Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Walnut California - A Portrait of Class and Religious Assimilation

(Cross Posted at The Reformed Buddhist)

**This post is a follow up to another post concerning the Department of Justice Civil Rights lawsuit against the City of Walnut, California. Walnut California - Silent Discrimination, Buddhists Second Class Citizens

First off, I want to acknowledge how wrong I was about being vocal concerning the Cordoba House in New York. It is naive to think that a vocal and crushing public opinion, which expresses a view to suppress minority rights, will not produce political candidates that will, by hook or by crook, carry out the wishes of the public. Indeed, it is very important that those who oppose such ignorance and injustice, need to ensure their voices be heard loud and clear, so those in power don't so easily bend to the will of extremism and zealotry.

Case in point, Walnut California. I received an interesting email last night from a government official who wishes to remain off the record, but expressed his thoughts about the City of Walnut's side of the story. While there is much left to uncover about this case, from what I heard from this anonymous person, and through further research, some very interesting and some would say, unusual patterns began emerging.

Some facts and notations:
  • The City of Walnut, California is home to some 32,000 residents, and is considered one of the most affluent areas of the greater Los Angeles County area.
  • The median income for a household is $100,360. The average value of a house or condo in Walnut is $730,000 in 2008, compared to $230,000 for the rest of California.
  • Several publications and news outlets, including Money Magazine and CNN, have ranked Walnut as one of the best places to live due to the high standard of living, income and low crime rate. The citizens of Walnut take great pride in this, and it is reflected in some very strict city ordinances concerning the environmental appearances of housing, businesses and landscaping. Conformance to comply to these standards is strictly enforced by the Planning Commission and City Council.
  • The City of Walnut is home to over 50 religious establishments. Of that number, every single one of them are Christian, with the exception of one small Buddhist establishment (GUANG JIH TEMPLE) that appears to reside inside another building at 831 S LEMON AVE STE A11F. There are no Sikh, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu religious establishments that reside inside the City of Walnut. (There is one Islamic Cultural Center) 
  • In contrast, the surrounding cities of West Covina, Diamond Bar, La Puete, Industry and Pomona are home to dozens of non-Christian religious establishments including Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu temples and mosques.
  • The racial makeup of Walnut California is 55.75% Asian, 28.37% White, 4.20% African American and the rest being Latino. The overwhelming religion practiced is Christianity. 13,800 residents of Walnut were born outside of the United States, Asians representing the vast majority of that number.
  • In the last 30 years, the Chung Tai Zen Center is the first and only religious Conditional Use permit to be denied according the Department of Justice and California public records. The City of Walnut has issued at least 20 religious Conditional Use permits for Christian establishments in that time span.
  • The federal government filed a civil rights complaint, United States v. City of Walnut, CA (C.D. Ca. 2007), against Walnut in 2007 which alleged that 'the City failed to translate election materials and provide assistance for limited-English proficient Chinese and Korean voters.'
  • Beginning in 2003, when the Chung Tai Zen Center began it's application for building permit, several residents of Walnut spoke out rather vociferously against the center, alleging many things, including an allegation that the Zen Center would try to recruit children into their organization. Oddly enough, the majority of citizens speaking out against the Zen Center were Asian.
  • In 2008, a man named Micheal West ran for City Council under the platform of opposing the Zen Center. The issue was such a hot topic, West made the position one of his key planks. His reasoning was the impact of traffic congestion to children at a nearby school.
"I'm the only candidate who took a stand opposing the Zen Center locating in Walnut, due to the excessive traffic congestion it would have caused for the children at Suzanne Middle School- where my child attends." ~ Micheal West
  • According to the Department of Justice, the City of Walnut ordered that the Zen Center have a extremely involved level of in-depth traffic studies done, to which no other religious organization seeking a Conditional Use permit had to face. The vote on the Zen Center was tabled multiple times over the course of 4 years, until the January 16th 2008 4-1 vote that denied the permit, despite the Chung Tai Zen Center efforts to conform to every demand made by the planning commission. 

In my opinion, the denial to issue a permit to the Buddhists was based in part on the strong community desire to maintain a certain public aesthetic. The issue of traffic, an item that has been used to suppress the building of many establishments throughout the United States which the local communities demeaned undesirable, I feel is an obvious cover. A Buddhist temple in a high traffic area of town certainly would disrupt the affluent and hegemonic scene that the citizens of Walnut had so carefully tried to ensure. It is interesting to observe that some would view a Buddhist temple as a negative to a community aesthetic, and that Buddhism somehow represents a lower standard of living. In my opinion, due to Walnut being an enclave aberration of affluent Christian hegemonic milieu, surrounded by other cities brimming with diverse religious and economic class communities, the opposition to the Zen Center was based in part to a partiality of both economic class standing and ironically, due to the majority Asian population, an unwanted cultural differentiation. (My brain hurts after that sentence.)
I find it interesting to note that when weighing the preference of class and religion, that race can be separated in the justifying equation. Furthermore, it is interesting to observe that an endemic cluster can emerge, which has as one of its key defining principals, a conscious effort to distance themselves from their past cultural heritage. The 2007 lawsuit filed by the DoJ shows the city attempted to enforce this assimilation of the affluent class culture and its animosity towards other cultural influences. The Zen Center permit denial seems to be just an extension of this desire for a community to enforce this new emerging economic and manufactured cultural mores. No matter how manicured the landscaping is, or how ascetically pleasing to the eye the hegemony of conforming homes are, no amount of makeup, building codes and whitewashing will hide the true human stories that reside there. That's truly mass delusion.

The Department of Justice I think fails in its complaint to examine this side of the issue. Like the Cordoba House, the strong desire to enforce manufactured cultural mores can be seen throughout all parts of society. For me, the interesting thing about the United States is the fact that most people dismiss that the culture of Americans can be defined by an exceedingly high number of outside cultural influences. Once assimilated and accepted, it becomes part of the norm, something to be protected; but that process can take decades. Ironically, by fighting these influences and change, I feel many Americans really miss out of what this country has at its very foundation. It is a complicated matter, and one that deserves some attention.

Though there is never an excuse for discrimination, I don't think the officials or citizens of Walnut are bigoted against Buddhists as a primary purpose, it is merely a side effect from the attempt to maintain the appearance of coordinated class affulance and a false sense of a hegemonic suburban utopia.


  1. Wonderful post. My own hometown, Canton, Michigan, experienced a similar attempt by the majority to discriminate against a religious minority. In this case, my town has a large Indian Hindu population, about 10% of our township. They already had a temple -- an older, small brick building. They even already owned the property to expand an build a more traditional Hindu temple to accommodate their community.

    I was so surprised at how many people fought their plan to expand -- even though we've had many large churches built in the meantime!

    Traffic studies, architecture studies, blah, blah. Fortunately, the Hindu community was persistent, and they opened their new temple this year. It is beautiful. :)

  2. I grew up in next-door Pomona in the 60s & 70s. Walnut then was just a grassy hill, a bump in the freeway towards Los Angeles and the only thing there was Mt. Sac Community College and a ranch with lots of big white stallions.

    It, also, was, then, the smoggiest place on earth with all the soot from the L.A. area being funneled to Walnut, and then over the rise to Pomona.

    Nice report, Kyle. For now I remain freaked by the idea of Walnut [Walnut!!] being deemed an important spot. It's kinda like learning that a wad of snot from my nose has become an important piece to be displayed at the Modern Museum of Art.