Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997

Ethnic Los Angeles

Roger Waldinger and Mehdi Bozorgmehr (editors)
New York: Russel Sage Foundation
ISBN 0 87154 902 6
£20.00/$24.95 (pb)
vii + 497 pp.

Order this book

This volume of scholarly essays sets fears and myths aside to describe the new Los Angeles of the late twentieth century and to explain the scope, characteristics, and consequences of the region's ethnic transition (chapter 1: p. 5).

These remarks by Roger Waldinger and Mehdi Bozorgemehr, editors of this ground- breaking volume, alert that the 'new Los Angeles (L.A.)' has a serious image problem. Cataclysmic events such as the L.A. riots and aftermath of the O.J. Simpson verdict left an image of a bifurcated society, with a small Anglo elite and middle-class on one side, and a vast, exploited African American and Latino underclass on the other. It is within the context of this and other such troubling images that, to rephrase the words of Waldinger and Bozorgmehr, L.A. and its people deserve a close and searching look (chapter 1), and by similar token, Ethnic Los Angeles the most careful and widest reading.

Central among those things that the editors of this volume have effectively done is to rally 19 scholars - sociologists, geographers, historians and urban planners - with expertise on L.A. immigration to challenge the applicability of its troubling images. Their findings are often in sharp contrast to them. For one case on point, migration to the area has been such that L.A. is far from being a 'black-white' society. Rather, if present immigration trends persist, in a few years L.A. will have become a genuine, polyethnic society (chapters 1, 2, and 3).

What organization and methods facilitate the credibility, accessibility, and synthesis of the volume's 15 research essays? At the heart of each are six issues: who the oldest and newest Angeleno immigrants are, where they come from, what brought them to L.A., their skills and occupational niches, and the makeup of their families and friendship networks. Each also addresses those issues by drawing on the 1970, 1980, and 1990 population censuses and on rich quantitative data that were collected 'on the ground'. Integration is further enhanced by the adoption of a common perspective, which prompted examining the Mexican-origin population, Central Americans, Asians, Middle Easterners, African Americans, the region's six major groups, in terms of 'the subcultural dimensions of ethnicity', meaning 'the networks around which ethnic communities are arranged' and 'the interlacing of those networks with positions in the economy and space' (chapter 1: p. 30).

Another feature that also makes this collection valuable is that essays, some more comprehensively than others, focus on the history of governmental policies and laws behind old and contemporary immigration to L.A., and on the social and economic changes which followed (chapters 1, 2, 3). Others compare old and new Angelenos in terms of their progress and, thus, reveal both some intriguing adaption patterns and contribute some useful concepts to our theoretical armory (chapters 6 - 10). Indeed, those who continue to critique utilization of the term 'underclass' and its relevance to Angeleno African and Latino Americans may find 'outclass', a concept suggested by Waldinger, a much more apposite alternative.

The region's poor African Americans can be seen only as an outclass, however, not as an underclass as the comparison with their impoverished brethren make clear; the former face a penury of jobs and the latter an abundance, albeit at pitifully low wages (Chapter 15: p. 453).

What we have here is reiteration of a finding that is also common to the essays of Paul Ong and Abel Valenzuela, Jr. (chapter 6) and David Grant, Melvin Oliver and Angela James (chapter 13): Latino immigration has resulted in increasesd African American male joblessness, meaning the fact that Latinos are L.A.'s 'inexpensive workers of choice' plus their habit of steering co-ethnics into available jobs well before they are openly advertised sums to a process of African American 'exclusion'. Significantly, this idea contradicts conventional wisdom which has long held that immigrant workers are favoured for their remarkable dedication to the Protestant Work Ethic and willingness to work hard for low pay, and that Americans are either unobtainable or unwilling to perform hard manual labour.

A moderate objection is that the volume limits explicit attention to merely six of the more than 30 sizeable immigrant populations who are also helping to reshape L.A. and hence America. Yet and still, for all who are interested in learning more about the history and ethnic dynamics of Los Angeles, it undoubtedly will be considered required reading.

Faye W. Arnold
Department of Sociology
California State University, Dominguez Hills

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997