Dream On: California's Golden Ambition has Become a Nightmare for Some

The California dream (known since the freedom '60s as California dreamin') has always been a particular subset of the American dream. The national bedrock aspirations of personal fulfillment and prosperity maintained across generations get visualized here as endless sun and surf, houses sequestered from each other by bright green lawns and hedges. The real luxury we lust after is not money--not obviously, anyway--but the security and solace of workable, almost resort-like communities free of the kind of breathing-down-your-neck urban grittiness associated with great but also despoiled big cities like New York and Chicago, even Oakland. L.A. is the big city of promise that's supposed to be the exception to the despoilment rule. And California as a state is supposed to be an eternal exception among its fellow forty-nine.

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But the days of our dream are looking numbered. At this morning's panel of the Pat Brown Institute's annual policy conference at Cal State L.A., titled "Reclaiming the California Dream," I and two other California-centric panelists admitted as much. The evidence all points down, we were sorry to say. Example: CSLA professor and demographer Ali Modarres said California has slowed in terms of population growth, partly because immigration has slowed. That might warm the hearts of the anti-immigration crowd, but the fact is they aren't coming because our economy sucks--we don't have much to offer. And the would-be immigrants aren't the only ones suffering from that fact.

The African American population growth is nonexistent to negative, a fact that wouldn't be so worrisome if blacks were doing well as a group, or had posted significant progress over the last decade. But they are mired in the cellar on all the social indicators that count--employment, education, life span--and in this struggling economy they're only getting more entrenched.

Arturo Vargas of the National Assn of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials delivered the most upbeat report of the morning with his breakdown of how Latinos, the county's majority population and growing, are standing and fighting for more electoral districts in the wake of redistricting that reflects that growth. There are no guarantees that Latinos will get the representation their numbers deserve right away, but the point is they're trending up. They have something to look forward to, something to claim. Claiming--and especially reclaiming--has been tough for the rest of us, especially blacks. Its hard to get back what you never quite had in the first place.

The most telling moment came when a black woman at the mic during Q & A somewhat angrily asked Vargas why he wasn't including other people besides Latinos in his redistricting discussion. She said she felt "left out." Vargas looked blank for a moment before answering that representing Latino concerns was what he had been called to the panel to do. He was right, of course, and the woman didn't argue with him. But her sentiment was really speaking to something else: where were blacks in the conversation about collective fortune? Where and how do they figure in the future of this state that, despite its decline, is still golden in the minds of many?

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The photo used on this post is by Flickr user kitch. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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