Californication: Race, Ethnicity, and Unity in Twentieth Century California

In the weeks following the 2012 presidential election, the media greeted Barack Obama’s victory with a slew of articles focusing on the apparent coalition that formed around the President’s reelection campaign.  While Mitt Romney garnered a majority of white males, Obama secured clear victories among women and Asian, African, and Latino Americans.  Notably, Latino and Asian Americans threw their collective support behind the president at rates above 70% and were the only two groups whose margins for Obama increased.   Admittedly, Latino immigration has declined significantly.  As a recent Economist leader pointed out, “Fewer Mexicans now move to the United States than come back south. America’s fragile economy (with an unemployment rate nearly twice as high as Mexico’s) has dampened arrivals and hastened departures.”  Despite this decline, few doubt that Mexican and Latino American population growth will end anytime soon.  Yet if Mexican immigration dropped, new arrivals from Asia dramatically increased. Over the course of the past few years, Asian immigration quietly overtook its Latino counterpart with nearly 3 million arriving since 2000.  The new coalition failed to surprise writers like John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, whose book The Emerging Democratic Majority (2004) argued that the past twenty years of GOP political dominance, due in part to demographic shifts described above, would soon be coming to an end.

While there is much to be said for these arguments, and Judis and Teixeira deserve credit for publishing their conclusions in the midst of the Bush presidency, observers need to proceed with caution regarding multi-racial electoral coalitions. Race, class, and ethnicity have ways of disrupting unified movements.  Boiling the interests of a diverse group of voters – and this does not even address cleavages within ethnic and racial communities – into a single message has long proven difficult.  In The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941 – 1978, University of California Professor Mark Brilliant lays out the complex history of civil rights reform in a state that has long been characterized by the kind of demographics surfacing nationally today. Like numerous other California, and more generally, Western historians, Brilliant disparages binary approaches to issues of race and, in The Color of America Has Changed, he extends this discomfort to histories of the civil rights movement that frame debate only in black and white.  If many historians privilege the “declensionist interpretation” of the early civil rights period, Brilliant argues California’s example provides an example of dispersion.

What do we mean by “declensionist”? Often historians portray the racial liberalism that came to be a marker of the post war period as a pragmatic pursuit unattached to any particular ideological agenda.  Since the courts and legislation provided the best opportunities to dismantle segregation and achieve redress, civil rights leaders displayed a calculating approach regarding the art of the possible.  “Seeking to leverage change through the legal and political systems meant prioritizing litigation and legislation choices based on a tactical sense of what was possible in particular times and venues,” reflects Brilliant. “As cases were won, and bills were passed and times changed, racial liberals pursued new variations on racial liberalism’s protean and capacious anti-discrimination themes, some of which had been previously been dismissed as impossible.” (Brilliant, 7)

According to this model, the civil rights movements of the 1930s coalesced after WWII, hoping to institutionalize the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) created under Roosevelt’s 1941 Executive Order 8802, which had attempted to curb racial discrimination in defense industries.   Unfortunately, the heightened tensions of the Cold War led to the scorched earth tactics of anti-communists, which enabled a coalition of “Southern segregationists and Northern business interests” to depict the FEPC as little more than a form of pinko infiltration.  With the declining fortunes of FEPC legislation and their own efforts to combat accusations of communism, civil rights organizations like the NAACP took refuge in debates it deemed safer, focusing rigidly on dismantling Jim Crow in the South, but forsaking economic issues and Northern segregation.

All well and good when describing the South or Congressional history, notes Brilliant, but not so useful when trying to trace the trajectory of civil rights reform in California.  In the American West’s largest state, though guilty of legislative discrimination like alien land and anti-miscegenation laws and education and residential segregation (if only through judicial not legislative means), California offered racial liberals the chance to pursue civil rights legislation unthinkable in the South and Congress.   Hardly confined to racial binaries, California’s diverse populations of whites, African, Asian, and Latino Americans meant that civil rights struggles proved as much internal as external.  Ideas regarding anti-discrimination lawsuits and bills dispersed widely among Californians.  The question for the larger movement in CA became “how to forge a movement out of the multiplicity of ‘race problems’ confronted by the diversity of ‘colored minorities’ . . .” (8).

Clearly, external pressures existed, but in California as the civil rights movement pressed forward different groups came to different conclusions regarding the best means to attain equal rights. While sometimes issues and interests intersected, many times they did not.  For example, as will be discussed a bit later, the 1963 passage of CA’s fair housing legislation, the Rumford Act (AB 1240). served as an important plank in the fight against housing discrimination and while many believed it a victory for all minorities, not everyone interpreted its passage in this way.  For example, Latinos struggled less with housing discrimination than citizenship and language issues; Asian Americans could claim similar difficulties.  Work by Massey and Denton among others has demonstrated that housing inequality affects Asian and Latino Americans less than their African American counterparts, and this tendency has persisted even after anti-discrimination legislation of the 1960s.  For Latino and Asian Americans, discrimination hinged on nationality/ancestry rather than race, thus under this rubric minorities experienced “different axes of discrimination… [that] necessitated different avenues of redress.” (231)

Traversing nearly 40 years of civil rights history, Brilliant explores the struggles of California’s largest three minority groups: Asian, Mexican, and African Americans.   Throughout, Brilliant draws distinctions, differences, and similarities afflicting each community in their attempts to achieve real equality. In the postwar period, organizations dedicated to improving race relations proliferated across the nation; California claimed sixty of the 300 that opened nationally in the mid 1940s. In this early period, Brilliant focuses on the statewide California Federation for Civic Unity (CFCU) which in 1946 earned notoriety as the first “statewide voluntary organization in the field of racial and intercultural relationship” in California and the nation from the American Council on Race Relations (ACRR).

The CFCU’s efforts to improve race relations, however, was not completely new. Several years earlier, in 1937, the state created the Committee on Race Relations in California which disseminated “educational materials” promoting “voluntary acceptance of the anti discrimination principle.” (19) However, many believed the rapid expansion of California’s cities and population during the war required increased attention to such matters, as many observers feared a postwar economic downturn might spark racial antagonisms.  By the mid-1940s, organizations like the CFCU had pivoted away from “anti-prejudice education” and toward the legislature and the courts. However, the CFCU continually struggled to consolidate the “plurality of axes of discrimination” into one “singular avenue of address.” (23)

The CFCU acknowledged differences between minority groups, but believed that it could create an acceptable framework upon which various ethnic organizations could agree. The advantage, the CFCU argued, was that in light of  state and the larger public’s inattention to these issues, it was better to organize under one umbrella rather than separately in countless intra-ethnic organizations. For example, despite their shared prominence, the JACL and NAACP operated separately from one another with little if any collaboration.  When the CFCU did bring them together, the two organizations differed on tactics and goals.  The JACL argued that though it shared similarities with Mexican and African American organizations, the plight of Japanese Americans interned under wartime law proved unique.  NAACP leadership brushed such concerns aside insisting that their problems were the same as those with which Blacks had struggled for 300 years.  Throughout The Color of America Has Changed, this theme surfaces.

One of the fundamental frictions operating in Brilliant’s work involves citizenship.  As NAACP official James Joseph’s noted in a 1945 speech, the JACL would benefit from allying itself with the NAACP because African Americans were undoubtedly citizens and by extension, to their core, American.  As result, African Americans had successfully established alliances with segments of white society while Asian Americans had not.  This discrepancy, Joseph argued, stemmed from ambiguity surrounding Asian citizenship, thus making them less American.  Brilliant then charts how citizenship factored into the crafting of discriminatory alien land laws (eleven states had enacted them by 1947). Many of these laws avoided naked appeals to race by using language that barred “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning land.  In essence, though, this meant primarily Asians and by the early 20th century, Japanese.   As dictated by court decisions (and one would obviously add the 1872 Page Law and 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act), from 1878 forward, only African Americans and whites were eligible under the constitution for citizenship.

Early rulings focused on Chinese immigrants, but subsequent decisions affected other Asian ethnicities. By 1913, the state legislature passed the California Alien Land Law, which essentially banned Japanese immigrants from owning land but would be also extended to South Asians. This inability to attain naturalized citizenship and by extension property ownership led Japanese American leaders to describe this discriminatory infrastructure as “Jap Crow.”  Of course, Japanese immigrants circumvented these laws on their way to becoming a significant force in the agricultural economy of California by placing land under the names of their children born in the US who by the provisions of the 14th amendment were citizens.

Much as with school segregation, the courts proved decisive in dismantling discriminatory legislation. First, Omaya v California ruled that California’s Alien Land Law violated the rights of American citizens of Japanese descent, though the ruling did not extend to other Asians.  Second, Tarao Takahashi v. Fish and Game Commission challenged a 1943 law that banned the granting of fishing licenses to “alien Japanese.”  Unlike Omaya, where the law consisted of race neutral language, the clear racial intent of the Fish and Game Code amendment alarmed some state senators. leading to a 1945 revision that once again made the law applicable only to aliens ineligible for citizenship. “The switch in statutory language from ‘alien Japanese’ in 1943 to ‘personal ineligible for citizenship in 1945′ exposed the latter formulation for what it was,” notes Brilliant, a cover for racist legislation.  Though the NAACP had ignored the Omaya case due to its then perceived lack of connection to race, the JACL’s defense attorneys hoped to attract the NAACP’s attention with Takahashi.  They did and others joined the fight including the American Jewish Congress, the CIO, and the American Veterans Committee; even the DOJ filed a brief in support of the petition for certiorari. The Supreme Court struck down the law, but failed to comment on the racial aspect, choosing instead to argue that the law prohibited “lawfully admitted aliens … from earning a living in the same way that other state inhabitants earn their living.” (51) Under the weight of these rulings and others, the alien land laws collapsed but these cases also failed to fuse the interests of the JACL and NAACP.  School segregation, unlike alien land laws, did not address issues of citizenship and status and focused more tightly on race.  Unfortunately, the brief oasis of interethnic cooperation witnessed in the Takahashi trial faded quickly and the JACL continued to focus on problems specific to Japanese Americans.  “These instances of multiracial cooperation, however, remained the exception rather than the rule,” writes Brilliant.  “They neither reflected nor foreshadowed the emergence of a multiracial civil rights movement in California.” (55)

Mexican Americans also endured their own unique experiences with discrimination.  Certainly, the Mendez v Westminster School District court case, which preceded the Brown ruling by approximately eight years, helped to set precedent for the more famous 1954 decision.  However, the case differed in important ways, notably in the “legal and administrative methods” used to justify segregation. In California, school districts practicing segregation did so not out of statutory obligation but rather out of necessity — or, at least, that is what state and school officials claimed.  Though clearly Orange County school administrators viewed Mexican and Mexican American students as inferior, making the racist motivation quite similar to that in Brown, administrators justified segregation by claiming Mexican American students lacked adequate levels of English proficiency to attend white schools.

With Mendez, civil rights lawyers needed to disprove educational policy as the racist dodge it was.  “Prejudice, not pedagogy, drove the school districts’ segregation, though proving the former had required disproving the latter…” notes Brilliant. Yet, Mendez failed to dismantle the provisions of Plessy v. Ferguson because the Supreme Court did not address race.  First, Mexican Americans were classified as white, and no precedents existed that dealt with the legitimacy of segregating one group of white pupils from another. (75) Instead, Mendez focused largely on the legality of segregation based on “purported ‘English language deficiencies’ (and other pedagogical pretexts).”   Second, as would become important in subsequent decades, the courts accepted the idea of language-based segregation as long as schools employed proper screening and testing for deficiencies.

None of this diminishes Mendez historically.  Both the JACL and NAACP eventually filed amicus briefs supporting the plaintiffs. In fact, the NAACP’s brief on Mendez proved influential in crafting its own argument regarding segregation: “segregation per se violated due process and equal protection guarantees.”  Moreover, it led the organization to incorporate more social science to rebut segregation advocates. Still, the NAACP’s amicus brief failed to address several of Orange County’s justifications for segregation and did not really contribute much to the Mendez outcome.

Since California never specifically legislated for the segregation of students of Mexican descent, the Supreme Court ruling never touched state school segregation laws. State law never mandated segregation, and only when separate schools were created for a particular group – the law specifically pointed out Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Mongolian students – did segregation become required. In the case of Mexican Americans, segregation often proved significant but not absolute.  Segregation certainly occurred but a level of “porousness” existed, meaning the occasional integrated school disrupted uniform separation. (66) Class sometimes factored in as better off Mexican American students could now and then circumvent segregation.   Civil rights leaders like Ernesto Galarza and Fred Ross argued that language continued to bedevil Mexican immigrants and their children which made the issues they confronted particular to them, thereby complicating interracial attempts to combat discrimination.

Struggles over the Rumford Act and subsequent legislation to invalidate it, notably Prop 14, further highlight these complexities. As noted, housing discrimination affected Asian and Mexican Americans differently.  Though discriminated against, Mexicans – due to their classification as white – found ways into predominantly white communities and on rare occasion even served as signatories in housing covenants preventing Black homeownership.  Likewise, though Asian Americans endured pernicious racism in California, by the 1950s integration into white neighborhoods, as documented by Charlotte Brooks, began to intermittently occur. The influx of Blacks into Los Angeles and Oakland heightened fears regarding community and property values. Since integration began to seem inevitable, whites in San Francisco and Los Angeles settled on Asian Americans as more acceptable.  Ironically, citizenship or perceived lack thereof contributed to these developments.

During the Cold War, the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype perversely benefited  Asian American homeowners.  “By the 1960s, the supposed Asian American ‘foreignness’ once used to defend residential segregation became white Californians’ new rational for Asian American inclusion,” Brooks writes. (194) In this way, Asian American equality or some representation of it provided an example to the world of American tolerance: democracy and freedom in an era in which the U.S. hoped to extend its influence in Asia. Asian Americans were guests in American society, to be treated graciously.  Of course native born Blacks enjoyed no such formulations. “The unequal status of different nonwhite groups in Los Angeles created a legal racial hierarchy of housing opportunity in the city,” notes Brooks. For African Americans, housing discrimination disproportionately affected their communities.  Though Mexican and Asian American communities often bordered Black neighborhoods, as Brooks notes white hostility to black homeownership and integration grew such that “as the city spread, the proportion of housing open to blacks shrank.” (Brooks, 60)

When opponents of the Rumford Act marshaled support for Prop 14 – a referendum that aimed to undercut Rumford’s provisions – African American civil rights activists found it difficult to orchestrate a truly multiracial opposition to the referendum.   Los Angeles Times journalist Ruben Salazar described the Mexican American Political Assocition’s (MAPA) anti-Prop 14 rhetoric as little more than a “ shaky trial marriage’ on behalf of ‘Latino-Negro Unity,’” thus reflecting the ambivalence of housing issues for California’s Mexican American communities (208).   Moreover, as the movement toward organizing and protecting agricultural workers gained momentum, Governor Pat Brown continually evaded taking action while at the same time defending the rights of African Americans far more vociferously. Again, citizenship or the lack thereof, seemed to separate the two movements as leaders like Cesar Chavez looked to eliminate the Bracero program out of concern that it drove down wages and encouraged an illegal labor system that punished Mexican Americans.

The campaign against Prop 14 also stumbled in its depiction of the measure’s supporters. Brilliant argues the anti-Prop 14 campaign depended too heavily on a moralistic approach condemning support for the proposition as out and out racism.  Governor Pat Brown and others argued similarly.   While Brilliant acknowledges racism surely played a role, Prop 14 opponents neglected to consider the importance of property rights in the American psyche.  Though many Prop 14 advocates supported the measure because of racism, others did so out of a principled belief in property rights.  Though the anti-Prop 14 campaign argued that the Rumford Act protected everyone’s right to buy property, hence enabling everyone to equally enjoy property rights, this justification failed to be disseminated widely. (204)  “In the heat of the battle, anti-Prop 14 leaders failed to detect a distinction between two types of Prop 14 supporters – the one unabashedly racist, the other doggedly principled,” notes Brilliant.  “This tone deafness exacted a political price.” (205)  In general, when anti-discrimination laws conflicted with ideas regarding private property rights, private property often won. At the same time, most Californians demonstrated a belief that public property should be integrated. This helps to explain California’s simultaneous passage of Prop 14 and its support for Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election.

Brilliant’s analysis of Prop 14’s success does well to draw out this division between the referendum’s advocates, but others have explored this dynamic.  Indeed, Daniel HoSang attributes Prop 14’s success largely to the ability of the measure’s leaders to frame the debate in terms of victimization.  Within this context, the Rumford Act victimized homeowners and prevented citizens from fully enjoying their civil rights. “Situating Proposition 14 in the spirit of an inclusionary Americanism built upon freedom and opportunity over exclusion and hierarchy,” HoSang points out, “[the California Real Estate Association’s] Property Owners Bill of Rights asserted that Proposition 14 was indeed the rightful heir to the nation’s history of pluralist inclusion.” (68)

The role of victim came easily to some observers as result of long standing federal and state level policies. In 2009’s Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America, David Freund explored this dynamic.  Following in the tradition of Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier, Freund demonstrates how federal policies from the 1920s forward created a racialized understanding of property.  Early twentieth century racial science, though discredited by the 1930s, had infiltrated state policies.  “White racial privilege and the degradation of people considered nonwhite had long been protected by institutions and by popular practice and was still enshrined in law, reproduced by class structure, and celebrated in white produced popular culture,” argues Freund. (11)

Through municipal zoning and the creation of a “modern mortgage market,” federal and state governments determined the shape and content of suburban politics. Federal initiatives and policies resegregated metropolitan areas by race and class.  Restrictive zoning enabled communities to exclude certain populations and “New Deal-era selective credit programs“ established and undergirded a powerful new mortgage market that made suburban growth expansive and accessible, though largely reserved for whites: “zoning and racial covenants shared an intellectual, cultural, and even legal provenance, a shared history documented by the courts’ defense of both,” writes Freund.  “Both racially restrictive covenants and restrictive zoning laws were legally grounded upon the assumption that certain land uses and certain populations categorically threatened the value of private property and the ‘health and welfare’ of white property owners.” (92-93).  When one adds the manner in which the HOLC and later the FHA rated communities for investment, penalizing those that displayed even small levels of integration while privileging those characterized by white homogeneity, these state interventions disseminated a new rationale for exclusionary housing policies, namely market imperatives. Homeowners did not view segregation negatively because of racism but rather because black residents threatened property values.  Paradoxically, though government actions helped to determine all of the above outcomes, the myth of non-intervention became nationally pervasive: the federal government, public leaders, and many in the private sector hectored on about how the state had never intervened and that the “new metropolitan order” arose from unregulated free market activity. (33) State intervention became naturalized, thus, any disruption of the system appeared to whites as ill conceived or a violation of American principles.

Of course, housing discrimination directly affected school integration.  Even with the ending of de jure segregation, integration remained a real problem.  In California, many communities allowed for miniscule levels of integration: the existence of three black students in a school of 1000 was presented as an example of successful desegregation.  Many desegregation proponents argued for the busing of students to better integrate schools. Though well-intended busing proved a problematic solution. First, as pointed out by Diane Ravitch, busing often required minority students to travel to “white” schools.  Such policies assumed a white is right paradigm: only the presence of white students could help improve the performances of their non-white counterparts.   Second, it proved unpopular with Asian American and Mexican American communities who feared busing would disrupt bilingual education programs designed to benefit the language skills of their children.  In this sense, when actually employed for language acquisition and not exclusion, segregation based on language proficiency was seen as acceptable and even desirable.

Few cases encapsulate the tension between desegregation and bilingual education better than Lau v Nichols (1974).  Undoubtedly, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Lau expanded the rights of students with limited English proficiency and extended the 14th amendment’s protections to new populations, but it also severely disrupted relations between civil rights advocates.   Lau directly challenged the efficacy of busing and desegregation for San Francisco’s Chinese/Chinese American students and by extension to Chicano and Asian students nationally.  Integrating schools through busing met the goals of Black civil rights organizations like California’s NAACP, but it penalized students who needed to be clustered together in order to provide language classes.   Unsurprisingly, numerous Chinese American organizations filed amicus briefs but so too did several Mexican American organizations, most notably the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), who saw in Lau a chance to “[link] the plight of the Lau students to that of Spanish speaking students.” (249).  In contrast, NAACP leaders in California viewed the case in zero sum terms. Victory in Lau meant defeat for desegregation. When Chinese and Chinese American parents resisted desegregation during the Johnson v San Francisco Unified School District case, San Francisco NAACP President Charles Belle remarked critically, “If they want to be Chinese, then they should go back to China. If they want to be Chinese Americans, then they have to participate” in the NAACP’s efforts at desegregation. (255).  Importantly, while he does not dismiss racism out of hand, Brilliant reminds readers that resistance by many in San Francisco Chinese American community did not amount to a “reactionary reflex to desegregation” but rather their own attempt to secure their own educational civil rights that appeared at odds with busing efforts. (252)

Ironically, considering the nativist nature of today’s GOP, conservative leaders pounced on this division, promoting bilingual education while opposing busing.  Ronald Reagan latched onto the issue tightly, seeing it as a means to garner Latino and Asian American electoral support, while simultaneously protecting himself from accusations of racism. Even Nixon got into the act when the Department of Justice  filed amicus briefs  in support of Lau’s petitioners.  “Reagan’s exploitation of the tension between desegregation and bilingual education – pitting them against one another as a zero sum choice between educational civil rights policies – was better viewed as an extension of the Southwest strategy he adopted during his run for governor in 1966,” notes Brilliant.   The future president enthusiastically rejected fair housing provisions in 1966, describing them as “forced housing.” (236-237).   Here, Brilliant engages in dialogue with HoSang, noting the right’s ability to exploit wedge issues and even the language of civil rights activist in the service of the burgeoning New Right movement.

No busing for this guy.

The coming decades will prove a demographic smorgasbord.  As news outlets have emphasized repeatedly – ambivalently, enthusiastically, and fearfully (see Fox News) – America is likely to become a lot less white and a great deal more brown, black, and yellow. Yet, as Brilliant argues, this does not guarantee unity. Sure, Bill O’Reilly prattles on and on about his new minority status, the reality of the situation suggests something much more complex.   Clever (or nefarious depending on one’s views) politicians will find ways to appeal to various constituencies in future elections and perhaps many will try to emulate Obama. However, as California’s history reveals there is nothing automatic about the “emerging Democratic majority.” Diversity and difference remain laudable goals, but politically they also demonstrate the problems that can arise on the way to unity.