The Invisible California

De facto apartheid world in the Golden State.

Reprinted from Hoover.org.

In 1973, as I was going through customs in New York, the customs agent rifling my bag looked at my passport and said, with a Bronx sneer, “Bruce Thornton, huh. Must be one of them Hollywood names.”

Hearing that astonishing statement, I realized for the first time that California is as much an idea as a place. There were few regions in America more distant from Hollywood than the rural, mostly poor, multiethnic San Joaquin Valley where my family lived and ranched. Yet to this New Yorker, the Valley was invisible.

Coastal Californians are sometimes just as blind to the world on the other side of the Coast Range, even though its farms, orchards, vineyards, dairies, and ranches comprise more than half the state’s $46 billion agriculture industry, which grows over 400 commodities, including over a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts.

Granted, Silicon Valley is an economic colossus compared to the ag industry, but agriculture’s importance can’t be measured just in dollars and cents. Tech, movies, and every other industry tends to forget that their lives and businesses, indeed civilization itself, all rest on the shoulders of those who produce the food. You can live without your iPhone or your Mac or the latest Marvel Studios blockbuster. But you can’t live without the food grown by the one out of a 100 people who work to feed the other 99.

A Politically Invisible Valley

Living in the most conservative counties in the deepest-blue state, Valley residents constantly see their concerns, beliefs, and needs seldom taken into account at the state or federal level. Registered Democrats in California outnumber registered Republicans by over 19%, and the State Legislature seats about twice as many Democrats as Republicans (California’s one of only eight states nationwide with a trifecta of a Democratic and two Democratic controlled legislative bodies).

California’s Congressional delegation is even more unbalanced: in the House of Representatives, currently there are fourteen Republicans compared to thirty-nine House Democrats (at least half of those GOP districts are in danger of turning blue this fall); half the Republicans represent Central Valley districts, none bordering the Pacific Ocean. The last elected Republican US Senator left office in 1991. The last Republican governor was the politically light-pink action-movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose second term ended in 2011.

This progressive dominance of the state has led to policies and priorities that has damaged its agricultural economy and seriously degraded the quality of life in the Valley.

Despite a long drought that has diminished the run-off of snow from the Sierra Nevada, projects for dams and reservoirs are on hold, seriously impacting the ag industry that relies on the snowmelt for most of its water. Worse yet, since 2008, a period including the height of the drought, 1.4 trillion gallons of water have been dumped into the Pacific Ocean to protect the endangered Delta Smelt, a two-inch bait-fish. Thousands of agricultural jobs have been lost and farmland left uncultivated, all to satisfy the sensibilities of affluent urban environmentalists. And even after a few years of abundant rain, Valley farmers this year are receiving just 20% of their South-of-the-Delta water allocation.

Or take California’s high-speed rail project, currently moribund and $10 billion over budget just for construction of the easiest section, through the flat center of the Valley. Meanwhile, State Highway 99, which bisects the Valley from north to south for 500 miles, is pot-holed, inefficient, and crammed with 18-wheel semis. It is the bloodiest highway in the country, in dire need of widening and repair. Yet to gratify our Democratic governor’s high-tech green obsession, billions of dollars are being squandered to create an unnecessary link between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. That’s $10 billion that could have been spent building more reservoirs instead of dumping water into the ocean because there’s no place to store it.

The common thread of these two examples of mismanagement and waste is the romantic environmentalism of the well-heeled coastal left. They serially support government projects and regulations that impact the poor and the aged, who are left to bear their costs.

The same idealized nature-love has led to regulations and taxes on energy that have made California home of the third-worst energy poverty in the country. In sweltering San Joaquin Valley counties like Madera and Tulare, energy poverty rates are 15% compared to 3–4% in cool, deep-blue coastal enclaves. Impoverished Kings County averages over $500 a month in electric bills, while tony Marin Country, with an average income twice that of Kings County, averages $200. Again, it’s the poor, aged, and working class who bear the brunt of these costs, especially in the Valley where temperatures regularly reach triple digits in the summer; unlike the coast, where the clement climate makes expensive air-conditioning unnecessary.

Deteriorating Quality of Life

It’s no wonder then that Fresno, in the heart of the Valley, is the second most impoverished city in the poorest region of a state that has the highest poverty levels in the country and one of the highest rates of income inequality. Over one-fifth of its residents live below the poverty line, and it has the worst child poverty in California.

The greatest impact on the Valley’s deteriorating quality of life, however, has been the influx of illegal aliens. Some are attracted by plentiful agriculture and construction work, and others by California’s generous welfare transfers— California is home to one in three of the country’s welfare recipients— all facilitated by California’s status as a “sanctuary state” that regularly releases felons rather than cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As a result, one-quarter of the country’s illegal alien population lives in California, many from underdeveloped regions of Mexico and Latin America that have different social and cultural mores and attitudes to the law and civic responsibility.

The consequences of these feckless policies are found throughout the state. But they are especially noticeable in rural California. There high levels of crime and daily disorder—from murders, assaults, and drug trafficking, to driving without insurance, DUIs, hit-and-runs, and ignoring building and sanitation codes—have degraded or, in some cases, destroyed the once-orderly farming towns that used to be populated by earlier immigrants, including many legal immigrants from Mexico, who over a few generations of sometimes rocky coexistence assimilated to American culture and society.

Marginalized Cultural Minorities

More broadly, the dominant cultures and mores of the dot.com north and the Hollywood south are inimical to those of the Valley. Whether it is gun-ownership, hunting, church-going, or military service, many people in the San Joaquin Valley of all races are quickly becoming cultural minorities marginalized by the increasingly radical positions on issues such as abortion, guns, and religion.

Despite the liberal assumption that all Hispanics favor progressive policies, many Latino immigrants and their children find more in common with Valley farmers and natives with whom they live and work than they do with distant urban elites.

Indeed, as a vocal conservative professor in the local university (Fresno State), I have survived mainly because my students, now more than half Latino and Mexican immigrants or children of immigrants, are traditional and practical in a way that makes them impatient with the patronizing victim-politics of more affluent professors. They have more experience with physical labor, they are more religious and, like me, they are often the first in their families to graduate from college. As I did with the rural Mexican Americans I grew up with, I usually have more in common with my students than I do with many of my colleagues.

And this is the great irony of the invisibility of the “other” California: the blue-coast policies that suit the prejudices and sensibilities of the affluent have damaged the prospects of the “others of color” they claim they want to help. Overrepresented on the poverty and welfare rolls, many migrants both legal and illegal have seen water policies that destroy agricultural jobs, building restrictions that drive up the cost of housing, energy policies that increase their cost of living, “sanctuary city” policies that put back on the streets thugs and criminals who prey mainly on their ethnic fellows, and economic policies that favor the redistribution rather than the creation of wealth and jobs.

Meanwhile, the coastal liberals who tout a cosmetic diversity live in a de facto apartheid world, surrounded by those of similar income, taste, and politics. Many look down on the people whom they view as racists and xenophobes at worst, and intellectually challenged rubes at best. This disdain has been evident in the way the media regularly sneer that House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes is a “former dairy-farmer” from Tulare County, an origin that makes “the match between his backstory and his prominence” seem “wholly incongruous,” per Roll Call's David Hawkings.

Finally, those of us who grew up and live in the rural Valley did so among a genuine diversity, one that reflected the more complex identities beyond the crude categories of “white” or “black” or “Hispanic.”

Italians, Basques, Portuguese, Armenians, Swedes, Mexicans, Filipinos, Southern blacks, Chinese, Japanese, Volga Germans, Scotch-Irish Dust Bowl migrants—all migrated to the Valley to work the fields and better their lives. Their children and grandchildren went to the same schools, danced together and drank together, helped round up each other’s animals when they got loose, were best friends or deadly enemies, dated and intermarried, got drafted into the Army or joined the Marines—all of them Americans who managed to honor their diverse heritages and faiths, but still be a community. Their most important distinctions were not so much between races and ethnicities, though those of course often collided, but between the respectable people––those who obeyed the law, went to church, and raised their kids right––­ and those we all called “no damned good.” Skin-color or accents couldn’t sort one from the other.  

What most of us learned from living in real diversity in the Valley is that being an American means taking people one at a time.

That world still exists, but it is slowly fading away—in part because of the policies and politics of those to our west, who can see nothing on the other side of the Coast Range.

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