Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, September 29, 2003

Letter from California: In the Race

What if I told you that there were still people in the United States who believed that one race of people deserved privileged status over all the others. They hang on to the old-fashioned notion that the skin color a person comes into the world wearing should determine where and how that person lives.

Would you believe it if I told you that here in 2003, 40 years after the Civil Rights Movement, there are organized groups of people who still hold on to this awful philosophy?

It’s true, but this time it’s not in South Carolina or Mississippi. It’s here in California. The organization is called MEChA, and it’s composed of college students of Mexican descent who, when not doing some admirable work in California’s Latino communities, also espouse a loosely organized racist belief system in which the world is divided into two classes: Mexicans and everyone else. As it says in a document at the core of the MEChA philosophy, “For the Race, everything; for those outside the Race, nothing.” While it’s true that much of what MEChA preaches is simple self-reliance and community development, it’s true also that they support a philosophy that says, “for the very young, there will no longer be acts of vandalism, but revolutionary acts.” Charming.

Usually, ignoring these kinds of people makes the best policy. They’ll pop up on Jerry Springer and hit someone with a chair from time to time, but short of that, they and their white supremacist counterparts are fighting a long, losing battle in today’s America. Wholesale racism just doesn’t sell anymore, so why spend any brain cells worrying about the people out there peddling it?

For California voters, the ‘why’ comes from the fact that Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante was once a member of MEChA. Since Cruz is running even with Arnold in the gubernatorial election, it would be nice to know if the man who may very well take the wheel believes in this foul nonsense. Strangely, though, Bustamante won’t say MEChA is off base about even the looniest or ugliest of its ideas. He could have said, “I joined MEChA as a young man, believing in some of the things the organization stood for, but being older and wiser, I don’t agree with them on many of the issues.” He could have said he didn’t fully know about the bad things they believed in. He could have said he joined to impress a girl. It happens.

That would have done it, I think. People do dumb things throughout life and if there’s a prime time for dumb and crazy, the college years are probably it, but Cruz declined that opportunity, and that’s curious. I don’t think Cruz Bustamante is a racist or wants to give California to Mexico, but I do think that he’s playing to the 21st century, California version of the ‘good old boy’ vote. Just as the politicians who fought for segregation in the South of the 50s and 60s never fully turned their back on the traditional white male who was suspicious of the Civil Rights Movement, Bustamante needs the people who might be at least partly sympathetic with what MEChA stands for. Just as the redneck aristocracy of the time let those politicians off the hook despite this moral failing, Bustamante gets an easy time from a mainstream media. For their part, the California media makes a good living talking about race, pointing out differences, reminding people that they are different from one another. Race conflict makes good headlines, and if you go looking for that in California, you’ll find it. Of course, if you go looking for people of different races getting along just fine, you’ll find that a hundred times a day.

Growing up in Sumter in the 70s, I didn’t see segregation with my own eyes, but its phantom hung over us as we learned to live together. Like many in Sumter, I went to schools that had been restricted by race only a few years earlier. Perhaps because those very real memories of segregation lived in the minds of the people running those schools, we learned that race was skin-deep and unimportant. There had just been a great battle between those who insisted on seeing their fellow human being through the lens of race and those who insisted on seeing others as individuals. We were living in the aftermath of that battle, so perhaps its lessons seemed clearer and more potent. Victory, so recently won, perhaps tasted sweeter.

Yes, we won that battle. The American people drove out the darkness of prejudice and tribal pride with the light of freedom. But this is a battle that never ends, because the darkness comes from the imperfection of the human heart. Yet, I’m confident we’ll win this time, too.

I just wish I knew which side the potential future Governor of California was on.


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