How Stockton, Calif., has resisted political polarization
Stockton – and the San Joaquin Valley in general – provide a window on an increasingly rare phenomenon: what happens when people with a broad range of histories, ethnicities, and ideologies rely on one another.
Stockton, Calif. —When customers walk into Farmers Feed Co., Mike Fleming’s first priority is to make them feel at ease. He goes out of his way to befriend his clientele, “whether they spend a dollar or $300.” When he sees a customer struggling to speak English, he uses his bit of Spanish to communicate with them.
“When they see me – I’m a white guy – actually speaking Spanish, they see me kind of being vulnerable and putting myself out there for them,” says Mr. Fleming, whose family-owned pet and farm supply business has stood at 1302 East Miner Street near downtown Stockton since 1941. “It makes them feel more comfortable … and that’s what I like.”
It’s an approach to immigrant communities that popular narratives don’t often associate with Trump supporters – and Fleming did vote for the president last November.
But it is, Fleming says, pretty typical of Stockton.
A city whose historic ties to agriculture have helped it retain a streak of classic conservatism, Stockton’s population today is 70 percent people of color and 15 percent non-citizens. Immigrants both documented and undocumented work and live with conservative landowners, growers, and businessmen – and family values, hard work, and individual merit are principles that sit side-by-side with opportunity, tolerance, and equality.
The result is that Stockton – and the San Joaquin Valley in general – provide a snapshot of an increasingly rare reality in 2017 America: what happens when people with a broad range of histories, ethnicities, and ideologies rely on one another within the same community. Immigrant advocates here are less inclined to alienate those on the opposite end of the political spectrum by shutting down Republican voices. Local conservatives also tend to be more open to immigration reforms that involve pathways to citizenship for undocumented workers. “We see all kinds of different people walk through here,” Fleming notes, referring to both his store and his city. “Once they come in, we've got to make them feel welcome.”
“In communities where a lot of undocumented immigrants live and work, people are more sympathetic to them,” notes Sarah Trumble, deputy director of social policy and politics at Third Way, a centrist think tank in Washington. “The places most concerned about immigrants are places where [immigration] is not a part of their daily lives.”
No room for an echo chamber
Few people wrestle with that dynamic more than Michael Tubbs, Stockton’s 27-year-old mayor. In many ways Mr. Tubbs embodies the wave of liberalism that has been sweeping across California for the past three decades: In November, he ran a grassroots campaign as a Democrat against Republican incumbent Anthony Silva, promising to promote diversity, reduce violence, and create more jobs. He won with 70 percent of the vote and became the city’s first black mayor and the youngest in its history.
Yet as a Stockton native – he was raised in South Stockton by a single mother – Tubbs is very aware of the complex racial and political dynamics at play in his city. “You could be in a meeting and you’d never know so-and-so was a big supporter of Bill O’Reilly, or so-and-so voted for Trump and gave a lot of money to his campaign,” he says. “Because we’re forced to come together, the conversations aren’t in an echo chamber.”
Given that reality, a city official who wants to get things done has little room to pander to one side or the other with extreme positions on polarizing issues like immigration, Tubbs says. For instance, while he and his city council passed a resolution in February affirming their support for the local immigrant community and the police department’s hands-off policy toward immigration enforcement, Tubbs says he keeps an open line of communication with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the region.
Just because he disagrees with a group or individual or what they represent, he says, “that’s not going to stop me from having a conversation if I need to have a conversation with you. I think this community gets that.”
José Rodriguez certainly does. As president and chief executive officer of El Concilio – a social services organization that caters to immigrant families across the Central Valley – he’s sensitive to the plight of undocumented workers. “But we have to be strategic about how and where we advocate for the community,” Mr. Rodriguez says. That could mean, for example, approaching sheriff’s departments and city leaders with a lighter touch than they might if they operated in a more liberal enclave. “We don’t necessarily go up there and ask them to take a public position supporting undocumented immigrants. That approach can be counterproductive,” he says. “We work individually … quietly.”
The same is true of Bruno Joseph Cerri, co-owner of Cerri Family Feed in South Stockton. A self-professed conservative, he values individual effort and is reluctant to suggest that undocumented workers should get a free pass into the country. But as a family man – not to mention the great-great-grandson of Italian immigrants – he empathizes with those who risk everything for a shot at a better life for their kids. “If I was in a pickle too, I would go out and pick tomatoes myself, if it means supporting my family,” he says. “I’d do whatever.”
'Us' instead of 'them'
This isn’t to say that Stockton is a political utopia where Republicans and Democrats live in harmony. In the past decade the city has dealt with bankruptcy, a spike in violent crime, and clashes between police and protesters – events charged with political, socioeconomic, and racial tension. But interviews with Stockton residents and community leaders do suggest that when people view one another as part of the same group – when they are able to empathize with one another because they live and work together – compromise and compassion are more likely to become viable options. “It’s easy to say, ‘Get these people out, build the wall,’ when it’s ‘these people,’ ” Tubbs says. “When you put a live person in front of them, like their hairdresser or their kid’s best friend, then it’s different.”
In a 2016 article, University of California, Berkeley, researchers john a. powell and Stephen Menendian use the term “othering” to describe the processes and conditions that deny certain groups full membership in society, and thus breed and bolster group-based inequality. Othering, they write, is at the heart of policies that marginalize some groups while advancing others – from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which outright banned Chinese workers from becoming citizens, to more insidious patterns of residential segregation that deny poor communities of color access to resources.
Forming personal relationships with people from other groups could help combat prejudice and racism and move hearts and minds toward empathy, Mr. Menendian says. But he’s skeptical that it’s enough to shake the structures of inequity that perpetuate negative attitudes in the first place.
"Institutional forces have a life of their own once put into motion,” Menendian says. “If you focus on institutional relationships” – like the connection between voting districts and political polarization, or between state budgets and prison construction – “you can do a better job of moving toward equality in the policy sphere.”
From where Tubbs is standing, however, that’s exactly what he and his team are trying to do. By forging ties with people from a range of backgrounds and with a range of beliefs and opinions, he is better able to govern a constituency that is as diverse in ideology as it is in ethnicity. He sees it as being a pragmatist rather than a purist.
“We’re not just making policy for people who are 3,000 miles away or 100 miles away,” Tubbs says. “We’re making policy for people we’re going to see at church tomorrow or that we’re going to see at dinner. And presidents come and go, but policy is what stays on the books.”