The Okie Problem
ECONOMIC DIFFICULTIES WERE ONLY SOME OF THE CHALLENGES THE MIGRANTS faced in Depression-torn California. More serious and more enduring were the social barriers that arose in that decade. Many Californians reacted with hostility to the Dust Bowl migrants. Calling them "Okies" and "Arkies," residents in some settings treated the Southwesterners like an alien social group. More than anything else, this reaction shaped the migrants' subsequent experience in the state. Long after attaining the economic stability they had hoped for, they would wrestle with the lingering effects of California's initial hostile response.
That response had several dimensions. In part a product of regional prejudices that almost always leave people of Southern backgrounds at a disadvantage outside their home region, it built as well on the migrants' association with farm work, poverty, and rural backwardness -- all invitations to disesteem in California. But as Walter Stein has shown, the intensity of California's reaction to the Dust Bowl migration was first of all a feature of a special time. The Depression created the climate of fear and conflict that nourished California's mistreatment of its newest settlers. Concerns that in another context would have meant little became charged and significant in this troublesome decade as worried Californians fought over their state's economic health and political future. 1
Migration was one of the matters that worried them most. Symbol of