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The Ugly Side of California

racism California Asian
Phil Chu
Phil Chu
Making software since the 80s

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at the recent anti-Mexican sentiment. It’s not that recent. I wrote this during the 2008 presidential race.

Recently, a neighbor of mine undergoing some financial difficulty complained to me that if she had a Hispanic last name, she’d be getting all kinds of free services. If she really believes that, well, nothing’s stopping her from legally changing her name, but this isn’t the first time I’ve heard that kind of talk, since I moved to California, and not just in Orange County where a the mayor of Costa Mesa is an honorary Minuteman.

In fact, shortly after moving to West LA from Boston over ten years, ago, a friendly salesman at the electronics shop Good Guys in Marina Del Rey welcomed me to lovely Southern California with the caveat that the place has gone downhill what with the Mexicans moving in. When I worked in Dallas, a native Texan had informed that’s how Mexicans were looked upon in Texas, but it was a shock to encounter it first in Sunny LA. And it’s not just in retail — when I was still paying attention to the Orange County Java Users Group, the umpteenth mail list discussion bemoaning how Asians were taking all our jobs (not so common now that progammers are raking it in with the Web 2.0 boom) somehow managed to devolve into one member wistfully pondering how the Mexicans here were “nice people” but didn’t seem to value education. (That guy, by the way, was a terrible programmer)

And now that I think of it, I’d seen this long before as a kid when I transferred to Cope Junior High School in Redlands, CA. Despite my grade school records, which included A grades and competition in the district spelling bee, the school administrators apparently assumed I was fresh off the boat and placed me in, shall we say, “lower-tier” classes — my math class was populated with jocks and taught by the gym teacher who conducted class with questions at the chalkboard like “if you’re at the fifty yard line and catch a pass at the fifty-five yard line, how far did you go?”, and my English class was taught by an elderly white woman who constantly made mistakes and publicly praised me for bringing her mistakes to her privately instead of mentioning them in front of the other students. She blamed some of those mistakes on the Latino student who had marked up my test according to her instructions and confided in me (in the same manner as the Good Guys salesman years later), “that kid will never go anywhere”. If that was a remedial class, I don’t see how it could have remedied anything.

Until the last couple of years, I thought this was just a weird California thing, like the obsession with plastic surgery and electing movie stars to the governor’s office. But apparently the whole nation has secure-the-border fever (in advanced stages, it becomes build-a-really-big-fence fever). In one of the Republican debates televised by CNN, in which crazy-angry Tom Tancredo seemed be the one candidate to have vehement anti-immigrant feelings, only John McCain went beyond the “secure the border” rhetoric parroted by the other candidates and gave one of his “straight talk” speeches, stating “let’s be clear — we’re talking about Mexicans and people of Mexican descent” and to look at the Hispanic names listed on the Vietnam War Memorial and among the troops currently fighting overseas. Of course, CNN, the soapbox of Lou Dobbs (remember when it used to be a news network?), couldn’t fit that into one of their oft-repeated post-debate sound bites.

Since then, McCain has apparently decided to stick with what plays in Peoria and starts off any immigration discussion with the term “border security”. And Obama is no better. He voted against the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, and his tome of a Blueprint for America, while featuring several detailed pages on health care and education, has less than a page’s worth of statements on immigration (more like a Letterman’s Top Ten List, really), starting with, you guessed it, border security.

But to be disappointed in politicians is to be naive. I’m more disturbed by other Asian Americans around here who complain about Latinos. It’s not that long ago in California that Chinese were denied citizenship and could not own property (you think they all wanted to live in Chinatown?), Japanese had their land taken and were shipped off to the desert behind barbed wire, and interracial marriage was forbidden (the recent state Supreme Court case on gay marriage had much discussion of the court’s anti-miscegenation law ruling). Just remember, people, it could be you, next.