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Overlooked. Underestimated. Not L.A. Never appreciated. These were among the first words the Blueprint for Belonging team1 heard from grassroots and community-organizing leaders who were asked to describe their region: the Inland Empire of Southern California. But as consistent as these responses were, so too was these leaders’ pivot to another type of descriptors: Richness of diversity. Lifting each other up. Great potential. And memorably, one named a specific quality of the region that is underestimated: “our ability to lead.”

This report chronicles the most significant findings from more than two years of research with the people of the Inland Empire, focusing on that richness and potential, along with the barriers that constrain them. The research was carried out as part of the Blueprint for Belonging (B4B) project anchored at the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley. It sought to understand prevailing beliefs, opinions, and narratives across different demographic subgroups in the region on topics including intergroup relations, the idea of community, economic opportunity and inequality, the role of government, and civic participation. The Institute’s B4B team developed the research in ongoing dialogue and partnership with nonprofit organizations leading civic-engagement, worker-rights, immigrant-rights, environmental-justice, and other community organizing in the two-county region. Through this collaborative process, we refined research questions and methods to support knowledge and strategy needs of their applied work. In this report, we bring forward the most salient lessons relevant to contending with and transforming narratives and conventions in ways that foster inclusive, active civic identities and belonging.

Our research in the Inland Empire in many ways puts a spotlight on the overlooked and the unappreciated, and positions the “peripheries” at the center, as we describe below. Consisting of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, the Inland Empire itself is often identified as a periphery—“at the margins” in relation to Los Angeles. For decades, the region’s story as a place has been linked to L.A.,2 in what is easy to cast as a dependent relationship, but is actually a symbiotic one.3 Today the relationship is largely defined by movement—of home seekers relocating to the more affordable Inland Empire, tens of thousands of daily commuters enduring congested highways to reach L.A. workplaces, and billions of dollars of goods passing through the Inland Empire’s vast warehousing and logistics industry from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to the rest of the country.

These movements have added up to dramatic population growth in the Inland Empire over the past three decades, with the two-county region now more populous than each of 25 U.S. states. Demographers, economists, and planners have taken note, but still mostly with a view to broad patterns and trends, and from the proverbial 30,000 feet. One influential report dubbed inland California, from the exurbs of Sacramento to Riverside County, as the “Third California”—distinguishing it from coastal Northern and Southern California mostly on basis of its rapid population growth and lower housing costs.4 But this type of label obscures enormous differences across this incredibly diverse expanse of people and communities. Its infelicitous echo of the term “Third World” reminds us of how inchoate interest in inland regions can actually re-marginalize the people of those regions when it draws attention to them only to simultaneously define them as ancillary, and in reductionist terms.

Figure 1: The Inland Empire and its environs

By “Inland Empire,” we include all of the two-county region of San Bernardino and Riverside (set in green), stretching from the eastern edges of the Los Angeles metropolitan area to California’s state line with Nevada and Arizona.

Overview of the Report

This report brings together results from long-term, collaborative research with the people of the Inland Empire that challenges numerous simplified shorthands about them, moving from the 30,000-foot to the three-dimensional view. The next section of this introduction reviews some recent reductionist takes on the region that are particularly problematic from the standpoint of addressing crises of health, environment, representation, and inequality in the region and the state.

But first, we wish to provide a brief, broad look at what is to come in this report. Following this introduction, the report consists of four additional parts and a brief appendix. Each of the parts (II-V) analyzes our most important research findings, together with a summary of implications and recommendations for practitioners, around a major theme of our Inland Empire research. Part II begins by pursuing the thread of mobility, and how movement of populations has redefined Inland Empire communities over the past decades. It then examines residents’ current sense of belonging, their ideas about what constitutes “community,” and what barriers they perceive to experiencing both. Part III takes a closer view of how residents of the Inland Empire relate to one another across lines of difference—especially ethno-racial difference. With a focus on Black and Latinx residents, it highlights beliefs and narratives that are both perilous and promising for building cross-group solidarity and bridging.

Part IV recounts residents’ reflections on the landscape of economic opportunities in the Inland Empire, together with their hopes and ideas about what it might take to change them. The longest of this report’s parts, it attends to the considerable nuance and complexity in how low- to middle-income residents of color wrestle with what is fair, right, and possible with respect to the economy. This discussion transitions to the fifth and final part of the report, in which we examine views and attitudes on government. Part V includes residents’ primary associations with the idea of “government,” the roles they see government playing in their lives, and how they think about engaging it to make change. Last, an appendix showcases one application of lessons highlighted across this report, in the form of a core narrative and accompanying set of communications best practices. These were designed to anchor a range of campaigns that put at their center an inclusive, civically active “we” identity. This application was developed by the B4B team and a coalition of community organizations in the Inland Empire, and is grounded in our research and other ongoing collaboration.

De-Simplifying the Inland Empire

Perhaps the most recent example of the Inland Empire becoming the object of reductive attention came in December 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic tore through Riverside and San Bernardino counties’ communities and hospitals with particular ferocity. As case counts more than tripled to over 270,000 in each county from Thanksgiving 2020 to February 2021, both became among the top four large counties nationally for infections per capita.5 The response in many public commentaries was to link the Inland Empire’s extreme spread to pockets of loud opposition to pandemic restrictions in the region.6 But these narratives depicting the local surge as  the predictable outcome for a supposedly “anti-mitigation” region occluded broader and more deeply rooted vulnerabilities to COVID-19.7  

First, the air that residents breathe in the region’s population center is highly polluted, due in large part to the emissions of diesel trucks and other vehicles engaged in the goods-movement industry.8 Sustained exposure to the ozone pollution these emissions generate renders lungs prone to infection and weakens immune systems. The region is also home to a large number of residents working in goods movement—one of a handful of industries in which activity actually grew during the pandemic, and one that requires workers to leave their homes and be exposed to potential infection. Because blue-collar jobs in warehouses and delivery services pay low wages, many of these workers also live in multi-family or multi-generational households in which the virus could spread further. And because the industry prefers to employ workers part-time or as contractors, healthcare access is not a given. Here we see how an industry and its norms assemble the kindling for a public-health crisis.

Several elected officials in the Inland Empire also played a role in increasing their constituents’ vulnerability to infection by refusing to enforce state public-health rules like mask requirements and restrictions on business operations.9 As infections spiked in December, San Bernardino County’s Board of Supervisors put its energy into preparing another lawsuit challenging the state’s regional order for slowing the spread, without offering an alternative of its own.10 These and other actions and statements by local officials confused, or directly undermined, public-health experts’ messages about how the public should protect itself from COVID-19.

The Inland Empire has also been an object of increasing interest from California’s statewide civic-engagement and political players, who similarly too often recognize it through a simplifying prism. Here the two-county region is seen not only for its growth, but especially for its changing ethno-racial composition, as now more than two thirds of residents are Latinx, Black, Asian, or Native American (see Table 1). As such, the Inland Empire is increasingly a priority target of both nonpartisan mobilization efforts to expand representation of communities of color, and statewide candidate and ballot-initiative campaigns that see the Inland Empire as a “swing” region. It might be said that this latter group sees the Inland Empire as another type of margin: their potential margin of electoral victory. As an article written in the run up to California’s 2018 gubernatorial primary put it, Riverside and San Bernardino counties’ “largely working class electorate” is a top “electoral prize”— “highly coveted and maddeningly unpredictable.”11

Table 1: Demographic statistics for the Inland Empire

2019, in millions

Change in raw population

Share of population

Total 4,650,631 +10% 100%
American Indian or Alaska Native 43,820 +1.4% 1.0%
Asian American 321,748 +27% 6.9%
Black or African American 372,576 +10% 8.0%
Hispanic or Latina/o/x 2,422,840 +21% 52.1%
White (not Hispanic) 1,436,845 -7.5% 30.9%
Source: United States Census Bureau.

As an ever-growing share of that eligible voter base is people of color,12 electoral strategists have tended to take as a given that the region’s political future will be increasingly liberal or progressive. This is a “demographics-as-destiny” view of politics that sees correlations between ethno-racial identifiers and political preferences as essentially fixed. Where demographic change has already taken place, it sees political change as dependent only upon the composition of the voting electorate “catching up” to that of the general population. Accordingly, the Inland Empire is one of many regions across the country for which political strategists’ operant assumption has been that turnout growth itself will mean improved vote margins for progressive candidates and ballot campaigns.

That widely accepted hypothesis was not borne out in November 2020. To the contrary, Riverside and San Bernardino counties proved challenging terrain for progressive campaigns. There is no perfect proxy for measuring whether greater participation from a more ethno-racially diverse voter population drives election outcomes in a “progressive” direction. But given the large turnout increase from 2016 to 2020, and the public’s familiarity with the presidential candidates and what they stand for, it is notable how small the difference in results of the two presidential elections was. In 2016, 1.32 million Inland Empire voters cast ballots for either Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton or Republican candidate Donald Trump. Leaving aside votes cast for smaller parties, these ballots split 54.2 percent for Clinton and 45.8 percent for Trump. In 2020, nearly 1.8 million Inland Empire voters cast ballots for either the Democratic or Republican presidential candidate—an increase of 480,000 votes for either Joe Biden or Trump. But these additional votes were no liberal surge; in fact, they split only slightly more favorably for the Democratic candidate than did 2016’s ballot pool. As a result, the historically high-turnout election only nudged the Democrats’ 2020 two-party advantage in the Inland Empire up by a single percentage point, to 54.7—45.3.13  

Figure 2:
Presidential election vote counts in the Inland Empire, 2016 and 2020 compared

Looking beyond the presidential race, Inland Empire voters broke consistently more conservative than the state overall in a series of 2020 ballot initiatives. Progressive measures to reform commercial property tax assessments (Proposition 15), reinstate affirmative action (Proposition 16), and expand local rent control powers (Proposition 21) all ran 5-8 points behind their levels of support statewide (see Figure 3). Proposition 15, which would have increased funding for schools and local government by taxing commercial and industrial properties based on market value, came closest to winning, both statewide and in the Inland Empire. Still, it lost in the two-county region by a substantial margin of 41-59.

Figure 3:
Results for selected 2020 California ballot measures, in the Inland Empire and statewide 

If results like these appear, to borrow from the article quoted above, “maddeningly unpredictable,” we contend that it is because most political assessments do not engage deeply with the complexities of the Inland Empire and its people. More specifically, too little time and resources have been spent listening to the voices and experiences of residents who are Latinx, Black, or other people of color—even as they are increasingly recognized as the region’s “new majority.” There is a need for research that allows these constituencies to speak openly, in their own words, and in paragraphs. Without such research, we cannot know what ideas are getting traction, what narratives are resonating and being reproduced, and what beliefs are foregrounded in constituents’ civic action-taking. 

Perhaps it is too much to expect the kind of long-term commitment and depth of engagement such investigation would require from electoral campaigns. Perhaps. But this commitment and engagement are indispensable when the work is that of organizing and communicating to foster durable, inclusive civic identities that build power for transformative change. It is with that latter work in mind that our research in the Inland Empire was developed.

Overview of Our Research Methods and Participants

This section offers a summary of Blueprint for Belonging’s research in the Inland Empire, on which this report is based. We focus on the methods of our primary data collection with residents of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, which spanned the period of June 2019 through August 2020. But it is relevant to note that secondary research, and ongoing dialogue and engagement with nonprofit and social-change leaders also inform the analysis. This engagement began in the first months of 2019, and remains ongoing.

Our research set out to fill knowledge gaps as discussed above, and to place the “margins” at the center of inquiry. This involved, first, committing to a multi-year, multi-method study examining the two-county Inland Empire region on its own terms, with the depth and breadth that entails. But it also involved putting an intentional focus on the region’s marginalized population subgroups. Specifically, each phase of the research was designed to prioritize accessing the voices and experiences of residents who are Latinx, Black, Spanish-dominant, and/or young people (ages 35 and under). 

Focus groups. In June 2019, the project held five focus groups of 90-110 minutes each in the cities of Riverside and Ontario. Each of the groups was composed of 7-10 residents from across San Bernardino and Riverside counties, for a total of 46 participants.14 The groups discussed topics including the role and effectiveness of government; community needs and well-being; in-group identities and intergroup relations; and economic opportunity and inequality.

Each of the five focus groups brought together individuals who shared commonalities along lines of ethno-racial identity, gender identity, and age group, as shown in Table 2. This type of “segmentation,” or sorting, of participants is a well-established design element of focus groups in the social sciences, and serves purposes both practical and theoretical. On the practical side, composing groups of people with like socio-demographic characteristics tends to foster greater comfort, openness, candor, and ease and equality of participation across participants, especially when discussing topics like intergroup relations.15

Black women, ages 30-55 years
Black men, ages 30-55 years
Latina women, ages 30-55 years
Black, Latina, Asian, Indigenous, or multi-racial young women, ages 20-29 years
Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous, or multi-racial young men, ages 20-29 years
Table 2: Composition of Inland Empire Focus Groups

More theoretically, the focus group as a method of data collection is about more than hearing the opinions of multiple interviewees in a condensed time. Focus groups are fundamentally about facilitating cross-conversations among participants that disclose shared conceptions and understandings, tacit beliefs, associations, and social processes of meaning-making that reflect the wider social milieus of which participants are a part.16 They reveal “normative discourses” for a given milieu, but also, through interaction, the terms and bases on which those discourses are contested, debated, and potentially re-evaluated and refined.17  The resulting data can provide a valuable window into the narratives and patterns of opinion-formation that resonate in the wider subpopulation that participants represent, with lessons for how to potentially shift or reconstitute those narratives.

Individual interviews. As a complement to our focus groups, the Blueprint for Belonging team also conducted one-on-one interviews with 26 Inland Empire residents during the fall of 2019. These interviews covered mostly the same topic areas as the focus groups, but served at least two critical roles. First, they provided the opportunity to speak with members of some groups that were not well represented in the focus groups, such as Latino men and Spanish-dominant residents. Second, one-on-one interviews allowed the research team to investigate whether there were perspectives that could not (or did not) come out in the peer-group setting.18  

Our interviewees included 14 men and 12 women, all residents of San Bernardino or Riverside County.19 Of these interviewees, 18 identified as Latinx, Hispanic, or Mexican; 6 identified as Black or African American; 1 identified as Indigenous; and 1 identified as bi-racial, of Black and white descent. Ten of the interviews were conducted in Spanish. The age distribution of interviewees, coded by interview language, is presented in Figure 4. Interviews varied in length, but most English-language interviews lasted 45-60 minutes, and Spanish-language interviews were on average slightly longer than an hour.20

Figure 4: Distribution of interviewees by age and gender identity
A scatter plot illustrating interviewees by age, gender, and language. The youngest person was in their late 20s and the oldest were 60. Both English and Spanish-language speakers were represented, and men and women were equally represented.

Regional surveys. In summer 2020, Blueprint for Belonging fielded a major survey in the Inland Empire, which was completed by 1,574 San Bernardino and Riverside County residents. Prospective participants were drawn from a pool that included voters and non-voters, citizens and non-citizens, and were contacted by email, postal mail, and telephone. They could complete the survey online, by landline, or by cellular phone, in English or Spanish. The survey covered a range of topics including intergroup attitudes, views on the proper role of government, economic and other policy issues, and experiences with the COVID-19 crisis.21 The design and selection of questions for the survey were deeply informed by our qualitative research, as the survey was meant to help gauge the breadth, distribution, and correlations of views expressed in focus groups and interviews. We oversampled the three most populous ethno-racial groups in the Inland Empire—Black, Latinx, and white residents—to ensure statistical reliability of results for these subpopulations.

Simultaneous to the Inland Empire regional survey, Blueprint for Belonging also fielded the same survey in Orange County. The Orange County survey was completed by a similar number of residents, but there the ethno-racial group oversamples were for Asian Americans, Latinxs, and whites. This report makes occasional reference to data from the Orange County survey where differences or similarities between its results and those in the Inland Empire survey are relevant to the analysis. 

Finally, both of the above 2020 regional surveys build on the Blueprint for Belonging project’s statewide baseline survey conducted in December 2017. That survey, known as the California Survey on Othering and Belonging, explored Californians’ attitudes on a broad range of issues related to identity, intergroup dynamics, public policy, social values, the role of government and corporations, and more.22 Data from the 2017 California Survey on Othering and Belonging are also used as a point of comparison in some sections of this report.

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  • 1  Blueprint for Belonging (B4B) is a collaborative initiative led by the Othering & Belonging Institute, in partnership with more than 50 organizations across California, to develop narrative strategy and infrastructure for transformative change toward a just, equitable, and inclusive society. During the period of research covered in this report, the B4B team consisted of Olivia Araiza, Gerald Lenoir, Joshua Clark, and Eli Moore.
  • 2  Genevieve Carpio, Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race, University of California Press, 2019, especially Chapter 5.
  • 3  Juan de Lara demonstrates this point in his, Inland Shift: Race, Space, and Capital in Southern California, University of California Press, 2018. See especially Chapter 7.
  • 4  Joel Kotkin and William H. Frey, “The Third California: The Golden State’s New Frontier,” Metropolitan Policy Program, The Brookings Institution, 2007.
  • 5  By mid-February, the region’s confirmed case count for the pandemic topped 12,000 per 100,000 residents, and San Bernardino and Riverside ranked second and fourth among the United States’ 40 most populous counties for infections per capita. Miami-Dade County ranked first and Los Angeles County third, with slightly more cases per capita than Riverside.
  • 6  Ryan Hagen and Beau Yarbrough, “Riverside County residents, conservative officials rally in Hemet to ‘Open California Now’,” The Press-Enterprise (Riverside), October 17, 2020, https://www.pe.com/2020/10/17/riverside-county-residents-conservative-officials-rally-in-hemet-to-open-california-now; and Gina Silva, “Despite coronavirus pandemic, it’s business as usual in Temecula,” Fox 11 (Los Angeles), December 9, 2020, https://www.foxla.com/news/amid-covid-pandemic-its-business-as-usual-in-temecula.
  • 7  Furthermore, notwithstanding some vocal opposition to mitigation efforts, polling demonstrated that the vast majority of Inland Empire voters supported mitigation policies advanced by the state government. Othering & Belonging Institute, “Poll: Anti-maskers small minority of Inland Empire voters,” press release, February 22, 2021, https://belonging.berkeley.edu/poll-anti-maskers-small-minority-inland-empire-voters.
  • 8  See Part IV for a fuller discussion of this context.
  • 9  Jeff Horseman, “Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco’s refusal to enforce coronavirus orders gets national attention,” The Press-Enterprise (Riverside), December 18, 2020, https://www.pe.com/2020/12/18/riverside-county-sheriff-chad-biancos-refusal-to-enforce-coronavirus-orders-gets-national-attention/; and Silva, “Despite coronavirus pandemic, it’s business as usual in Temecula.”
  • 10  Lila Seidman, “San Bernardino County sues Newsom over coronavirus restrictions,” Los Angeles Times, December 17, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-12-17/san-bernardino-sues-newsom-over-coronavirus-rules.
  • 11  Phil Willon, “Once an afterthought, the Inland Empire becomes a pivotal battleground in California governor’s race,” Los Angeles Times, June 1, 2018, https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-ca-california-governor-inland-empire-20180601-story.html.
  • 12  Throughout this report, “people of color” refers to all of those people who identify as Latina/o/x or Hispanic, Black or African American, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Native American or American Indian, or Native Hawai’ian.
  • 13  This translated into Biden netting almost 59,000 more votes in the Inland Empire than Clinton netted in 2016, as visualized in Figure 2.
  • 14  In the only case in which a group was composed of just seven participants, it was because two others (from Victorville and Hesperia) were so ensnared in traffic that they were unable to reach Ontario. Participants able to join the focus groups included individuals from across the area spanning Chino to Palm Desert, Victorville to Lake Elsinore. But the substantial majority (around 3 out of 4) were residents of either the Ontario-Fontana-Rialto-San Bernardino or the Riverside-Moreno Valley area.
  • 15  This is particularly true when focus groups are held in the context of a society structured by status hierarchies and material inequality that situate individuals differently based on attributes like gender and ethno-racial identity. It is important to remember that focus groups are not somehow “spaces apart” from their wider social contexts, but are instead embedded within those contexts in ways that shape patterns of participation. For an insightful and nuanced discussion of the multiple contexts that may bear on focus group participation, see Jocelyn Hollander, “The Social Contexts of Focus Groups,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 33, no. 5 (2004): 602-637. More general points about the rationales for segmentation can be found in, David L. Morgan, “Why Things (Sometimes) Go Wrong in Focus Groups,” Qualitative Health Research 5, no. 4 (1995): 516-523.
  • 16  Sue Wilkinson, “Focus Groups in Feminist Research: Power, Interaction, and the Co-construction of Meaning,” Women’s Studies International Forum 21, no. 1 (1998): 111-125; Lia Litosseliti, Using Focus Groups in Research, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2003; and Phil Macnaghten and Greg Myers, “Focus Groups,” in Clive Seale, Giampietro Gobo, Jaber F. Gubrium, and David Silverman, eds., Qualitative Research Practice, Sage Publications, 2004.
  • 17  Janet Smithson, “Using and Analysing Focus Groups: Limitations and Possibilities,” International Journal of Social Research Methodology 3, no. 2 (2000): 103-119; and Litosseliti, Using Focus Groups in Research.
  • 18  Interviewees did indeed disclose beliefs and narratives—including stereotypes and criticisms of their in-groups—that were not heard in focus groups, as discussed in later parts of this report. On the complementary benefits of focus groups and interviews, see Lynn Michell, “Combining Focus Groups and Interviews: Telling How It Is; Telling How It Feels,” in Rosaline S. Barbour and Jenny Kitzinger, eds., Developing Focus Group Research: Politics, Theory and Practice, Sage Publications, 1999.
  • 19  The vast majority of interviewees (23) resided in the southwest population core of the Inland Empire, roughly bounded by Corona, Montclair, the city of San Bernardino, and Moreno Valley.
  • 20  All one-on-one interviews were conducted by either Alex Aguirre, a B4B graduate student researcher and doctoral student at the University of California, Irvine; or Gerald Lenoir, a B4B team member at the Othering & Belonging Institute.
  • 21  Though the survey was in the field from the final days of June through the first week of August, the great majority of respondents completed the survey in July 2020. At that time, most of California was four months into pandemic-related restrictions, but was only beginning to see their first significant surge in cases at the scale that states like New York, New Jersey, and Michigan saw in March and April.
  • 22  For more information and topline results from the 2017 survey, see Othering & Belonging Institute, “California Survey on Othering and Belonging: Views on Identity, Race, and Politics,” April 18, 2018, https://belonging.berkeley.edu/california-survey-othering-and-belonging.