Saturday, December 3, 2011

Los Angeles: From White City to World City by Scott Kurashige

"From White City to World City" by Scott Kurashige

Los Angeles has served as a major testing ground of American race relations owing to its proximity to both the Mexican border and, as my account especially recognizes, the Pacific Ocean. Writer Carey McWilliams remarked that the nation’s imperial expansion turned the Pacific into an “American highway.” Consequently, a transpacific imaginary always factored into the construction of the West Coast’s multiracial relations during the twentieth century. It loomed especially large in the minds of the city’s leading figures. Heir to the fortune of the Southern Pacific railroad, Henry Huntington became one of the region’s wealthiest men and most extensive landholders of the early twentieth century. “Los Angeles is destined to become the most important city in this country, if not the world,” proclaimed Huntington in 1912. “It can extend in any direction as far as you like; its front door opens on the Pacific, the ocean of the future. The Atlantic is the ocean of the past. Europe can supply her own wants; we shall supply the wants of Asia.” The city’s first African American mayor, Tom Bradley, entered office six decades later with nearly an identical vision. “It was something that was just so clear to me that I never questioned it,” he recalled, “the development of this city as a gateway to the Pacific Rim.” Bradley, of course, was in a much better position to actualize this vision, for the advance of globalization had put a new premium on the importance of “world cities” as a nexus of international trade.6

A large body of scholars has devoted the past two decades to understanding Los Angeles as a “world city.” Many assert that the former “exception” is now the model of urbanism for the “post-Fordist” era of globalization. While researchers have traced the origins of the city’s decentralized spatial form and its “flexible” regime of accumulation, racial politics has especially come to the fore of scholarly attention. Most notably, City of Quartz by Mike Davis demonstrated the centrality of race and class to the operation of power in twentieth-century Los Angeles. Davis’s groundbreaking work sparked a flurry of regional studies that have tended to focus on explaining the post-1848 ascendance of the “white city” or the post-1965 immigration reshaping the “world city.” But there remains a chronological and intellectual void waiting to be filled. How did a city governed by white supremacy become a center of multiculturalism? The city’s postwar reorientation complicates the traditional view of the mid–twentieth century as a time when a lull in immigration heightened the assimilation of ethnic groups and aided the consolidation of a national consensus. My contention is that many of the new dynamics that would later characterize multiculturalism were initiated in this same period. In order to situate itself as the “capital of the Pacific Rim,” Los Angeles had to develop a self-awareness of its multiracial diversity and an interconnection to the peoples and cultures of the global community. While Los Angeles did not exercise a full commitment to racial equality, its qualified embrace of multiculturalism was a prerequisite for its emergence as a “world city.”7

Drawing attention to this overlooked historical evolution of multiracial relations in Los Angeles, I devote careful attention to the factors that caused the historical trajectories of Black and Japanese Americans to converge and diverge. The book is roughly divided into three chronological sections. Chapters 1 through 3 examine two overlapping processes of exclusion during the interwar era that created experiences with racism common to both groups but situated them as leaders of distinct spheres of struggle. Revolving around World War II, chapters 4 through 7 detail how the total exclusion of Japanese Americans and the integration of African Americans alongside other non-Japanese minorities drove a wedge between the two groups while creating a paradigm shift in racial politics. Addressing the postwar aftermath of this shift, chapters 8 through 11 focus on the two overlapping processes of integration that set the two groups apart and ultimately gave rise to multiculturalism.

For African Americans from the Jim Crow South, moving west was a common strategy of survival and advancement, especially when job opportunities opened during World War II. What they encountered in Los Angeles, however, were new ideas and technologies to propagate segregation and inequality in their new surroundings. Challenges to white racism led not to its elimination but its evolution into more socially acceptable forms over the course of the twentieth century. In the early 1900s, prominent civic leaders openly espoused white supremacist beliefs, and advocates of Klan-type violence and intimidation called the city home. Yet, as the promotion of segregation and white privilege became increasingly attached to suburbanization, whites sought primarily to avoid people of color rather than engage them in direct conflict. They rarely concealed the racial prejudice behind their motives before World War II, but postwar civil rights measures forced them to make significant adjustments. Denying their involvement in a racist system, postwar culprits of segregation instituted a “more insidious” form of Jim Crow couched in the ostensibly race-neutral concept of “individual rights.” By the 1970s, with the movement for integration having been undermined, Black/white polarization reached an extreme stage that sociologists call “hypersegregation.” To be certain, some moderate achievements of integrationism left their mark on Black Los Angeles. The most blatant forms of overt racism had been eliminated, and a new African American professional class had risen. But the new sense of belonging and mobility that minority professionals experienced stood in stark contrast to the devastation of inner-city neighborhoods. The decoupling of integration from social democratic reform especially hurt urban African American workers, whose fortunes were tied to the dwindling prospects of the Fordist economy.8

Japanese Americans experienced the swiftest and most dramatic transition from segregation to integration. As “aliens ineligible to citizenship,” pre–World War II Japanese immigrants were political pariahs oppressed by racism and forced to make all sorts of accommodations just to maintain a stake in America. With the onset of war, the dehumanization of the Japanese “race” built on a legacy of exclusion and demagoguery to fuel the demand for Japanese American internment. And yet, scarcely two decades removed from the camps, Japanese Americans would emerge as the only “successful” model of racial integration. Whereas racial essentialism had previously tied ethnic Japanese to the transpacific “Yellow Peril” discourse, the postwar era and the American occupation of Japan linked them to transpacific integration. Driven by liberal tolerance and imperial arrogance, American elites sought to integrate the non-Communist Third World into its sphere (the “free world”) and promote the heightened level of international trade we now associate with “globalization.” A necessarily multiracial discourse became a constitutive element of American efforts to achieve and maintain global hegemony. Consequently, the assimilation of the American-born Nisei into many neighborhoods and professions previously restricted to whites carried special political significance to the city and the nation. Demonstrating the malleability of race relations, “successful” Japanese American integration ostensibly proved that the spread of American values could transcend the supposed racial divide between “Caucasians” and “Orientals.”9

Far from mutually exclusive, these Black and Japanese American trajectories were mutually determining over the course of a period stretching a quarter century before and after the Bronzeville/Little Tokyo encounter of the mid-1940s. During the interwar era, Black and Japanese Americans were roughly equal targets of degradation by whites. However, as variations by race and nationality differentiated the responses of Black and Japanese Americans to both housing and employment discrimination, members of each group looked to their counterparts in the other group for models of racial progress. There were, for instance, ways in which the national origins and ethnic heritage of Japanese Americans provided relative advantages. Before internment, Japanese immigrants possessed a common homeland that provided them with a psychic boost of nationalist pride and a basis for cooperative enterprises. In fact, Black organizers, who espoused self-help and economic nationalism, marveled at the ability of local Japanese entrepreneurs to capture segments of the city’s expanding consumer market. At the same time, the Black community’s greater legal standing and prowess made it better positioned to press for full citizenship rights. Seeking “better” housing, Japanese immigrants followed African Americans into Westside neighborhoods where Black homeowners and activists had begun to break down racial restrictions. Complementing previous research on multiethnic solidarity in the Eastside, my account recovers a neglected history of Black and Japanese American solidarity in the Westside, ranging from West Jefferson as early as the 1920s to postwar Crenshaw as late as the 1970s and beyond.10

But we should not assume that overlapping histories point only toward interethnic coalitions and affiliation. They can also explain divergences in Black and Japanese American trajectories, thereby serving to demystify interethnic tensions. During World War II, national imperatives to defeat a transpacific enemy shaped the city’s multiracial politics. The expansion of war-related jobs and the push for civic unity created the conditions for racial harmony—but only for those who escaped detainment behind barbed wire. As “national security” measures stripped Japanese Americans of citizenship and constitutional rights, they created space for African Americans to assert their “Americanness.” Framing its militant activism as the highest form of patriotism, the Black community mobilized to demand its fair share of wartime economic growth and to push for a voice in local governance. African Americans united with labor activists to build an alliance of the dispossessed that some contemporary observers perceived to be an unstoppable force for progressive social change.

But as Black segregation, poverty, and militancy intensified during the postwar era, Japanese Americans were invoked as a “model minority” whose achievement surpassed even that of whites. Tacit acceptance of Japanese Americans allowed whites to act in a manner consistent with modernist narratives of integration, to see themselves as tolerant people with rational rather than prejudiced reasons for opposing Black political demands. If Japanese Americans could attain middle-class status after being interned—so went the “model minority” argument—then Blacks had only themselves to blame if they did not follow suit. The creation of this “success story,” however, was largely an ideological construction, for it disregarded the lingering damage the internment had inflicted, and it erased from history those members of the Japanese American community who failed to achieve upward mobility. Its purpose was to buttress the claim that America was a progressive, egalitarian nation and to blunt the arguments of both domestic and foreign critics who claimed otherwise.

Many of the key roots of the “world city” run directly through these mutually determining trajectories of Black and Japanese American history. As US Cold War strategy prioritized alliances with Japan and other Asian governments, Los Angeles increasingly tied its economic and cultural life to the Pacific Rim. Moving toward a celebration of ethnic diversity, the city proved that the changes brought about by imperial entanglements were not unidirectional.

Still, the “world city” was a product of local as well as global conditions, taking a particular form in Los Angeles due to the configuration of urban politics symbolized by Mayor Tom Bradley’s ascension. More than a reflection of elite motives and behavior, the “world city” also resulted from grassroots challenges to racial discrimination and exclusion. Bradley launched his career through neighborhood organizing efforts in Crenshaw, the multiethnic district that became the central focus of postwar Black and Japanese American efforts to integrate the Westside. The mayor’s dominant representation of the “world city” reflected the moderate achievements of integrationists, who helped create a diverse community in Crenshaw and then sought to replicate this diversity by practicing affirmative action to change the face of municipal government. Meanwhile, young radicals in Crenshaw produced oppositional forms of multiculturalism under the rubric of “Third World” liberation. Both the moderates and the radicals could cite the polyethnic culture of a Crenshaw institution like the Holiday Bowl as inspiration.

Although a full analysis of post-1965 Los Angeles lies beyond the scope of the book, the research on which this history is based is unquestionably a product of this multicultural era. As a critique of the notion of history as a grand narrative privileging the dominant elements in society, multiculturalism has made us more receptive to hearing voices on the margins and to seeing history from diverse perspectives. What it has not done is provide a framework for understanding the many intersections of the ethnic narratives it has produced. Through a detailed study of the triangular relations between African Americans, Japanese Americans, and whites, I attempt to show how the fragments of interethnic history accessible through existing sources can be pieced together. This I take as the primary challenge to comparative ethnic studies scholarship ready to move from documenting the oppression and resistance of minorities to locating the emergence of a nonwhite majority. In this way, we might see the future in the past. As the well-traveled writer and activist Carey McWilliams argued in the mid-1940s, Los Angeles stood at the forefront of the nation’s “racial frontier” because of what he labeled its “quadrilateral” pattern of interaction between white, Black, Asian, and Mexican Americans. This uniquely West Coast configuration provided the nation with “one more chance, perhaps a last chance, to establish the principle of racial equality.” Those observing the city were thus blessed with “a ringside seat in the great theatre of the future.” That future has arrived. Multiethnic Los Angeles is no longer exceptional; it is a symbol of twenty-first-century American culture.11

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