Los Angeles:  Capital of the Third World

David Rieff

Though published the year before the riot, Rieff captures in this selection from his book the polarization along ethnic/racial lines in Los Angeles that would eventually lead to the violence.  Though recognizing the tremendous diversity in the city, ironically he does offer a glimmer of hope for the city in the last paragraph.

[T]he more you looked, the more inadequate a notion like diversity became as a frame for thinking about what was going on in Southern California....Anglo Californians, accustomed as they were to thinking of the world in terms of whites and "minorities," and having in general only the shakiest grasp of the particular characteristics of the countries the immigrants were arriving from, fell easily into the habit of thinking of their new neighbors as Hispanics, Asians, or Middle Easterners.  What was more interesting, though, was that the immigrants themselves were coming to accept a similar self-conception.  This was an enormous transformation in consciousness, and one that was neither as automatic nor as easily accomplished as it might have appeared to be on the surface.

For the immigrants had not turned up in Los Angeles with any such ideas in their heads, far from it, nor had their initial experiences of life in the region done much more than replicate, however luxurious some of the settings, the sense they had had of life back home.  This was part economic necessity - the fact that immigrants, even if they worked for Anglos, otherwise relied on their fellow countrymen in almost every material aspect of life from shopping to finding a job - part language barrier, and since the familiar tastes and customs in the alien world of Los Angeles (alienness being also in the eye of the beholder) were a consolation, it was tempting to stay in the ethnic ghetto.

In the first generation, they did.  If you went to a Salvadoran restaurant patronized by people just in from the South, you were in El Salvador, at least until, blinking, you walked out into the mini-mall parking lot and found yourself - that was what it felt like - back in L.A.  The same held true in a Korean bar on Olympic Boulevard, an Iranian coffee shop in Westwood, or an Ethiopian diner on Washington Boulevard.  And in these places, people tended to talk about their own national identities as if they had never made the trip to the United States....

In their insularity, it was possible for Anglos to assume that since they thought of themselves as Americans, and the Europeans they met usually described themselves as coming from France, Germany, or Italy..., such broad categories had always predominated.  In fact, it had only been a few generations since Americans had described themselves as Missourians and Oregonians, Yankees and Southerners....[W]here this increasing sense of generalization was taking hold was not in the Third World at all, but right there in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A....

[I]n the space of three generations or less, the immigrants would move from being part of subgroups within their own countries of origin to becoming American minority groups.  It was a trajectory as confusing, if not more so, to the people within the immigrant communities themselves as it was to Anglo and black L.A.  In Salvador, you were not Hispanic, you were a Salvadoran.  In Asia, you were not an Asian, you were Chinese.  And yet in Las Angeles, these deepest of selves were simply subsumed in the broader context of a new, overarching Hispanicity or Asianness.

Paradoxically, in leaving their homelands in the Third World to go to L.A., the immigrants had in fact joined the Third World for, in many cases, the first time in their lives.  Because the term "Third World" really only made sense in America, or some other rich country; that is, as an antonym to some other world, the white world, say.  What else bound such diverse places as Mexico, El Salvador, the Philippines, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Iran, which were so unlike one another in terms of language, culture, history, and national character, if not the weight of some enormous counter-distinction that made even these intricate questions seem secondary?  The answer, of course, was that just such a supervening category did exist, in Los Angeles as everywhere else in America, and it was race....

[T]he idea of the Third World as the inescapable legacy of European imperialism, a system that had divided peoples - colonizers and colonized - along the cruel dichotomous lines of white and nonwhite.  That was an inheritance no part of the world could so easily shrug off, least of all the United States, whose great national tragedy had always been race, just as Europe's had been class.  Americans might prefer the euphemisms of "majority" and "minority," but the meaning was the same.  And where else could the immigrants themselves fall, once they had arrived, but into this oldest of American fault lines, even if, ironically, the whole idea of a white majority and a nonwhite minority was rapidly becoming a statistical as well as a metaphysical illusion?

If anything, what was surprising about Los Angeles, and what made it so different, so very much more hopeful, than other cities and other regions in the United States, was that for all the prevailing myopia there were many voices there calling for the country's long racial civil war to end - even if this meant, as it were, going over to the nonwhite side.  That old Angeleno disdain for the past had conferred a kind of freedom.  It permitted clear-sighted Angelenos to secede from anything, even, it appeared, from the deepest cornerstone of their own identities.

Source: From Los Angeles:  Caital of the Third World.  New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1991, pp. 237-240.