identify many of its towns and streets. Similarly, Spanish-speaking people have moved beyond their own communities to become more involved in state and local government. Political trouble in Central and South America has continued to drive Hispanic populations north and, since 1940, California has had the largest Mexican population outside of Mexico. Demographers predict that Hispanics will overtake Caucasians as a percentage of the state’s population in the next few years. 

A large population of Russians drifted down from Alaska as the fur trade began to peter out in the early 1800s. They established a significant settlement around Fort Ross in Mendocino County, and today there is a 25,000-strong Russian community around San Francisco. 

Next to arrive were the Chinese. First, as mineworkers during the Gold Rush, then as laborers to help build the Continental Railroad. The Chinese were subjected to open racial violence by thugs claiming they were stealing “white” jobs. The theme has been repeated many times over as other ethnic groups arrived to take on the most menial work. The violence combined with a natural inclination amongst traditional Chinese to stick close to their own and resulted in Chinese ghettos in many California cities. As younger generations have moved out into the communities, these Chinatown ghettos have evolved to become charming tourist magnets. 

The Boom Years 

After the Gold Rush and the opening of the railroads, the flood of immigrants to the state multiplied severalfold. Italian vintners arrived in the late 19th century, attracted by the climate and soil. They sparked the California wine industry and created the North Beach community in San Francisco, still home to some of the city’s finest restaurants. 

The Japanese came in the early 20th century. They were primarily farmers and helped sow the seeds of a robust agricultural industry that has become America’s salad bowl. During World War II, however, the Japanese were subjected to one of the most humiliating experiences to befall any American citizens at the hands of their own government. Interred in virtual concentration camps for the duration of the war, many lost homes and businesses that took generations to recover. 

With the increase in heavy industry during WWII, the African American population, which had been present in the state for some time, boomed afresh. Arriving mainly from the poorer southern states, they were forced into urban ghettos and suffered the low social standing, racial problems, and underrepresentation that accompanies that pattern. But, like the Hispanic community, their presence is now felt all up and down California’s political and economic structure. 

Recent Arrivals

The wars of Southeast Asia sent a new influx of refugees into the California melting pot. Long Beach has the largest population of Cambodians outside Cambodia and is known locally as “Little Phnom Penh.” Fresno has the second largest Hmong population outside Laos. These groups, along with the Vietnamese, were forced to settle in the poorer areas of California’s inner cities. But through their own industry they have transformed these dying areas into thriving communities in just a generation. 

Not everyone, though, has come to California to escape somewhere else. The state has long represented the land of opportunity for people from the rest of America as well as many distant lands. Santa Monica has a large British contingent along with more authentic pubs than any other California city. Danish immigrants founded the town of Solvang in 1911. It is a regular tourist stop in Central California. The state has the second largest Jewish community in the U.S., two-thirds of whom live in Los Angeles. And most recently, the technology revolution of Silicon Valley has brought significant numbers of Indian and Pakistani computer nerds to that region. 

Many believe that in another half-century, California will be a hybrid of cultures with no ethnic majority. It remains to be seen whether old social, religious, and political prejudices can be broken down so that California will become the first truly multicultural society or just the Balkans with palm trees.