Fifty years after the Watts riots – and 25 after the Rodney King riots – most California voters now say they think race relations are stable or improving and better than elsewhere in the United States.
Nearly 75 percent of voters described race relations in their neighborhood as good or excellent in a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll conducted March 28-April 7 and released this week.
As a new wave of racially tinged protests continues to ripple throughout the nation, some analysts are looking to California for lessons that might help promote harmony in communities struggling with racial divisions. While the survey did highlight some enduring feelings of discrimination and inequality, the overall tone of optimism about the progression towards tolerance suggests that California is doing something right.
One key driver of the overall impression of improved race relations are improving seems to be the state's growing diversity. California is 39 percent white, 38 percent Latino, 14 percent Asian, 7 percent black and 2 percent Native American, according to the latest census data. (Demographers have projected that the number of Latinos in California would overtake whites by March 2014, though accurate data is not yet available to confirm that did in fact occur.)
Perhaps even more significant than state-wide demographics is the level of diversity found within individual neighborhoods across much of the state, says pollster Dan Schnur, director of the University of Southern California’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. A majority of voters polled described their own neighborhoods as somewhat diverse. Nearly a third said they lived in very diverse areas, and most said that diversity has a positive influence on one's community.
"California is the most diverse community in the history of planet Earth," he says. “Because people have so much interaction with [those of] other races and other backgrounds, they tend to have much more positive feelings about race relations in their own neighborhoods."
More than half of poll respondents reported frequently interacting with people of a different race while running errands and attending public events. That is not necessarily the case in many US communities, where neighborhoods tend to be more segregated. This is especially true for older cities, such as Boston and Chicago, where sub-communities have been long established as ethnic enclaves.
Diversity is increasing in many communities throughout the country as well. The Census Bureau projects that, by 2043, no single group will hold claim to a majority. And by 2060, combined minorities will make up 57 percent of the population.
However, diversity alone does not guarantee harmony, Mr. Schnur is quick to point out.
“As the rest of the country becomes more diverse, the challenges won’t disappear, but the daily engagement will help immeasurably,” Schnur says.
The challenges certainly haven't disappeared from California, either.
An overwhelming majority of voters polled of all races said African Americans still face discrimination. Nearly half of African Americans and 25 percent of Latinos said they personally experience discrimination at least sometimes. Some 43 percent of all survey respondents said that they felt that polices are generally tougher on African Americans than any other group.
A report released last week pointed out significant discrepancies in the way that African Americans and Latinos are treated by California police, the court system, and employers.
'“Recent San Diego and Sacramento data show that African-American people were two to four times more likely to get pulled over for a traffic stop than white people; Hispanic people were also disproportionately stopped and searched,” according to the report prepared by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Further, research showed the job applicants with "African American sounding names" on their resume were less likely to be called in for an interview.
The persistence of inequality is even more evident in places like New York and Philadelphia, which are both highly diverse but still endure significant racial tensions, says Maurice Hall, who specializes in cross-cultural communication and diversity training at Villanova University.
What is more important than diversity, Professor Hall says, is a willingness to advocate for and enact policies that address discrimination on the part of high profile leaders.
Many California leaders intentionally "set the tone through an unapologetic discourse that frames issues of discrimination interns of the morality of the state in terms of its relationship to its citizens," he says. "This discourse sets the tone for how voters and citizens perceive themselves in relationship to those who are unlike them."
In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio has adopted such a message designed to promote harmony and tolerance across not just racial divides but across economic barriers as well through his "two cities" campaign.
Such economic barriers can be equally divisive, says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College outside of Los Angeles.
"My own suburban block includes Asians, Latinos, African Americans, and whites. We get along really well, and it is a wonderful place to live," he says.
"But there's a catch: we are all middle class." He says poor people could not afford to live in his neighborhood.
"Like just about everywhere else in America, California has a great deal of segregation by economic class. Although a number of African Americans and Latinos have achieved economic success, a disproportionate number still live in poor neighborhoods with relatively few whites. These poor neighborhoods tend to have substandard schools, and this inequality of education tends to perpetuate inequality of opportunity."