GEO 407/507:
Seminar in Geographic Research
Spring 1998

Reaction Paper

Speaker: Richard Walker, UC Berkeley
Seminar Title: "California's Debt to Nature"

Walker, R., 1996. California's collision of race and class, Representations, 55:163-183.

Richard Walker's discussion of California's debt to nature, highlighted the uniqueness of the economic systems in the Golden State. He described the transition of California from a frontier, ripe for capitalist infection, to a booming economy. The mechanism for the shift is painted as the denigration of natural resources in the hands of the original layers to land claims fueled by east coast capital, and eventually reinvested into California, which provided the mechanism for the economy to be propelled into that which we see today. Part of what the reinvestment of capital provided was the infrastructure of industries that could employ large numbers of people. The addition of a labor force allowed the California economy to balloon. The source of labor was immigration from Europe, Mexico, Japan and China, and this labor flow continues today and includes Central Americans, East and Southeast Asians. In Walker's paper, California's Collision of Race and Class, he describes the dynamic symbiosis between California's economic growth and its labor source; a diverse mosaic of ethnic groups, created by successive waves of immigration.

The discussion focuses on the current economic, political and social environment in California. California, he claims has come to the end of an era in which growth seemed limitless. Though the largest proportion of wealth went to the white elite, the nature of the dynamic economy provided a piece of pie for all, as it created a plethora of employment opportunities. This kept the flow of laborers coming from places where prospects were not as promising. The result over time is what he refers to as "labor market segregation" or the creation of "occupational niches" which were divided by skill level and by the geographic origin if the incoming laborers.

The dilemma of today's economic, social and political environment is that the glory days began to fade in the 1990's. The change from a growth zone to stagnation has revealed how the political and economic policies facilitated the division of classes. High unemployment caused by successive cutbacks across all industries and businesses have created for California, a shaming statistic of 18.2 % below the poverty line, ranking among the top ten in poverty level. At the same time more and more people have been funneled into million dollar salaries; the classic case of the rich getting richer while the poor must eat cake.

His perspective is directed at how the political structure has allowed for this stratification by supporting low taxes for the bourgeoisie and has resulted in the destruction of social services to aid blue collar workers, now in large numbers as they are the first to go when the purse tightens. This is exemplified by the strong movement to criminalise immigrants and the poor. By pointing to immigrants and welfare recipients as the source of the drain on government funds, attention is diverted from the gluttons at the top, hidden away in their gated communities. At the same time, its has provided fuel for racist white America, at all levels of society, as the poor and foreign are primarily people of color.

Walker's paper highlights both the disgusting and the wonderful about the state of California. Though his intention is to fit his idea of "Racial recomposition" into a obstacle to Marxist reforms, one can, if one wishes, distill the politics and learn from the content. California is a state of excess. Excess wealth and excess injustice characterize the state as stereotypes in the mind of many Americans. But the state is also an incredibly diverse and dynamic playground upon which social change, innovation, art, and ideas are woven together and displayed for other states to model or reject. In Walker's own words:

"California is a Frankensteinian laboratory of modern hopes and failures......Today's Californians face the profound task of integrating a plethora of non-European peoples into what is still an overwhelmingly white man's republic, and their success or failure will mark the nation's history well into the next century."

For the hopelessly Californian, Walker's research interests provide an in-depth look at the history and processes that create the present and suggest the future of this truly amazing state.

Marcia Macomber, GEO 507, Spring 1998