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Y'all Don't Come Back 

Country music, aerospace manufacturing and the white working class leave town

Wednesday, Sep 6 2006
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ALL THE HOO-HA about immigration notwithstanding, America remains more a white working-class nation than anything else. Those white Americans may no longer be laboring on farms or in factories, and the national median skin color is clearly growing darker, but, as public-opinion analyst Ruy Teixeira and sociologist Joel Rogers have demonstrated, working-class whites in this country still outnumber any other class or race.

Only, not in L.A. That’s not really news, of course. The most white Protestant of America’s 20 largest cities in the 1960 census was the least white of America’s 20 largest cities (but for San Antonio, which has been Mexican-American since time immemorial) in the 2000 census. Just 29 percent of L.A. city residents in that most recent census were white.

One by one, the institutions of the older, whiter and white-working-class Los Angeles have been dying. But never in daily succession, which is what made two days last month so remarkable. On Thursday, August 17, radio station KZLA — L.A.’s last country music station — abruptly shifted its format to “pop,” by which its owners meant R&B and dance. On Friday, August 18, Boeing announced it will close L.A.’s last aerospace manufacturing plant — the Long Beach factory that was the flagship for the industry that once employed more Angelenos (and more white Angelenos) than any other — when its government contract to make C-17 cargo planes comes to an end in 2009.

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The back-to-back announcements highlighted two transitions that have defined the new Los Angeles: the loss of middle-income jobs, and the diminished role that working-class whites play in L.A. politics and L.A. culture. A darker, poorer and more socially liberal city has arisen in their wake.

Historically, the employees of Southern California aerospace — the region’s largest private-sector employer from World War II through the end of the Cold War — weren’t just white; they were Southern. According to D.J. Waldie, who chronicled his hometown of Lakewood in his magnificent history-meditation Holy Land, by 1945 600,000 Southerners had moved here to work in the aircraft factories — many of them Steinbeck’s Okies, by way of the San Joaquin Valley. (World War II–era columnist Ernie Pyle called them “the Aviation Okies.”) The biggest of the factories was Douglas Aviation in Long Beach, which employed 50,000 workers during the war and then 100,000 at the height of the Cold War, ranking it alongside Ford’s behemoth River Rouge plant outside Detroit as the largest factory in the nation’s history. Douglas later became McDonnell Douglas, then was purchased by Boeing.

There were other aircraft megaplants around L.A., of course; the next biggest was the Lockheed plant in Burbank, and then North American hard by LAX. (The plants are gone now but each left an airport behind.) In the postwar boom, huge working-class suburbs grew up around them, the most distinctive of which was Waldie’s Lakewood, just north of Long Beach. It was a heavily Okie city, Waldie recalls, and in the 1960 census it was 98.5 percent white.

Indeed, white aerospace L.A. stretched well up the 710 industrial corridor before the 710 (the Long Beach Freeway) was even built. A similar belt ran through Burbank and the eastern San Fernando Valley. The aerospace workers in the major plants held down union jobs; they were members either of the United Auto Workers (the most important progressive union in California in those years) or the Machinists. But in the wake of civil-rights legislation (particularly measures that desegregated housing) and the Watts Riots, they became the shock troops of the white backlash, with some becoming Nixon Democrats and more becoming Reagan Democrats. In 1969, incumbent L.A. mayor Sam Yorty scared the bejesus out of them by depicting his challenger, Tom Bradley, as a black-power radical (which Bradley was no more than he was a Carmelite nun). They turned out in droves: More people voted in the 1969 mayoral contest than in any before or since, and Yorty clung to his job for four more years until Bradley finally bested him.

In 1978, Orange County Republican state legislator John Briggs put an initiative on the ballot banning gays and lesbians from teaching in the public schools. It was so over the top that Ronald Reagan volubly opposed it, and it lost statewide by more than a million votes, carrying just two of the state’s 80 assembly districts: the one centered on Bakersfield and the one centered on Lakewood. The Okies and their kids and grandkids were moving right. And when the Cold War ended and aerospace collapsed, they moved out, to Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and other Western states, making them more conservative and L.A. more liberal.

As a story in Tuesday’s L.A. Times documented, the number of local aerospace engineering jobs is growing — indeed, it’s increased by 50 percent, from 16,000 to 24,000, in just the past two years. But the unionized, durable-goods manufacturing jobs that anchored the L.A. economy for four decades after World War II, that were the middle of the middle-class boom, are now entirely gone. Boeing’s last 5,500 assembly workers averaged $65,000 a year. There are no equivalent manufacturing jobs to be found in the Basin, as the city’s vast and growing Latino working class is discovering with considerable frustration.

The Okie-aerospace culture has now vanished altogether as well. L.A. may be the nation’s top market for sales of country music, but demographics are destiny, Rick Cummings, an executive of Emmis Communications, which owns KZLA, told the Times. The local market, he said, “is basically 40 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Asian and 8 percent black, and country music fans are about 98 percent Caucasian” — and a shrinking share of the market.

L.A. still has plenty of white workers, of course, in offices, in studios, in supermarkets and then some. But for better and worse, the distinctive economics, politics and culture of that white working class aren’t found here any more, as should be clear from the message that capitalism just sent country music: “Y’all don’t come back now, y’hear?”

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