From the Atlantic Magazine.
“Behold california, colossus of the West Coast: the most populous American state; the world’s fifth-largest economy; and arguably the most culturally influential, exporting Google searches and Instagram feeds and iPhones and Teslas and Netflix Originals and kimchi quesadillas. This place inspires awe. If I close my eyes I can see silhouettes of Joshua trees against a desert sunrise; seals playing in La Jolla’s craggy coves of sun-spangled, emerald seawater; fog rolling over the rugged Sonoma County coast at sunset into primeval groves of redwoods that John Steinbeck called “ambassadors from another time.”
“This landscape is bejeweled with engineering feats: the California Aqueduct; the Golden Gate Bridge; and the ribbon of Pacific Coast Highway that stretches south of Monterey, clings to the cliffs of Big Sur, and descends the kelp-strewn Central Coast, where William Hearst built his Xanadu on a hillside where his zebras still graze. No dreamscape better inspires dreamers. Millions still immigrate to my beloved home to improve both their prospects and ours.
“Yet I fear for California’s future. The generations that reaped the benefits of the postwar era in what was the most dynamic place in the world should be striving to ensure that future generations can pursue happiness as they did. Instead, they are poised to take the California Dream to their graves by betraying a promise the state has offered from the start.
“The writer Carey McWilliams captured that promise in California: The Great Exception, the definitive celebration of California’s founding myth—the way the Golden State long preferred to understand itself. “Published in 1949, just ahead of the state’s centennial, it told the story of California’s rise from a sparsely populated Spanish territory to a world-altering force. McWilliams’s tale begins on the eve of statehood with the discovery of gold on a river near the western slopes of the Sierras. That find sparked the Gold Rush and then a mass migration that transformed the Pacific Rim. Northern and southern whites mingled with free Blacks, runaway slaves, newly naturalized immigrants, and foreign dreamers from the Americas, Asia, Australia, and Europe. “We have here in our midst a mixed mass of human beings from every part of the wide earth, of different habits, manners, customs, and opinions, all, however, impelled onward by the same feverish desire of fortune-making,” wrote Peter H. Burnett, who soon became the state’s first governor.
“By 1850, when California entered the union with a constitution that banned slave labor by consensus, the features that would define the state were already established: It attracted a wildly diverse population and offered everyone save its Native tribes unprecedented opportunity, if not yet equal rights. California, the social scientist Davis McEntire observed, meant to America what America meant to the rest of the world.
“The Gold Rush made San Francisco a global capital. And in its earliest years, the city was more closely connected to the Pacific Rim than to the East Coast establishment, permitting it to enter the global stage on its own terms. “Of all the marvelous phases of the Present,” the poet Bayard Taylor wrote, “San Francisco will most tax the belief of the Future,” as it “seemed to have accomplished in a day the growth of half a century.” In the 1850s, McWilliams wrote, the city published more books than the rest of the U.S. west of the Mississippi, printed more newspapers than London, and popped seven bottles of champagne for each one opened in Boston, thanks to North America’s highest per capita income. Circa 1860, with the transcontinental railroad incomplete and the Panama Canal a distant dream, four people out of five residing in California were born elsewhere. Mexicans had just been overtaken as the largest foreign-born group––that year, every 10th person in California was Chinese, and both would soon be overtaken by the Irish.
“The easy gold didn’t last forever, but the state continued to thrive. “In California the lights went on all at once, in a blaze,” McWilliams wrote, “and they have never been dimmed.” Across its first century, California kept attracting fortune seekers both foreign and domestic, its population always growing.Then came World War II and the postwar boom, transforming Southern California as dramatically as the Gold Rush had changed the Bay Area.
“Of course, that celebratory narrative elides California’s many failures to do right by its wildly diverse inhabitants. The Gold Rush devastated Indigenous people in mining regions and coincided with atrocities against Native tribes. Californians later played an outsize role in lobbying for the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. During the 1930s, Angelenos were so resistant to Dust Bowl migrants that they deployed a posse of Los Angeles Police Department officers to the state lines to turn back “Okies” and other “undesirables.” And Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps during the war years. Yet even when its intolerance was waxing rather than waning, the state was often more diverse and inclusive than the rest of the world.
“On one hand, Jefferson Edmonds, the editor of a newspaper serving Los Angeles’s Black community, declared in 1902 that “California is the greatest state for the Negro,” and W. E. B. Du Bois echoed the sentiment in 1913, writing,
“Los Angeles was wonderful. The air was scented with orange blossoms and the beautiful homes lay low crouching on the earth as though they loved its scents and flowers. Nowhere in the United States is the Negro so well and beautifully housed, nor the average efficiency and intelligence in the colored population so high. Here is an aggressive, hopeful group––with some wealth, large industrial opportunity and a buoyant spirit.
“On the other hand, the optimism of African Americans who moved to the state in the first decades of the 20th century gave way to feelings of betrayal at subjugation, famously boiling over in riots in 1965 and again in 1992.
“As recently as the 1990s, the state appeared to be trending less toward easygoing diversity than toward violent balkanization and draconian crackdowns on undocumented immigrants. As murders spiked, doomsayers talked as if additional newcomers would make the state more dangerous.
“Yet more immigrants came. Those most uncomfortable with diversity left. Crime fell significantly. And the xenophilia that followed––the relaxed attitude so many Californians exhibit in the face of difference––is a triumph. Californians are more committed than ever to equality under the law. Past mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, Chinese nationals, African Americans, Dust Bowl transplants, Japanese Americans, Hispanic immigrants, gays and lesbians, and trans people are now appropriately sources of shame. Enormous inequalities of opportunity remain, and the state is far from perfect. Still, California continues to welcome fortune seekers of widely varying backgrounds, and has never come so close to living up to half of its mythic inheritance.
“But even as California began to truly embrace its diversity, laying part of the foundation for a better future, the state’s leaders and residents shut the door on economic opportunity, betraying the other half of the state’s foundational promise. They forgot that California has always thrived by embracing both cultural and economic dynamism. There are still neighborhoods enough to house the wealthy. The brightest still thrive at Stanford, Berkeley, and UCLA. Tech investors and innovators still strike gold in Silicon Valley. Alas, the economic prospects for the typical resident have dimmed. Millions of people lack adequate housing, education, or jobs. College-educated Millennials can’t afford homes of their own. Poverty-stricken Californians dwell in growing tent cities. “During the pandemic, something occurred that McWilliams would have found unthinkable: a net loss in population. California is still forecast to add millions of additional residents in coming years, but though they may be treated more equally than in the past, the state is unprepared to offer them upward mobility.
“If California fails to offer young people and newcomers the opportunity to improve their lot, the consequences will be catastrophic—and not only for California. The end of the California Dream would deal a devastating blow to the proposition that such a widely diverse polity can thrive. Indeed, blue America’s model faces its most consequential stress test in one of its safest states, where a spectacular run of almost unbroken prosperity could be killed by a miserly approach to opportunity.”
Retrieved July 22, 2021 from The California Dream Is Dying – The Atlantic