The election of President Obama opened a new chapter on race relations in the United States. Race relations acquire a new sensitivity in states like California where minorities are now the majority.
A new poll of California voters found a majority embrace the state’s growing diversity. But, while most accept that their neighbors don’t look the same as they do, some view the growing mix of nationalities, races, religions, and lifestyles with some misgivings.
According to a new six-language survey released by The Field Poll, 24 percent said the state’s tremendous diversity was an advantage, while 14 percent viewed it as a source of problems. The dominant view held by 58 percent, said Mark DiCamillo, senior vice president of The Field Poll, was that diversity brought both “pluses and minuses.”
About three times as many Latinos, Chinese Americans, Korean Americans and Vietnamese Americans as African Americans see the state’s diversity more as an advantage than a challenge.
“The thing that struck me in the Asian American responses was the similarity across the populations, despite the fact that these are three very different groups,” said DiCamillo. “Vietnamese Americans lean more Republican, Chinese Americans lean more Democratic in political outlook, Korean Americans are swing voters somewhere between the two groups. (But) They react similarly when asked about diversity of state residents.”
On the other hand, African Americans are split, with as many seeing diversity as an advantage (21 percent) as seeing it as a source of problems (22 percent).
Michael Durkin, a real estate agent from South San Francisco, said he’s seen his neighborhood go through many changes - and not all for the better, in his opinion.
“I volunteer at a rec center at a grammar school none of the kids speak English. They all speak Spanish,” he said.
Durkin said the state’s growing diversity means society is more fractured and people have less common ground.
“Fewer people speak English now compared to 50 to 70 years ago. It used to be that people came here and learned the language. Now people live in their own groups, now you have little Mexico and Chinatown.”
DiCamillo says African Americans have been feeling the changes directly, as they’ve been displaced in some neighborhoods by incoming immigrants, including Latinos and Asian.
“It’s no longer homogenous African American or fewer of them,” said DiCamillo. “Some African Americans are a little more irritated by the change and that change has impacted them negatively. They’ve personally had to adapt to change that they may not have wanted to.”
The poll found that about a quarter of California voters reported that they have personally experienced racism. African Americans are twice as likely (49 percent) to report incidents of racial prejudice, followed Vietnamese Americans (39 percent), Korean Americans (37 percent), Latinos (35 percent) and Chinese Americans (32 percent).
Despite that Asian Americans are for the most part optimistic about California's multicultural future.
Sherry Tran, who works as a secretary in southern California, said being exposed to people from different cultural backgrounds presents a tremendous opportunity.
“The more you understand them, the more you understand how they are instead of categorizing them... into stereotypes.”
A poll like this goes a long way to dispel those stereotypes but also underscores how much more needs to be done, said Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action. Pan said the poll shows California needs more research and public policy that is conscious of race.
"To understand California," Pan said, "you have to understand that even within diversity, we have diversity."
The Field Poll survey interviewed 1,232 registered voters by telephone from January 4-17. It was conducted in English and five languages-Vietnamese, Spanish, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese--for the first time in the organization’s more than five-decade history. The survey was done in partnership with New America Media, which provided supplemental funding through grants from the James Irvine Foundation, the PG&E Foundation, the Blue Shield of California Foundation and the San Francisco Foundation.