“Your Asian Wasn’t Quiet”: Black, Brown, Yellow Alliances in America

Post Katrina New Orleans is not your parents’ New Orleans, or, for that matter, even your siblings’. Hurricane Katrina and the anemic government response to the tragedy reshaped New Orleans physically, but also demographically. Thousands of Black residents fled to Baton Rouge, Houston, and other gulf cities. While many have returned, the city’s racial logic no longer rests strictly on a Black white binary. The need for new construction has drawn thousands of Mexican laborers. If comedian George Lopez has joked that FEMA stands for “Find Every Mexican Available,” not all New Orleans residents have been laughing.

In an October 16, 2009 article, the Times Picayune reported that tensions between native born Americans and the new Mexican arrivals had begun to run so high that locals had started to complain about “’loud Mexican music’ and taco trucks.” As one observer wryly noted, “Imagine that . . . Complaints in New Orleans about music and food.” Roberto Sura, a professor of journalism at USC, explained that such tensions were completely predictable, “[they] tend to be quite high in places where the Latino population is quite small and has grown rapidly.” The newspaper conceded Sura’s point commenting that “[i]n a city like New Orleans, where the population is predominantly Black, tensions between African- and Latino-Americans often flare.”

Speaking on the PBS News Hour in May of 2004, Nicolas Vaca discussed the proliferation of Black–brown conflict in the 1980s and 1990s. A San Francisco attorney and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, Vaca lamented that the rights movements of the 1960s and 70s seemed to have a better grasp of their shared interests: “You know, in the ’60s and ’70s, even in the ’80s, these two groups kind of understood their histories and their backgrounds and the fact that there was a mutual struggle at one point to work for better housing, affirmative action, et cetera, et cetera.” Vaca’s recollection meshed well with current debates about the Chicana/o movement. Lorena Oropeza’s 2006 Raza Si! Guerra No!: Chicano Protest and Patriotism During the Vietnam War Era explored the transnational and relational identity of the 1960-70s Chicana/o movement while also addressing its gendered and sometimes sexist foundations. The Vietnam War encouraged Chicanos to identify with other “Third World” peoples. Transnational and translocal identities proliferated as many Asian Americans, Black Power advocates, and Chicana/os saw in themselves and each other, a colonized people.

However, unlike the activists of the 1970s, Vaca noted that newer immigrants have failed to share the same sense of unity that these movements exhibited. Deploring the lack of a perceived common history, Vaca acknowledged that “particularly with the new immigrant,” there remained no sense or no concept of the history of the African American in the United States. “I see it is going to be very difficult,” Vaca said, “particularly as the Latinos come into areas that they traditionally have not occupied, such as Atlanta, North Carolina, South Carolina, which have been traditionally African American.”

Vaca’s 2004 work The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict between Latinos and Blacks and What it Means for America addressed the conflicts he noted in his PBS interview. Incidents in Miami, Houston, Los Angeles and Compton among others, illustrate the tendency of each group to view the interplay between white-Black-Latino constituents as a zero sum game. Thus, the ensuing conflict often pitted Latinos and Blacks against one another. In Houston, Black Mayor Lee Brown had reached out to the Mexican and Mexican American communities in and around the Texas metropolis, yet Brown found himself voted out of office as the local Latino population chose to replace him with a young Cuban American. In contrast, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, Compton’s political establishment remained dominated by African American residents despite demographic changes that resulted in significant numbers of Mexicans and other Latinos residing in the inner ring suburb. In fact, by 1988, census data reveals that nearly 33% or 1/3 of Compton residents identified as Latino. Uncomfortable debates over the allotment of school resources for bilingual and ESL education failed to impress local Black residents as did debates regarding civil rights. Local city council person Maxcy D. Filer illustrated the kind of mistrust that existed between the two populations, “I don’t remember any of them [Latinos] fighting for Blacks,” he said, “Where were they when I was walking a picket line in Compton?”

Two years after the publication of The Presumed Alliance, the Journal of Politics published Paula D. McClain et al’s “Racial Distancing in a Southern City: Latino Immigrants’ Views of Black Americans.” The work of numerous scholars hailing from Duke, the University of Chicago, West Virginia University, the University of North Carolina, the University of Connecticut, and St. Augustine Univeristy, “Racial Distancing in a Southern City” explored the racial tensions developing in the South that Vaca’s interview alluded to. As Latinos, primarily Mexicans, began to occupy a region historically defined by a Black-white binary, various racial positionings unfolded. As Vaca suggested in his interview, these new southern metropolises provided a window into relations between groups. Unfortunately, the results of the study suggested Latinos engaged in “racial distancing” from Blacks while expressing a greater comfort and familiarity with whites. How much of this was a move toward the benefits of “whiteness” remain unclear, after all, many Latinos bring with them their own ideas, biases, and prejudices regarding race/ethnicity.

Using Durham, North Carolina as its subject, the authors concluded that “relations between Black Americans and Latino immigrants are likely to be one of conflict rather than a joining together based on shared minority status in the South.” Contrasting this recent development with its southern historical antecedents, the paper suggests that similar racial distancing occurred when Chinese laborers arrived in the Mississippi Delta in the late nineteenth century. Former plantation owners and commercial farmers in the region, attempted to supplant Black labor with Chinese workers. Additionally, “Racial Distancing” takes the post 1959 increase in Miami’s Cuban and broader Latino population as a second example. In both, the authors suggest Chinese and Latino residents consciously attempted to circumvent the region’s racial hierarchy by positioning themselves away from Blacks and closer to whites.

However, while “Racial Distancing” argues that historians “agree that the Chinese actively sought white approval and sought to distance themselves from blacks,” more recent scholarship complicates this narrative. For instance, in Moon Ho Jung’s Coolies and Cane: Labor and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (2006) Chinese labor appears less docile and inclined to identify itself as white than previous histories suggest. Moreover, Coolies and Cane examines the complex racial dynamics that emerged as Mississippi’s racial stratification attempted to absorb a third actor. Ultimately, the position of Chinese “coolies” as contracted labor muddled understandings. Neither slave nor free, Chinese workers occupied a liminal position that undermined American tropes about free labor. Thus, when McClain et al argue that “these new Latino immigrants may behave in ways similar to the Chinese in Mississippi in the mid nineteenth century and, and the Cubans in Miami in the mid-twentieth century” identifying with whites while distancing themselves from Blacks, one might maintain some skepticism. Besides the previously discussed Chinese example, postulating Miami as a “southern city” seems not altogether accurate especially considering the number of native born transplants, Black West Indian, European, and various Latino groups residing in Miami. Moreover, as a sort of “American Riviera,” one might even argue more broadly that Florida fails to truly represent the Southeast as a whole.

Admittedly, some scholars point out that framing such discussions in the terms of conflict simply feeds media portrayals that paint America’s growing minority populations at permanent odds as whites take advantage of such disjunctures to maintain political, economic, and social power despite their waning numbers. Vaca acknowledged as much when a former acquaintance and fellow Chicano activist heard of the subject of Vaca’s research and responded that Presumed Alliance was “something that the Gringo wants and which he can exploit.” Soon after, the aggrieved activist told Vaca he would no longer even associate with the Berkeley professor: “He announced he was leaving and that I should no longer expect any phone calls from him.”

Recent scholarship by Charlotte Brooks suggests that demographic context mediates identities and conflicts. For example, Brooks’s 2009 work Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends clearly illustrates both moments of interracial cooperation between nonwhites and conflict. Brooks’s earlier article, “The Twilight Zone Between Black and White,” addresses similar issues. Following internment, Japanese and Japanese Americans resettled in Chicago with the “help” of American government programs. The “settlers” immediately recognized the “social controls” imposed upon the city’s Black population. According to Brooks, they moved toward whiteness in an attempt to gain similar privileges.

However, this ultimately meant a position of inbetweenness. The city’s binary racial logic forced them into a liminal position which though unequal and imperfect, many Japanese settlers viewed as better than the alternative, “they quickly learned that being in between was far better than being on the bottom.” Moreover, if the West Coast populations demonized and feared the Japanese because of their prevalence in Los Angeles and the Bay area, Chicagoans remained more concerned about the migration of African Americans from the South. Obviously, this case serves as a flip side of the California example where Brooks has shown that pre-war housing restrictions targeted Asians, specifically the Chinese and Japanese, rather than African Americans, in large part because so few Blacks had settled in either city in comparison. For Brooks, this inbetweenness did not arise out of the unconscious. Instead, Japanese and Japanese Americans, in Chicago at least, knowingly positioned themselves away from Blacks, “The benefits of avoidance and separation appeared to far outweigh those of acknowledging a common predicament.”

If Brooks locates conflict between non white minorities in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, scholars Danny Widener, George Sanchez, and Theresa Gaye Johnson dispute such historical extrapolations, arguing that interracial movements existed for decades prior to the “culture wars” of the 1960s, 70’s and 80s. Like Vaca, they acknowledge the interracial activism of that period but suggest, that the racial divisions of the 1940s and 1950’s that Brooks and others highlight existed alongside equally arresting examples of cooperation. Widener’s “Perhaps the Japanese Are to Be Thanked? Asia, Asian Americans and the Construction of Black California”(Positions: East Asia Critique special issue, 2003) places the development of Californian African American identity not in terms of differentiated individual groupings but rather in a complex interplay between the West Coast’s rising Asian population and its Black citizenry. Marked by exclusion and inclusion, Black Californians came to define themselves in relation not only to whites but to Asians as well. Placing such identities within an internationalist framework illustrates the importance of transcending national boundaries even when exploring domestic interracial alliances. Black leaders such as W.E.B. Dubois championed the anti-European colonialism of the Japanese despite the obvious contradictions contained therein. Once again, as with Brooks, transnational and local factors influenced identities. Widener points to the long interaction between groups, hoping to better understand Black self-identity but also to illustrate the interracial couplings that existed prior to the more familiar movements that unfolded after the mid-20th century.

Likewise, George Sanchez reveals similar developments in the once diverse Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. In “What’s Good for Boyle Heights is Good for the Jews”: Creating Mulitracialism on the Eastside during the 1950s” (American Quarterly, 2004), Sanchez pursues a similar agenda to that of Widener. Using the formerly pre-dominantly Jewish Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, Sanchez notes the conscious interracial efforts made to foster a multihued coalition during the 1930-1950s. Emerging from a leftist class based political movement, Sanchez attempts to reverse the process that began during McCarthyite years in which “the history of leftist multiracial organizing in Boyle Heights would be erased.” In addition, Sanchez notes the intersection of class and race, an aspect that some historians have failed to fully explore. In fact, Sanchez’s examples illustrate that among the leftist working class Jewish population, an openness to interracial solidarity persisted to the extent that a portion remained in the neighborhood despite large demographics shifts. In contrast, their middle class counterparts vacated for other communities. While admittedly, some of this internal Los Angeles migration revolved around employment and identity, class surely played a part.

Theresa Johnson provides a third example of this development. Johnson’s “Constellations of Struggle” (Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies, 2008) examines the “cross racial” “inter-community” movement known as the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee (SLDC, 1943) through the experiences of two activists Charlotta Bass and Luisa Moreno. Johnson’s primary purpose is to reveal the “interracial and antiracist alliances, divisions, among aggrieved minority communities, and important insights into the intra-politics that informed and shaped a common urban antiracist culture of struggle …” In addition, Johnson emphasizes not only the importance of these alliances but also the key role women played in “the politics of education, desegregation, and gender and racial equality” regarding “urban activism in postwar Los Angeles.” Like Widener and Sanchez, Johnson’s work pushes back against recent works that highlight the role of conflict between non-white communities, most notably tensions between Black-brown peoples.

While Sanchez, Johnson, and Widener provide a valuable reclamation regarding levels of alliance between non-white peoples, thickening our understanding of Black, Chicano, and Asian American identity. However, a few key factors need to be acknowledged. First, the issue of context, both in terms of international events and local demographics helps to determine the depth of cooperation and hostility. Second, as Vaca pointed out earlier, the last twenty and thirty years ushered in a new wave of immigration among peoples with more tenuous historical ties to the national polity. Similar to late nineteenth and early twentieth century American imperialism, post war rebuilding efforts in Japan and military engagements in Korea and Vietnam contributed to rising levels of Asian migration. The 1965 Hart-Cellar Immigration reform act institutionalized these migration patterns resulting in increased Asian American populations. Several scholars see Asian Americans as the solution to the interracial divisions Vaca and others point out.

Most famously, Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts privileges the space of Asian American culture as a unique vehicle for enacting solidarities while questioning American tropes of citizenship and belonging. Though subjected to exclusion and restriction, immigrants serve as “agents of political change, cultural expression, and social transformation.” Additionally, the presence of Koreans, Vietnamese, and Filipinos disavow the linear developmental anti imperial history of the US domestically and abroad. Forced to “forget” Asian wars while adopting national tropes constructing the US as a benevolent international force opposed to colonizing projects, the “political fiction of equal rights” falls into question. As Lowe comments, “the “past” that is grasped as memory is, however, not a naturalized, factual past for the relation to that past is always broken by war, occupation, and displacement. Asian American culture “re-members” the past in and through the fragmentation, loss, and dispersal that constitutes the past.” Thus, Asian American culture critiques the nation state, occupies other spaces altering national terrain, reconceptualizing narratives and historiographies, while establishing techniques that birth “new forms of subjectivity and new ways of questioning the government of human life by the nation state.”

Glen Mimura’s 2009 Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian Film and Video builds on Lowe’s assertions. If Lowe argues that Asian American culture serves as an especially unique site for resistance as a result of its own experiences with fragmentation and erasure, Mimura extrapolates this point suggesting that the cultural production of Asian American cinema illustrates both “resistance and creativity, of both visual poetry as cultural resistance and cultural resistance as poetic act, not only to challenge ongoing domination but also to individually and collectively imagine new possibilities for a more radically democratic present and future.” For both authors, Stuart Hall’s “politics of difference” provides the basis for such hopes. Both view the promises of equality and the race neutral language of multiculturalism as false. Instead, multiculturalism obscures real material deprivation that many groups endure while presenting a rhetoric that conveys the impression of equal rights and access to services/resources that fail to match the reality. As well, Mimura and Lowe view the benefits of liberal democracy negatively, though the growth of identity politics seems less a pejorative than for other writers. Unlike many other scholars, Lowe does not view identity politics negatively. Rather, Lowe notes the dialectic between “the politics of difference is … of utmost importance, for it opens terrain on which to imagine the construction of another politics.”

This new politics engages rather than squashes “heterogenities of gender class, race and nation, yet” also perpetuates forms of unity enabling “common struggle.” Lowe notes that they are a “politics whose vision is not the origin but the destination.” If intersectionalities undermined earlier movements (as Orepoza points out in reference to the Chicana/o movement), “the politics of difference” views intersectionality as a source of strength, using difference to build solidarities.

For both authors, transnational labor flows, distressed migration, war, and various other factors shaped Asian American existence in vitally important ways. These developments parallel the driving forces behind Latino immigration to the United States. In this way, Lowe sees the history of Asian American immigration as a model for thinking about current fears and prejudices regarding Mexican immigration, “Asian American culture is the site of ‘remembering,’” Lowe says “in which the recognition of Asian immigrant history in the present predicament of Mexican and Latino immigrants is possible.”

While the importance of Lowe’s scholarship remains obvious, one might question the universality of this approach. After all, it would seem demographic and transnational contexts complicate her argument. After all despite consistent growth, most of America’s Asian American population resides in one of four cities: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. Of course, this is not to say Asian Americans are non-existent in other parts of the United States, but rather their largest and most significant concentrations remain in these cities. Their absence in southern cities like Durham seems to at least pose a complicating factor when trying to apply Lowe’s thesis.

In his 2006 opening address to the Pacific branch of the AHA, Stanford Professor Alberto M. Camarillo waded into the discussion. Camarillo noted the disturbing trend among media outlets to highlight African American- Latino conflict over less sensational examples of cooperation. Camarillo did not dismiss such stories as irrelevant or false but did note “but it is only one aspect of a much more complicated story in what I refer to as the “new frontier” in ethnic and race relations in American cities and suburbs of color.” (Camarillo, “Cities of Color: The New Racial Frontier in California’s Minority Majority Cities,” Pacific Historical Review, 2) Unlike many of the examples above where whites remained demographically dominant, California cities like Compton and Lynwood were “majority minority.”

Ironically, despite the fundamental demographic shifts, the battle over political power, resources and the like still leans heavily on techniques and language from the civil rights period. As Camarillo notes “the new racial frontier of the late 1900s and early twenty-first century reveal significant differences, not only because the overwhelming number of people are of color, but also because the issues that spark conflict and motivate cooperation are deeply influenced by legacies of a civil rights ideology and a commitment to inter-group collaboration in a diverse, multicultural society.”

What does this leave us with? Obviously, the complexity of multiracial interaction regarding solidarity, conflict and everything in between continues to bedevil historians and others. While Asian American experiences provide useful ways to begin thinking about these apparent conflicts, it may not be the ultimate answer. Earlier examples show that context, such as demographics and foreign policy, clearly affects how people interact with one another. The problem remains that as America ultimately moves toward a majority minority society, scholars have few American examples from which to extract. Brooks, Sanchez, Widener, and Johnson’s work, though important and useful, maybe be unique to their particular periodization. For example, as previously discussed, post-Katrina New Orleans now claims numerous residents hailing from Mexico. This new population along with the returning trickle of its older white and Black residents may reshape the city politically, socially, and economically. How much of this will revolve around conflict and cooperation remains to be seen.

Perhaps, Lowe, Hall, and Mimura’s “politics of difference” can light our way. However, if this approach serves as our main means of going forward, Camarillo cautions historians to honestly face the kind of conflicts that seem to be continually emerging. Take, for example, the dismay of a Seaside, California councilwoman and newly appointed school board member. Unable to hand out fliers celebrating Martin Luther King Day because they lacked a Spanish translation, the exasperated councilwoman asked aloud, “Is this America, Baby?” Whatever the answer maybe, it will be one requiring patience, understanding, and a new language of difference.