Long before it became an eponym for mass slaughter like Aurora or Sandy Hook, San Bernardino was a modestly prosperous, multi-ethnic, and forward-looking city, the anchor of Southern California’s “Inland Empire.” My family moved there in the early 1960s when my father, a recent teacher college graduate, was offered a job. At that time, California districts aggressively recruited teachers from the Midwest and East Coast, part of a strategy to build the best public education system in the United States, if not the world, encompassing kindergarten through the top public university system, all of it offered free.
These were the glory days of Pat Brown’s tenure as governor. Forward-looking and wildly optimistic, he sought to build not only the world’s finest educational system, but unparalleled infrastructure including the futuristic freeway system, and foster rapid expansion of urban areas. The world, it seemed, was beating a path to California’s door, and California was nothing if not accommodating. The fact that we know how it ended should not obscure the fact that these were heady times to be a Californian.
At school in San Bernardino, I was exposed to an early version of multiculturalism. I attended school with students of color, including Chicanos and other Hispanics, African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans. In a naïve and simplistic way, the curriculum attempted to honor these various traditions, albeit as part of a larger White-dominated mosaic of modern California. In doing so, it elided the violence of the Spanish missions and the Japanese internment camps. Many topics, such as the genocide of the Gold Rush era, were simply avoided altogether. Nevertheless, in my childish way, I inferred a sense of common purpose among diverse groups of people, a notion that has remained a sort of touchstone for me throughout my life.
The idea of a “middle class,” a largely empty signifier today, then held real meaning. The neighborhood in which the school was situated contained houses ranging from postwar bungalows to two-story frame houses, some of which dated back to the city’s agricultural past. Some houses were rentals. Among my friends’ families occupying them were white working-class Italian-Americans from the East Coast, an English stockbroker, a Jewish building contractor, and a Panamanian teacher. In fact, many of the adults in the neighborhood were teachers, often one generation removed from farm or factory. Some houses were grander than others, but they all hewed to an idea of what a middle class lifestyle looked like from the outside. One of my friends from a prosperous family had a backyard pool and wonderful gadgets such as wall-mounted, remote-controlled color television sets. But these were hidden from view, and the façade of the house was as plain as its neighbors.
Yet, underneath this idyllic vision of a progressive and democratic society lay the seeds of its own undoing. The window dressing of multiculturalism was torn down with violence in the Watts Riot and other Civil Rights-era actions. Ronald Reagan became governor, ushering in a faux-populist “us against them” rhetoric, replacing the Brownian appeal to common good, which indeed had the effect of polarizing the populace ever more along class and racial lines. Of course, the Brown vision was never realistic; the rapid economic growth that he encouraged was bound to create pockets of great wealth that would differentiate community from community, and was never sustainable in either an economic or ecological sense. When I was growing up, San Bernardino did not look much different from a place like San Jose. But through the sorting principle that accompanied the creation of great fortunes in technology companies, communities such as San Jose became something apart from the cities that retained their middle class ethos. Indeed, throughout the state this has hardened into a fault line between prosperous coastal cities, with their technology, media, and financial industries, and the interior, struggling with plant closures and low-paying agricultural and service-sector jobs. Even the state educational system participated in this sorting: with the exception of Riverside (and the new and small campus in Merced) all of the UC campuses are on the coast. The interior is served by the Cal State system.
The cities of the interior are poorer and less white than those of the coast. Among the factoids to come out in the wake of the shootings were that San Bernardino is over 50% Hispanic and experiences a bad gang problem. To the degree that this perception is true, it is in fact made more extreme by the mental mapping of Californians who view the state in such dichotomous terms. Indeed, the epidemic of gun violence that we see throughout the country is undoubtedly a symptom of this sort of ethos engendered by extremes of wealth and poverty, and the dichotomous worldviews held by Jihadists and Christianists alike.
Michael E Harkin is a cultural anthropologist and ethnohistorian at the U of Wyoming. He is editor of the journal Reviews in Anthropology.