California town hailed as model of diversity
December 17, 1999
From Correspondent Jim Moret
WALNUT, CALIFORNIA (CNN) -- Population experts say the Los Angeles bedroom community of Walnut, California, nestled in the San Gabriel Valley, may serve as a wake-up call for the rest of the nation. The town of some 32,000 is being heralded as a city for the new millennium.
"People -- regardless of their race, religion, background -- all get along," proclaimed Mayor Joaquin Lim. "I know it sounds like the movies, but it's not, it's really true -- it happens in Walnut."
Walnut has changed from what was once a predominantly white enclave.
U.S. Census figures predict that whites will make up less than half the U.S. population in the next century. And Walnut has already become a model of diversity.
Whites account for one third of the community, Asians make up another third, Latinos are a quarter of the population, with African-Americans and others rounding out the rest.
People of different races and religions play together and pray together.
"There's always a fear sometimes of change," said the Rev. Dennis Vellucci of St. Lorenzo Ruiz Church. "I think Walnut has gone through that as part of its growing pains. And I see growth as an opportunity for change and an opportunity to accept. "
It's this acceptance that caught the attention of population geographers like professor James Allen of California State University at Northridge.
"Whites are not fleeing it," noted Allen. "We have other typically older cities or older suburbs where diversity has increased, but it has done so partly because whites have decreased. That's the traditional situation in America."
Allen says one reason for the rosy picture in Walnut is economics. It's an affluent community with one of the highest median household incomes in southern California -- $74,000.
And the ethnically diverse town attracts like-minded people.
"I don't care what ethnic group they come from as long as they're friendly and nice," said prospective home buyer Julie Lee.
Realtor Jovi Randall says everyone is welcome.
"I'm not going to sit here and be Pollyanna-ish and say that we're colorblind and that we don't recognize there are differences in people," said Randall. "We recognize there are differences, but we all belong to this community."
Longtime resident Bert Ashley is the record-keeper of the town's history, giving tours of a small museum. She's also been on the City Council for two decades and served as mayor four times.
But she points to her family as her proudest achievement.
"Don't I have the greatest grandchildren -- they're all colors -- that's fine," said Ashley.
Surgeon and attorney William Choctaw was the city's first and only African-American mayor.
"My position was our city shouldn't be like it was 10 or 15 years ago and that, indeed, diversity was a strength, not weakness," said Choctaw. "It was not something to be feared, but embraced."
Choctaw's Latina wife said they have been embraced by the community.
"In comparing to what I hear the past was, is that couples like us felt threatened, or were afraid to be in public or to be seen," said Lorena Choctaw. "The complete opposite is true for us."
"Once one's ethnicity becomes less relevant, there's more unity," agreed Dr. Choctaw.
That's a lesson Walnut High School seems to have already learned.
"If you go to a prom or formal or dance, no heads turn with interracial dating -- that's an accepted fact," said Walnut High School principal Ken Gunn.
Rashad Brown is an officer in the Asian club.
"If there's two different ethnicities hanging out together, nobody turns their head twice," he said.
"Here, everyone's so different and we just click so well," said classmate Veronica.
"All my neighbors are different races, and it's cool," agreed Salma.
"We all grew up together in a way, so we're all friends," said another student. "We just hang out -- we don't see each other as a race."
And that's why, as these students prepare for the future, they're caught off guard being in the spotlight.
"We were so surprised when people said, 'Your city is so diverse,' because you really don't think about it until someone brings it up," said Cathy. "You're like -- 'Wow, it is.' "
Critics say emphasis on diversity squelches basic learning
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