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LOS ANGELES--Like rush hour traffic on the southbound Santa Ana Freeway on those days when Al Cowlings and O.J. Simpson aren't driving with a police escort, Los Angeles--if you believe the elite, non-avaca-do-eating East Coast media--is in a bad way.
According to these narrow, Eastern minds, L.A. is being overrun by a slew of evils, including earthquakes, fires, riots, mudslides, defense cutbacks, immigrant bashers, Forrest Gump lovers and the aforementioned Mr. Simpson's defense team.
Readers of the New York Times could be forgiven for thinking that California's economy is in free fall, that illegal immigrants to the state are more often harassed than employed, and that our police chief takes orders from Satan and not Mayor Richard Riordan.
But a late March week in Southern California provides ample evidence that Los Angeles remains our nation's brightest symbol of the triumph of the democratic experiment. Like the weather this week, the area's future is sunny, with almost no clouds in a very blue sky.
Angelenos know that America, no matter what Washington pundits tell us, is not about politics, finding consensus or trying to get 51 percent of the people to agree with you. America is great because it's a place where we celebrate craziness and disagreement.
That's why the most important news last month was that rap singer Eazy-E (a.k.a. Eric Wright) had died March 26 of complications of AIDS.
For many, Wright was a hateful figure. His death, with his parents, new wife and a personal security representative from the Nation of Islam by his side, will do nothing to dispel that notion for some.
But Wright, a poet from the bad neighborhoods of Compton, was a prophet. In 1989, the group N.W.A., which he co-founded, produced one of the most important songs of the past decade, "Fuck tha Police," Police officers around the country objected strongly to the song; an FBI official sent N.W.A. a threatening letter.
The song was no love ballad. Its images were graphic, and many of the lyrics on the album, "Straight Outta Compton," were downright misogynist. But Wright was dead on in describing the rage minorities feel, often justifiably, towards law enforcement. After the Los Angeles riots bore out his point, Wright told the L.A. Times: "We were criticized a lot when we first released that song, but I guess now after what happened...people might look differently on the situation."
Many Easterners, particularly white ones, look at Wright as a symptom of an ugly, ultimately passing phase in American culture. In point of fact, Eazy-E was a thoughtful entrepreneur who helped start the careers of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube (although he exchanged angry words at times with both former N.W.A. members).
He was politically involved enough to receive an invitation from Bob Dole to a Republican "Inner Circle" luncheon in 1991. And he fended off criticism after courageously defending Theodore Briseno, one of the officers in the Rodney King case, because "he was the only one I saw who was trying to stop the beating."
His death was the loss of an important young American, the kind of compelling person that only L.A. seems able to produce these days.
East Coast types think of race relations as a Black-white project, but they often fail to recognize that the most important trend in Southern California's racial mix is the growing number of Lations.
Lations constitute an estimated 40 percent of Los Angeles county residents, and they will likely be a majority within a decade. Their presence in the city is strong. Many public messages are printed in both English and Spanish. A scan of the radio dial reveals almost as many Spanish-language stations as English-language.
The sheer number of new arrivals from Latin America has given many Latinos the cultural room to preserve the Spanish language and culture. The use of Spanish among second-and third-generation Lations is growing. Both liberals and conservatives misunderstand this trend. Both sides see it as a triumph of multiculturalism, which, depending on their politics, can bode well or poorly for the nation's future.
The reality is that corporations and rampant consumerism are the driving forces behind the resurgence of Latino culture and the Spanish language. Modern marketing has become increasingly interested in targeting specific audiences, and one easy way to divide the general audience is by language. Ad campaigns on L.A.'s Spanish-language TV stations now seem better-made than those on their English-language counterparts.
For Republicans worried that Latinos aren't assimilating quickly enough, this trend is a source of concern. In order to advance the conservative goal of cultural cohesion, conservatives may have to do what they hate to do: regulate the market. Liberals are also in a quandry. The hated corporate America, as much as their treasured multicultural ideas, is giving them the kind of society they say they want.
A majority-Latinos L.A. promises to be a proving ground for whether white America is really ready for a multiracial 21st century. The future looks promising. The number of Latinos getting involved in their communities through service, cultural and political groups is growing. The most common name on mortgage applications in L.A. last year was Garcia. And the strong family ties and work ethic implicit in Mexican culture (85 percent of the area's Latinos are of Mexican origin) are likely to help most L.A. Latinos rise from the underclass within a generation.
Still, two troubling trends persist. For one, even with Proposition 187 on the ballot last fall, very few eligible Latinos made it to the polls. For another, African-Americans are growing increasingly resentful of Latinos, who are winning away Blacks' service and government jobs because they have a newly marketable skill: they speak Spanish.
Economics is an inexact science. But that doesn't explain the misinformation in the popular press about the California economy.
To be sure, some of the numbers coming out of the state look awful. According to the Washington Post, 140,000 of the 350,000 aerospace jobs added in the state during the 1980s were eliminated by 1992. Environmental regulations have slowed growth. The once unassailable Southern California real estate market is hurting.
But what the critics don't understand is that California's economy has been the nation's strongest not because of government largesse but because of the state's diversity. Defense cuts didn't hurt as much as some claim because, in fact, California is less dependent on defense and military spending than Massachusetts.
In addition, California is taking better advantage of the emerging global market than any other state in the union. As a key point on the Pacific Rim, L.A. has seen an almost uninterrupted surge in the number of jobs in international trade. The region's technology industry continues to benefit from profitable export licenses. Cheap office space has attracted many foreign businesses that used to think of New York as the only cosmopolitan American city.
Governor Pete Wilson, who might be Phil Gramm's vice president, has made an oppressive worker's compensation system more business-friendly, and has at least tried to tackle long term problems like the state budget and illegal immigration.
And real estate in California is cheaper and more appealing to companies than land is in most Rocky Mountain states. Joel Kotkin, author of California, Inc. and a professional optimist of sorts, reports in the L.A. Times that more business are entering California than leaving.
What the East Coast pessimists also fail to understand is the tremendous capacity of Southern Californians for innovation. Kotkin, in a 1990 piece in the Washington Post, told the story of Joe Soulia, owner of the defense electronics firm Infotec Development Inc. Soulia's Santa Ana-based firm adjusted to military cutbacks by selling its computer software services to "public and private customers outside the military."
This is not to say that L.A. is a city without problems. The new subway project is a mess. (Given its beautiful weather, Los Angeles is not a city meant to be traveled underground.) The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences didn't nominate Hoop Dreams for a best documentary Oscar. Crime remains frighteningly high. And white flight in some Southern California communities threatens to break up the multiethnic mold that is the secret to the area's past and future success.
But a growing number of white Los Angeles residents seem to understand that their economic futures depend on the education and productivity of a non-white work force. And that will mean radical changes for Southern California's workplaces and culture. Of course, it is natural for people inside and outside L.A. to fear these changes, and much of the mindless East Coast criticism of the area makes sense in this context.
In failing to celebrate and truly understand Los Angeles' distinctiveness, Easterners are failing to embrace their future. For a sneak preview, hop on a plane to California.
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