Welcome to America's Most Diverse City

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Many William Land Elementary students speak a language other than English

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More than 30 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that "the 11 o'clock hour on Sunday is the most segregated hour in American life." It's an indictment that still carries weight today, as an estimated 90% of Americans worship primarily with members of their race or ethnicity. Yet Sacramento's complex social tapestry challenges conventional notions that racial segregation in worship is a failure of America's national ideal of equality. Sometimes segregation is driven not by bigotry but by language barriers and cultural heritage.

When Ukrainian immigrant Tamila Demyanik says, through an interpreter, that "the church is the major part of my life," it is no understatement. To the Demyaniks, First Slavic is a lifeline in a foreign land. Her husband buys bread at First Slavic and checks its bulletin board and a Russian phone book for community information. Longtime church members accustomed to America provide emotional support to newcomers and help them negotiate thickets of red tape in health care, housing and more.

Kevin Armstrong, a United Methodist pastor and director of the Religion and Public Teaching Project, based in Indianapolis, Ind., concedes that segregation, whether voluntary or compulsory, seems at odds with religious ideals. But he argues that the outcome often justifies the practice, particularly in immigrant communities. "They preserve their tradition," Armstrong explains, "sing in their native language, eat the food of their own culture, [and are] with people who remember what their land looks like and who their people are."

Shades of Blue
Cruising Del Paso heights in an unmarked police car, Chou Vang, 33, gestures toward a section of tired apartment houses and talks about gang violence. "Back in Laos, the Hmong are a minority ethnic group," he explains, "and the ethnic Lao ruled and ran the country. They have carried their old tensions to this country."

Vang is a police officer with the Sacramento police department, assigned to the problem-oriented policing unit. He is also a Laos-born member of the Hmong. The combination—his cop instincts and Hmong sensibility—enables Vang to be an effective negotiator in Hmong cases, including recurring episodes of gang violence between north-side teens and another Hmong gang in the southern part of town. Vang works on cases of all types, and frequently they involve drugs. In Del Paso Heights methamphetamines are the drug of choice. In Sacramento just last week federal authorities indicted 10 people on charges of importing yaba, a candy-flavored amphetamine.

The Sacramento police department has had difficulty attracting immigrant officers and people of color. White men still make up 46% of the department's staff; women swell the Caucasian ranks to 70%. Hispanics of any race account for 12%, blacks 8% and Asians 8%. Concern about racial profiling led the department to launch a study of its practices in 2000, and its first report found that 27% of drivers stopped by police were African American although African Americans make up only 15.5% of the local population. Despite such controversies, Vang feels he made the right move in signing up. "Occasionally someone will tell me to go back to my own country," he says. "But for the most part, I don't think they see me as an Asian. They just see me as a police officer."

All of Me
When Mariko Ferronato was 3 years old, she would regularly quiz her mother about which half of her was white and which was Japanese. "I thought there was a physical line that divided the Japanese me from the Caucasian me," says Ferronato, now 18 and a high school senior. A soccer goalie who plays the violin and has her eye on pre-med studies, Ferronato says her racial identity developed in stages. At her mostly white elementary school, she considered herself a white person "who happened to eat a lot of sticky rice." But in the ninth grade at her diverse high school, another student, who is white, called her a "cheating Jap." It hit hard. "I then tried to focus primarily on my Japanese side, completely ignoring my white side, as if to make up for all those years," she says.

In the 2000 U.S. Census, 24 in 1,000 people said they were multiracial (it's the first time Census pollers asked the question). It's often said with pride. While people of mixed race were once portrayed as tragic figures in movies, such as 1934's Imitation of Life, its 1959 remake and 1960's I Passed for White, today's pop-culture scene is bursting with mixed-race heroes, from movie tough guys Vin Diesel and The Rock to golfer Tiger Woods and rising tennis star James Blake to singers like Alicia Keys and Norah Jones. Sacramento is ahead of the curve; 2 of every 10 babies born here are multiracial. When those babies grow up and start marrying—a national survey shows more than 90% of today's teens approve of interracial marriage—the numbers will climb even higher.

It took time—and a feeling of not quite belonging at an Asian students' club—for Ferronato to finally realize that she is neither Japanese nor white. She is both. "Now I believe in the theory of hybrid vigor," she says. "A specimen derived from two different species has the strongest traits of both sides."

But people are not plants, and theories are not proofs. Sacramento, as a city, is still searching to find its best self, its strongest traits. Single-race parents of mixed-race children can offer guidance to their kids but not always full understanding. Sacramento is on a similar, unchaperoned journey. Will hybrid theory hold? Who can tell? But the blossoms will be something to see.

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