Just back from a month in the States (well, OK—in five of ‘em), I am overwhelmed by a blizzard of impressions that makes nonsense of my having spent a couple of decades of my life there. This time, despite my friends’ best efforts, I most definitely felt like a ‘furriner’.
After two decades of living in a small town, I have been spoiled—able to walk in less than a minute to the High Street, the beach, the butcher and (most important) the tender ministrations of my favourite barista. It’s hard to summarise America but an unending sprawl of suburbs surrounded by an bigger unending sprawl of massive fields, surrounded by even bigger scenery is a start.
In Philadelphia/Chicago/San Francisco, I thoroughly enjoyed how the Americans do their vibrant downtown culture. But why the bulk would choose to live in South Jersey or Silicon Valley remains as much a mystery to me. When I first encountered their large front lawns widely separating ranch=style homes and getting a pint of milk involves jumping in the car, I could not get my head round why this was desirable. Because it seems like a recipe to kill community, I still can’t
Not having visited Philadelphia before, it was all new—the usual grid of streets chess-boarding out from City Hall, a huge ethnic and cultural variety rubbing shoulders from the tuxedo-and-tiara mafia in charge of the Barnes Museum (best Impressionist collection outside of Paris) to the cacophonic multicultural gastronomic mayhem of the Reading Station. But I had no basis to compare change.
After longer in a San Francisco I know well, I was struck by the ethnic basis for the seismic shift in US population that Romney wilfully ignored and that brought his presidential effort down with a crash. Because, cosmopolitan and multicultural as San Francisco might have been when I lived there in the early nineties, it now bids fair to be a prototype of how cultures will mix across the USA, if not the world.
Ignoring the more uniform white suburbs of the East Bay, SF used to be white with heavy latino and black elements, plus a good dose of Chinese who had been there almost as long as the whites. By my unscientific observations, whites are now in a clear minority, with a heady mix of Mexican, Guatemalan, Costa Rican, (i.e. primarily Central America) latinos who are now almost as populous. Virtually every restaurant, irrespective of genre, has completely latino kitchen staff.
Meantime, the Chinese element has been tripled, which together with major Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean and Indian elements is coming up fast in third place. The only element not growing (in fact declining as manufacturing jobs close down) is the black, which is dropping towards single digits.
Some explanation for this can be found on the college campuses. Whether at UC Berkeley or SF City College, the sheer number of Asian, followed by latino students dwarfs the white faces and makes a black face unusual. With the job market just as tight in the US as Scotland for young people, degree inflation means that almost any salaried job demands a degree and those that always have (e.g. in engineering) are now looking for a PhD or at least a Masters.
White kids are doing all right in all this. Not only have they always had the inside track in the culture but, until recently, their never-had-it-so-good parents could dip into the savings/401k/2ndMortgage to fund the $10k+ necessary for Junior to get a degree. Asian parents have always been astute in egging their kids on to study hard and do well, even if only to be able to look after them well in their dotage.
Over the last couple of decades, latinos have also caught on and, although their home culture is not quite as performance-oriented as the Asians (most gardeners, construction workers, plumbers’ assistants, etc are latino) they do have the work ethic and many of their kids are grabbing what opportunity comes their way.
But the real tragedy seems to be the blacks. Those outside of the South drifted there after the Civil War and got menial jobs in factories. Though there are many black professionals, they remain the exception and the black districts of Hunter’s Point and Oakland, though shrinking in extent (East Palo Alto’s black neighbourhood seems to have been entirely Yuppified) have become even more hopeless swathes of civic wasteland than two decades ago.
This gives real food for thought. For a century after the Civil War, blacks remained second-class citizens in their own country. As late as WW2, black regiments would not be mixed with whites. The Civil Rights Movement swept away much of the bigotry that did stand in their way, especially across the old Confederacy. But in the half-century since all official barriers were torn down, their lot as a whole has barely improved.
This could be ascribed to racial prejudice—except that the Asians and latinos have used that time to not just explode in numbers but to drag the standard of living for those numbers well up past anything blacks have achieved to within contention of the white elements of the population.
Comparing these aspirational and social problems with ours in Glasgow and/or Dundee, where it is less clearly racial, is it possible that social fragmentation and the hopelessness hung round the neck of one generation after another has far more to do with family life and local culture than any racial or visual characteristics upon which many well intentioned social programmes are focussed?
Whether blacks started off as slaves may now be irrelevant but their dearth of positive examples within their neighbourhoods is not. In other words, are our equalities efforts barking up the wrong, racial tree?