MLK Ain’t No Al Capone: Even Sunny CA Has a Dark Side

Often when people think of racism and segregation they look South. Ask anyone of southern extraction attending a northern university how often they are subject to comments about racial discrimination and the like, they are likely to roll their eyes and ask how much time you have. One friend of mine, a South Carolina native and Macalester grad, often recounts the numerous remarks he endured while attending the St. Paul, Minnesota university. As he often noted, it’s kind of easy to claim openminded nondiscriminatory beliefs when your state remains predominantly white and yes, Nordic. T of M fave Lisa McGirr has mapped the rise of the new right in Southern California while gadfly Mike Davis has traced the region’s racial tics in Magical Urbanism and City of Quartz. In Magic Lands, John Findlay explores the influence of Disneyland, through its exportation of its racialized suburban built environment, in contributing to the nations’s white normativity. Eric Avila has shown us how popular culture emphasized L.A.’s surburban urbanism, notably its glorification of white middle class domesticity. Moreover, Charlotte Brooks’ excellent Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends traces the place of Asian Americans in segregated California of the 20th century.

What these handful of works reveal is a shifting “othering.” If Asian Americans and Mexicans served as the primary threat to white Southern California normativity in the first half of the century, Blacks replaced them in the post war period. As more and more African Americans took advantage of burgeoning industrial work in the West, white Californians came to their accept their Asian American neighbors as the lesser of two evils. Additionally, Brooks argues, Cold War influences led many to justify their inclusion of Asian Americans as a tactical decision meant to exhibit American openmindedness to the broader world — winning hearts and minds in communist threatened Asia, if you will. True, today one is more likely to point to Arizona for fresh evidence of racism, but if one desired evidence of a calcified SoCal racism one need look no further than the place of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. The aforementioned Mike Davis has illustrated the continuing racial overtones plaguing Anglo-Mexican/Mexican American relations.

Clearly, Southern California discrimination as elsewhere hinges on demographics and proximity. Shifting discriminatory winds react to both factors. If the Chinese and Japanese were demonized in the first half of the century, while not lionized in its second half, they emerged with greater socioeconomic strength than did their counterparts. Today, California continues to illustrate such shifting tides. A recent report by William Frey revealed that California’s youth is distinctly not white. Statewide only 27% of its children are white while 51% and 6% identified as Latino and Black respectively. This left the remaining 16% to be divided between Asian and Middle Eastern populations. Still, while this diversity appears encouraging, it fails to obscure a Southern California history that remains awash in racial social imaginaries. While suburbanization rates nationally for Latinos and Asians have improved, Blacks continue to endure greater barriers in their efforts to suburbanize. This is not to say Blacks are absent from suburbia. Andrew Wiese and Mary Patillo McCoy have pushed back against this idea. Indeed, Blacks have long been a presence in the suburbs, even if in smaller numbers. One wonders why the same avenues to suburbanization have not reached Blacks at the same level as other minorities.

While numerous reasons can be marshaled to explain this inequality, one simple answer is the residual racist thought that continues to connect blackness to inferiority. The Sunbelt has not proven itself to be any more colorblind than other regions. If one remembers correctly, Arizona would never have officially declared Martin Luther King Jr. Day a holiday had it not been for the NFL yanking the 1993 Super Bowl from the state. In response, Arizona, ironically, became the only state to popularly vote for the holiday and put it into legislation. With that said, one should remember that MLK Day only became official in 1986 and even then only 26 states observed it. The letter below to local Southern California news paper the Star News illuminates the kind of racial discourse we have normally associated with the segregated South. I don’t know James Matherly, but I am from Chicago. Al Capone Day sounds terrible (especially for Geraldo Rivera), but to compare the former gangster to MLK makes even this Chicagoan cringe. So the next time you see one of those smarmy “come to California” commercials, just remember, Californians are as fucked up as the rest of us.

The Star News (local newspaper for the South Bay San Diego metropolitan region)

Feb 5, 1985

He’s outraged by King holiday

The student essay on Dr. Martin L. King seems divorced, separated, estranged form the truth of what King said and did.

I spoke before the San Diego Board of Supervisors Jan. 3 and before the Metropolitan Transit Development Board Jan. 12 in opposition to any King holiday.

As I recall, not one member of the public spoke in favor of this holiday at either meeting. A King holiday is an insult for those who served in the military forces. A King holiday is an insult to the memory of Harry S. Truman, an insult to the memory of Franklin D. Roosevelt, an insult to the memory of Dwight D. Eisenhower. These men and others did much more for the entire American people.

The life of King cannot stand honest, searching inquiry. The idea of hiding FBI documents, tapes, papers on King for a number of years cheapens the idea of a King holiday. The idea of a King holiday is as morally fraudulent, intellectually fraudulent as a funny holiday for someone called Al Capone.

James Matherly

402 Oaklawn Ave, Apt. G

Chula Vista