Portland Comic

Lesson One: Who Belongs in the Pacific Northwest?

In recent years it has seemed that people in the Pacific Northwest (i.e. the American states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho) have shared two things. The first is a growing identification with salmon. As runs of wild Pacific salmon have become threatened, people in the region have latched on to them as a critical symbol of Pacific Northwest identity. (I take up the issue of the salmon in the next lesson.) The second thing we have in common is California, or, I should say, a pronounced aversion to California and all things and people Californian. Many people in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington have developed strong opinions about California and Californians in recent times. Oregon actually led the way during the 1970s, with a both humorous and serious campaign to keep Californians away. Washington and Idaho became more vociferous during the 1980s and 1990s.

The anti-Californian sentiment first crested in the Seattle area during the late 1980s. I took note of the trend, and started discussing it with students in my classes on Pacific Northwest history. I also started surveying students in my courses as a way of examining attitudes toward California and Californians, and tracking their change over time. (I only consider the attitudes of students from western Washington toward California and Californians. Students from areas other than western Washington are requested to answer different questions, which are also discussed below. If you are a registered student in HSTAA 432, you have been asked to fill out a this survey, and your responses are being added to my data.)

I have been doing this survey for about ten years, and over that time students' attitudes toward "California" and "Californians" have been fairly consistent. Each year when students are asked to list phrases that come to mind when they hear the word "California" or "Californian," they regularly mention the following: "bad drivers," "pollution," "overcrowded," "busy" or "fast-paced," "wealthy" and "powerful," "crime," "in love with their cars," and various combinations of "pushy," "vain," "self-centered," "loud," "rude," "disrespectful," "superficial," "immoral," "uptight," "plastic," "artificial," and "mindless." A number of respondents have claimed that Californians are "taking over" the Pacific Northwest, or that too many are "coming to Washington." In 1997 one student spoke for many when she or he wrote, "Californians: 1) are invading our beautiful area; 2) as [former Oregon governor] Tom McCall said, 'Come and visit but go home'; 3) Californians are crazy drivers who cause accidents; 4) they are driving up the housing prices; and 5) as my mother says, 'I hate Californians.'"

It is important to realize that newcomers in the Northwest from California have clearly gotten the message. One professional man in Seattle claimed in 1991 that "The hostility toward Californians is worse than race prejudice in the South. It's just open season for contempt of Californians." A 16-year-old whose family had moved from California to Idaho complained in 1996 of the "California bashing" she received in high-school, where even the teachers—who were supposed to set an example—put down newcomers from the Golden State. She went on to list "unfair treatment and blatant prejudice" as important reasons why students who had come from California were dropping out of school.

Or, consider the findings of Californian sociologist Glenn T. Tsunokai. In the mid-1990s he took a standard survey designed to measure prejudice against African Americans, homosexuals, and other minorities, and inserted the word "Californians" for "blacks" or "gays." He then mailed 600 surveys out to Oregonians, and received 319 replies. Tsunokai found what could be described as a substantial amount of prejudice. A large majority of Oregonians expected that Californians would "create 'problems'" in their communities by moving there. Oregonians also tended to describe Californians with the same kind of adjectives that students in my courses have used—"shallow," "ruthless," "competitive." (It is worth noting that Washingtonians were more highly regarded. Sixty-eight percent of Oregonians believed that Californians would bring about negative changes in their communities by moving there; only twenty-four percent of the respondents said the same thing about Washingtonians.) When interviewed for a newspaper story, Tsunokai said that he was not so afraid of Oregonians that he would not move there. However, he did think he would need to take a few precautions: "I would change my license plates real fast, and not wear any of those kinds of shirts that identify you as being from California." (Information regarding Tsunokai's study comes from the Portland Oregonian, Nov. 12, 1996, A1, A7.) 

A Piece of the California Dream (below). (Claudia K. Jurmain and James J. Rawls, California: A Place, A People, A Dream, San Francisco, 1986. 24. Copyright, The Oakland Museum)

California ShirtNow, speaking about California may not seem to be the most logical way of starting a course on the Pacific Northwest, but I find these recent attitudes toward California and Californians quite revealing. I do not think that we learn much from them about the people and society of California. After all, they are stereotypes that tell us more about the people who hold them than they do about those they are intended to depict. I'd like to use them as a kind of mirror that reflects back to us something about the people who have expressed them. I propose to analyze these images for what they tell us about Pacific Northwesterners.

In doing this, I aim to encourage, and "model," the historical and conceptual thinking that is a main focus of this course. That is, I want to suggest: that matters that seem simple on the surface are not so simple; that we need to examine both our own assumptions and the conventional wisdom around us, and not accept them uncritically; and that we can arrive at a better understanding of the present by placing it in historical perspective—that is, by seeing it as a continuation or modification of patterns of the past. Let's look, then, at the recent anti-California attitudes from six different viewpoints.

First, anti-California attitudes contradict our own perceptions of ourselves. People in the Pacific Northwest generally don't regard themselves as prejudiced. Indeed, the region has a reputation for being polite and friendly. The same Oregonians mentioned in the poll above, the ones who were so suspicious and distrustful of Californians, consider themselves to be "thoroughly decent people: charitable, trustworthy, law-abiding, considerate, cooperative, and neighborly"—their attitudes toward Californians apparently notwithstanding. Moreover, they tend to see people from Washington as basically similar to them. Washingtonians return the favor. When I survey my classes about their attitudes toward Californians, I also ask what they think about Oregonians. My students from western Washington have looked upon Oregon and Oregonians rather favorably. The state of Oregon is reportedly more rural and "laid back" than Washington, and has more "hippies (or, as one respondent said, more "crunchy granola types"). Oregon also allegedly has a duller "lifestyle." But its people are said to be environmentally aware, and the state is "clean and green." One student paid Oregonians the highest compliment by calling them "essentially Washingtonians." In other words, the people of Oregon and western Washington see themselves in fairly positive, similar terms, and see Californians in fairly negative, dissimilar terms. We ought to be suspicious of these kinds of generalizations, where one set of people is imagined to be the fairly exact opposite of another, where "we" appear as good and the other as bad. Yet there is much in the history of the Pacific Northwest—for example, in Indians' treatment at the hands of non-Indians, or in white attitudes toward immigrants from China and Japan—to suggest that this kind of dualistic and stereotypical thinking is not unique to the 1990s. (See the sixth point.)

Second, we ought to be careful about what we say regarding other people, because we may have the same things being said about us. As part of surveying students in my courses, I have asked those from eastern Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, and Montana to write down the phrases that come to mind when they think of Seattle or Seattleites. In response, about half of the students have offered terms that echo very closely the phrases that students from western Washington employ to describe California and Californians—i.e., "bad drivers," "crowded and congested," "fast paced"; "crime"; "individualistic" and "not community-oriented"; "pretentious"; "environmentally destructive" (with sprawling housing developments destroying forests and wetlands); "arrogant"; and "yuppies" (not a word used in any endearing fashion). Two other traits were mentioned frequently—"liberals," and a variety of things having to do with coffee (e.g. "espresso-slurpers," "coffee addicts," "latte land").

Spokane Newspaper ClippingOne person from eastern Washington dubbed Seattle "Spokane's wicked step-sister." Meant to be humorous, there is a more serious side to the contrast. In the later 1980s a number of western-Washington companies, like Seafirst Bank and Boeing, began putting new offices in Spokane rather than around Seattle. A major reason was that Spokane had less congestion and lower housing costs, and employees there tended to be more stable, more contented, more productive, and more likely not to belong to unions. A Seattle Times article of Oct. 25, 1988 (headlined, with "typical" Seattle arrogance, "Why Spokane?") quoted one resident as saying that he liked Spokane because it felt more like the 1950s, while another said it resembled Iowa towns with their "farm-boy work ethic." It was almost as if, in trying to contrast itself with the highly urbanized and fast-paced city of Seattle, Spokane wanted to secede from the Pacific Northwest of the 1980s or 1990s, and align itself with a different time and place. In sum, there were many in the Northwest—including many Portland residents—who felt that Seattle had become too big or its own good, just as people from western Washington thought that California had become too big for its own good. Clearly, perceptions of places and peoples are relative. From Spokane's perspective, Seattle looked a lot like how Los Angeles appeared to Seattleites.


Third, perceptions of the influence of Californians upon the Pacific Northwest may well have been mistaken. In recent years, one of the widespread ideas about Californians in the Pacific Northwest has been that they have greatly exacerbated many of the social and urban problems of the region. Thus, the influx of Californians is said to have caused an increase in gang activity in urban centers, a rise in crime, increases in traffic congestion and "bad" driving, a drastic jump in the price of housing, and a host of environmental problems. One problem with this sort of explanation is that it overstates the influence of newcomers from the Golden State by overestimating their numbers.

When Seattle became particularly nervous about the impact of Californians in the late 1980s, there existed a widespread perception that Californians were overrunning the place as they tried to escape their own overgrown cities. It is true that some Californians were migrating northward, but they comprised only 12% of all newcomers to Washington between 1980 and 1987. Oregon, by contrast, accounted for 21% of all in-migrants over that span, yet few people in Washington complained about being overrun by Oregonians. (Recalling that Oregon had been first, in the 1970s, actually to campaign against Californians, one might conclude that the state was exporting to Washington not only its people but also its well-developed anti-California sentiments.) Moreover, in the same period, "natural" population growth in Washington accounted for 54% of the state's net growth, while out-of-state immigrants accounted for 46%. In other words, for every one newcomer from California in 1980-1987, there were roughly ten babies born to Washington parents. The state was, in truth, the greatest source of its own population increase. (In King County, in the period 1990-97, the same pattern held. Residents felt they were being inundated by newcomers, but births actually accounted for 64% of the growth. Of newcomers to the county, furthermore, most were from other countries, not other states. In counties to the north and south of King County, by contrast, migrants outnumbered births. Seattle Times, March 17, 1998, A1, A14.

To gain perspective, one needs look at population flows between Washington and California over longer periods of time. People move toward economic opportunity. During Washington's recession of the early 1980s, it had a net loss of people to California; during California's slump in the later 1980s, Washington had a net gain of people from California. The two states have tended to send people back and forth, generally depending upon the health of their respective aerospace and other industry. Between 1970 and 1990, Washington sent seventy (70) fewer people to California than California sent to it! Prior to that, the flow had mostly gone in the other direction. The 1970 U.S. census (at the depth of a steep downturn at Boeing) counted 238,000 people living in California who had been born in Washington, as opposed to 138,000 people living in Washington who had been born in California. In sum, while Californians have certainly been a part of the growth in population in Washington state since 1970, it is easy to overestimate their numbers, and also their influence. It has also been easy to mistake the in-migration of Californians as a quite recent phenomenon. Nonetheless, Californians are seen as an important source of social problems. Let me suggest one speculative reason why.

Fourth, in identifying an influx of people from California as the cause of a variety of problems, people from western Washington (and probably from Oregon, too) have found a scapegoat to blame for problems that they have themselves created. It is easy to assign blame for a wide variety of ills to an outsider, someone who is readily identified as different. But in truth it is usually not the outsider who has caused all the trouble. More than anyone else, Washingtonians are responsible for the conditions attributed to Californians. It is people from this state who are buying most of the new cars and houses, using most of the roads, having most of the babies, and committing most of the crimes. Moreover, if newcomers are arriving, it is in large part because Washington employers such as Microsoft and Boeing and state universities are recruiting them here to join expanding work forces. Most people from the Evergreen State cheer on their homegrown employers, which form the basis for their prosperity. But they seldom pause to ask whether these organizations—not new arrivals from out of state—ought to share more of the responsibility for the urban ills so commonly blamed on Californians.

Fifth, newcomers to the state, including those from California, contribute to Washington in valuable ways, as the case of greater Seattle illustrates. During the late 19th century, the captain of a ship visiting Seattle summed up quite well a distinctive local attitude that persists to this day: "You Seattle pioneers are very peculiar people. You want to have a big city but don't want anyone to live here but yourselves." The fact is, of course, a city cannot be "big" if it insulates itself. Boeing, Microsoft and the University of Washington could hardly thrive without luring skilled and educated employees from out of state; the local economy depends upon an influx of talented people, and many of them come from California. Newcomers contribute to not only the economy but also the cultural life that makes Seattle "big" or cosmopolitan. Think about the theater and art and music and movies and restaurants that give Seattle such a rich culture; think about the state's burgeoning wine industry, which gained so much assistance at the start from California's Napa Valley. Think about the diversity of peoples—so essential to an urban and urbane existence—that arises as a result of immigration.

Moreover, it may be that the people moving here from elsewhere share our values more than we think they do. Many Californians coming to the Northwest explain their migration by saying they wanted to leave "the California rat race behind." When I survey the students in my classes who come from outside the Pacific Northwest, I ask them how it is that they ended up in Washington state. Many, of course, had little choice in the matter—the Army sent them here, their spouse got a job here, and so on. But a good number have said that they came because they liked the natural environment of the area and the amenities of urban life on Puget Sound. In other words, they appreciate the very things that we value so highly about our place of residence. Indeed, like converts to a new religion, they may prove to be more devoutly protective of the place than the old-timers, particularly as they worry about it replicating the "rat race" they left behind.

Sixth, and finally, I would argue that the recent anti-Californian sentiments perpetuate an ugly form of bigotry that has long characterized Pacific Northwest history. Since the arrival of American settlers during the 1840s, there has been a constant effort on the part of the dominant population-primarily people of European descent-to define the Pacific Northwest by excluding certain groups of "others" from it or by marginalizing certain groups of "others" within it. Put in different terms, there have been constant attempts to say that some people "belong" in the Pacific Northwest while others—particularly people of color—do not. White Pacific Northwesterners at times formally prohibited as well as informally discouraged African-American migration to the region. They warred against and dispossessed Indian groups. They lobbied the federal government to exclude Chinese and Japanese immigrants, and they forcibly expelled the Chinese from some towns during the 1880s, and outlawed ownership of land by Japanese immigrants in the 1920s. Most Northwsterners supported incarceration of all people of Japanese descent during World War Two, and many lobbied to keep them away from the region after the war.The Ku Klux Klan attained considerable power in the region during the 1920s, and in Oregon almost enacted legislation, aimed at immigrants, designed to outlaw parochial schools. During the 1980s and 1990s, white supremacist groups were attracted to the Pacific Northwest because it had fewer people of color than other parts of the country, and the goal of an exclusively white population seemed more attainable there. There is, in short, a long and unfinished record of people in the Pacific Northwest trying to define the region in exclusive, racial terms. It is not a proud legacy.

One might think that the more recent hostility toward Californians is different. After all, the hypothetical Californians who have attracted so much attention in recent years have tended to be white and relatively affluent. At times in our history, however, even "white" Californians have been castigated in racial terms. In 1924, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce published a booklet called In the Zone of Filtered Sunshine: Why the Pacific Northwest is Destined to Dominate the World. Trying to make a virtue out of necessity, boosters attempted to explain why investors and immigrants should prefer Seattle over California. "The most energetic human types and the highest and most enduring civilizations have evolved in the cloudiest region of the world, Nordic Europe....The entire United States, with the exception of the Pacific Northwest, is not well adapted for the permanent survival of the Nordic races, but is better suited for the darker types." California would attract the "Mediterranean races," the pamphlet predicted, so its "civilization" would be of the "inferior" type, susceptible to the negative effects of "intense sunshine" and therefore certain to decay at an early date. Seattle, on the other hand, would attract "Nordic" types, which would ensure a more lasting and successful "empire."

Perceptions of Californians as the "other" during the 1920s embodied the same kind of bigotry as was expressed by whites against people of color throughout the region's history. I would argue that perceptions of Californians during the 1980s and 1990s have continued the trend. Stereotypes of people assumed to be different have consistently offered a way to help define the Pacific Northwest as a region and to provide it with a sense of identity, but they have done so at considerable expense. Like any stereotype, they have grossly misunderstood and dehumanized the people they have been meant to portray. Moreover, like any stereotype, these perceptions have generally been based on imperfect information. They have assigned blame for problems mistakenly, and they have helped to perpetuate unrealistic understandings of the causes of those problems. Finally, they have helped to distort the meaning of the region by distorting the knowledge of its own history.

One reason to ask "Who Belongs in the Pacific Northwest?" is to think of all the imperfect answers there are to that question, including the ones that have been offered throughout the region's history. One reason to study the region's history is to arrive at better answers, or perhaps better questions.

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