Demographic Doom Averted!

Orange County 2001: Younger, darker and safer than ever

Illustration by Matt AdamsThe 1990s were the Decade of Doom, or (if you'll pardon the alliteration) the Decade of Demographic Doom, the 10-year-long collective scream of reporters, cops, experts and special-interest groups warning us of the perils of the kids in our midst, of a rising tide of Adolescent Superpredators, Apple-Bonging Meth-Hopped Stone Killers, Roving Asian Gangbangers (brazenly driving through Irvine), Lost-Future Latino Paint-Roller Killers, South County James-Dean Retro Thugs, School Shooters by the Hundreds (wielding arsenals of BB guns and plastic-pistol key chains), Uzi-Toting Third Graders (legendary, no confirmed sightings), Robber Cheerleaders, Slate-Eyed Girl Gangstas, and Murderous Druggie Progeny From Good Homes.

For those scared of the young, Orange County's 2000 census figures must be a harbinger of apocalypse: 25,000 more teenagers than predicted; 8,000 fewer whites; and 33,000 more Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans.

This is the world they warned us about—Sheriff Mike Carona, reporters at the LA Times and The Orange County Register, and quotable eminencies such as James Alan Fox and James Q. Wilson. They fanned an incessant drumbeat, predicting that more youths ("temporary sociopaths," in Fox's words) bring "an explosive increase in the amount of crime [and] addiction" (Wilson). As former UC Irvine dean and Orange County annual surveyor Mark Baldassare's cogent Trouble in Paradise reported, fearful whites see the county's rising population of color and youth as the prelude to crime and chaos.

Fleeing these larval Lords of the Flies, 50,000 fewer middle-aged and older whites turned up in Orange County's 2000 census than expected. Coincidentally, rural Idaho reports record population growth.

But those who ventured past the grim headlines and charted Orange County's real changes in crime, violence and drug abuse over the past three decades should say, "Thank God." Thank God the graying bailouts are being replaced by responsible younger citizens. Because as Orange County's youth population soared to a record 320,000 and transmogrified from 88 percent Anglo white in 1970 to 56 percent Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander and black today, young folks got better. At the same time, their mostly white elders got worse. If more and darker kids bring disaster, the meticulous compilations by state statisticians don't reveal it.

Led by an astounding decline of 80 percent in drug-abuse deaths and a 75 percent drop in suicides, Orange County teens are 60 percent safer from all forms of violent demise today than they were in the early 1970s, the latest Center for Health Statistics figures show. In 1999, teens under age 20 constituted only two of the county's 220 drug-abuse deaths, seven of its 210 suicides, and four of 104 fatal gun accidents and suicides. Fewer than 1 percent of Orange Countians treated in hospitals for the effects of heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine abuse in 1999 were adolescents.

Crime? Back in the 1960s when they started keeping track, Orange County law-enforcement agencies received 2,000 to 3,000 reports of serious (read: felony) violent and property offenses per 100,000 citizens every year. The latest 1999 and 2000 law-enforcement reports peg the county's felony violent and property crime rate at around 1,200 per 100,000 population—half the level of those Disneyland days of yore.

How do we account for the fact that we're far safer today? Young people. New 2000 statistics released two weeks ago by the Criminal Justice Statistics Center show Orange County teenage felony arrest rates dropped 65 percent from the 1970s to the 1990s, including a 20 percent drop in violent crime. While violent crime arrests temporarily rose among youth in the early 1990s (generating massive media paranoia) before falling to record lows, the biggest leap by far was among their elders. The real Troublemakers in Paradise were older generations, led by those very white elders purportedly terrified to set foot in today's multiracial Santa Ana and Westminster. Drug-abuse deaths tripled, and violent crime and felony rates more than doubled among Orange Countians older than 30 over the past three decades.

Naturally, this will not serve the needs of the powerful, and so the media, law enforcement and craven academic "experts" whose lush grants make them a little too cozy strove mightily to confirm public misapprehensions that kids were the mega-menace. Various luminaries now alternate between sowing more false alarm and trying to grab undeserved credit for improving trends. But the amazing reality is that a surging youth population and Orange County's stunning transition from the nation's premier white-flight bastion to one of the largest multiracial conglomerations in the world turned out not to be traumatic at all. Yes, patriarchs, you can come out from behind those gates now.

Mike Males, a fiftyish Orange County refugee, UCI social ecology Ph.D., Justice Policy Institute senior researcher and sociology instructor at UC Santa Cruz, provides more facts and figures on his primitive webpage: home.earthlink.net/~mmales/.
 
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