Courting Division: How Three Southern California Court Cases Bolstered and Hindered Multiracial Civil Rights Movements

Kajira Oyama with his lawyer W. L. Wirin. San Diego Journal, August 23, 1945.

With Barack Obama’s second term inauguration in January and the multiracial coalition assembled for his 2012 victory, observers everywhere hailed America’s new demographics and electoral shifts: increasing numbers of Asian and Latino American voters exerting a national influence. But for Southern Californians, and Californians more broadly, this sort of diversity is old hat.

Granted, in the early twentieth century, white Midwestern and Southern migration drove population growth in Los Angeles and Orange County. Reyner Banham acknowledged these early waves: “They brought with them … the prejudices, motivations, and ambitions of the central heartland of the USA.”1

While it remains true that during this time L.A. become the “white spot,” as noted by writers like Eric Avila, it also harbored significant numbers of immigrants living in and around Los Angeles. While a large Japanese population began to take root in the early part of the century, the Great Migration, particularly its later stages during WWII, brought greater numbers of African Americans to the region. And the Bracero Program, more or less a crude guest worker program, increased the metropolitan area’s Mexican and Mexican American population to its highest levels.

In response to the rapid growth brought by WWII, and built on Depression-era examples like the Committee on Race Relations in California (1937), activists established the California Federation for Civic Unity (CFCU). The CFCU earned distinction and notoriety as the first statewide organization dedicated to multiracial action and relations in California and the United States. Further, California stood as a central actor in the spread of interracial activism: 60 of the 300 organizations dedicated to race relations that emerged in the mid-1940s operated in California.

Despite this dedication to multiracial political activism, the CFCU struggled to reconcile the means by which institutional discrimination — as established in law or practiced by courts — affected California’s minorities in different ways. The consolidation of various discriminations into one coherent redress bedeviled the CFCU, argues University of California Professor Mark Brilliant. Though the organization successfully fostered dialogue between groups like the NAACP and the JACL, larger cooperative efforts often foundered on tactics and goals. Likewise, as Mexican Americans established their own civil rights organizations, these differences often hindered cooperation.

Few institutions demonstrate these difficulties better than the system that defined them: the judiciary. Southern California’s landscape provided the setting for three critical court cases that reveal the ability of the law to cleave efforts toward equal rights: Mendez v. Westminster School District (1946), Oyama v. California (1948), and Tarao Takahashi v. Fish and Game Commission (1948).

Hoover Elementary School, which played a central role in the Mendez v. Westminster case

Mendez v. Westminster School District (1946)

In a recent post for KCET Departures’ Laws That Shaped L.A., Sharon Sekhon from Studio for Southern California History skillfully navigates the importance of the 1946 Supreme Court case Mendez v. Westminster School District. Due to dubious “scientific” racial classifications, the ruling may not have had the immediate national impact of Brown v. the Board of Education eight years later, but it still carried critical implications for Southern California, and its effects rippled throughout the nation. Mendez, Sekhon correctly notes, “put a human face on the legacy of racism and potential psychological costs to American children.”

On its face, Mendez inspired impressive levels of multiracial cooperation. Numerous organizations filed amicus briefs on behalf of Mendez, including the NAACP and Japanese American Citizen’s League. The Asian American publication Pacific Citizen hailed the JACL’s brief as the organization’s first effort in working for the civil rights of other groups, and JACL leader Mike Masaoka explained the action as part of a “growing awareness on the part of the JACL leadership of the common interests of all racial groups.”2

Likewise, the NAACP used the case as trial run in arguing that segregation “per se violated due process and equal protection guarantees.” Mendez provided the NAACP with its first opportunity to deploy social science as a means to quantify segregation’s ills. Undoubtedly, the case influenced the trajectory of the civil rights movement generally, but subsequent to its outcome, many leading actors pulled away from coordinated efforts describe above. Rather than follow broad multiracial coalitions, leaders like Fred Ross from the Community Service Organization (CSO) focused their efforts on specific ethnic groups like, in his case, the Mexican Americans.

Though an organizer of multiracial “Unity Leagues” in Orange and Riverside counties, Ross did not emerge from the experience with an abiding faith in interracial efforts. Instead, Ross helped to establish CSO in Los Angeles, a counterweight to the older, more assimilationist, and more conservative League of United Latino American Citizens (LULAC). According to Ross, CSO operated as “a Mexican NAACP.” Rather than pursue multiracial coalitions, he argued that every “minority … was organized and moving forward except the Mexican American.” The CSO provided Mexican Americans and Mexicans immigrants such an organization, he argued. Granted, Ross and others like Ernesto Galaraza sometimes promoted interracial efforts as a means to respond to local discrimination, and many CSO leaders including Ross participated in the CFCU. Yet, they noted that, generally speaking, civil rights efforts for African Americans did not always align with the interests of Mexican Americans.3

What about the Mendez decision caused leaders like Fred Ross to assume a more narrow effort to expand the rights of minorities? The critical distinction lay in the pedagogical justification given by Orange County administrators for segregation: language. Orange County officials argued that due to “a large number of children” from Mexican American families, it proved more efficient for instruction to segregate these students into their own schools. Of course, in most schools teachers never assessed a student’s language skills; the pedagogical justification masked pure discriminatory intent.

As pointed out by Sekhon, Mendez’s lawyer David Marcus nimbly argued that the case hinged not on racial discrimination, since Mexican Americans were classified as “white,” but that “the segregation practiced retards Spanish reading children in learning English, foster antagonisms, and creates inferiority with children.” However, though the Supreme Court decision certainly aided in desegregation efforts locally and nationally, it never struck down the ability of schools to concentrate students with language deficiencies at one location. Ironically, the next time this issue emerged in the early 1970s, California’s Mexican American and Chinese American advocates would be using language deficiency to prevent bussing and desegregation.

L.A. Times, January 25, 1948

Oyama v. California (1948)

Other groups struggled with discrimination that, though ultimately based on race, legally depended on other factors. In 1914, Kajiro Oyama left Japan for California, hoping to attend the California Institute of Technology. However, farming, not engineering, laid in Oyama’s future as he and his father soon migrated to Orange County to work on a farm leased by his uncles who resided in the area. Like many Japanese farmers before him, Oyama proved adept at husbandry and sought to own his own land. However, California Alien Land laws, the same ones that had forced his uncles to lease rather than own their farmland, prevented him from purchasing property outright. In 1923, Oyama bought 23 acres of land in Chula Vista in San Diego County, but due to the aforementioned legislation, he had to deed the property to local an acquaintance, Arthur Glower who was white.

Over the next two decades, Oyama’s farm prospered, he married and had a family, eventually passing the title to his son Fred, at the time only six years old, in 1934. Fred’s U.S. citizenship, due to his birth in California, enabled him to assume ownership of the property. Both Kajiro and his wife Kohide had immigrated to California, making them by national law “ineligible for citizenship”, thereby excluding them from land ownership. Much like the claims of Westminister school officials, the law’s definition may have not mentioned race, but it’s implication and enforcement did.

The Oyamas’ gambit represented a frequently employed tactic practiced by Southern California’s Japanese Americans to circumvent the discriminatory legislation. Unfortunately, local authorities sought to make an example. On August 28, 1944, the San Diego county district attorney and state attorney general served Fred Oyama with papers that alleged Kajire and Kohide had committed fraud by deeding property to their son in full knowledge of the prohibitions of the Alien Land Law. The San Diego court ruled against Oyama. Judge Joe Shell argued the family had no right to the property; the California Supreme court ruled similarly, but added that the land could be placed under state ownership.

The JACL and its legal team, headed by the aptly named Abraham Lincoln Wirin, appealed, regrouped, and then jettisoned their previous argument that the Alien Land Law violated the rights of aliens ineligible for citizenship and their offspring on the basis of race. Instead, Wirin focused narrowly on the violation of Fred Oyama’s rights as a Japanese American citizen. Wirin argued the state prevented him from enjoying the fundamental relationship with his parents as evidenced by California’s denial of his parents’ gift of land. “In the case of an American citizen child whose parents are British aliens, no burden is cast upon citizens to provide this gift,” Wirin argued to the court.4 The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Oyama, but the ruling avoided the more general constitutionality of the law. The Alien Land Law remained on the books, though practically unenforceable.

Fishing off of Terminal Island, California, prewar | Courtesy of Lilian Takahashi Hoffecker, Densho Encyclopedia/Creative Commons License

Tarao Takahashi v. Fish and Game Commission (1948)

The case of Japanese immigrant and L.A. fisherman Torao Takahashi in Torao Takahashi v. Fish and Game Commission chipped away further at the discriminatory land laws. From 1915 to 1945, Takashashi had secured a commercial fishing license from the state. In 1943, California legislators changed a statue regarding the Fish and Game code that ultimately prohibited fishing licenses from being granted to “alien Japanese.” Fully aware of the law’s naked racial implications, in 1945 the legislature altered the code’s language to prohibit “any alien who is ineligible for citizenship,” which in essence meant Asians, and in this instance, Japanese immigrants.5 Weaving its way through the judicial system and arriving at the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948, the JACL and Wirin again attacked the California law. Once again the court ruled narrowly, striking down the law, but also not willing to concede that the legislation stemmed from racial antagonism.

For both Japanese and Mexican American communities, citizenship remained the major issue. CSO leader Fred Ross believed it to be the central problem vexing California’s Mexican and Mexican Americans, with the “language barrier” as Galaraza described it, a close second. African Americans’ notable struggles with segregation, specifically regarding housing and schools, differed from their counterparts. As demonstrated more recently by sociologists Douglass Massy and Nancy Denton, suburbanizing at higher rates, Asian and Latino Americans have struggled less with housing discrimination than African Americans. Charlotte Brooks has illustrated how post-WWII white Californians proved more willing to allow for Japanese American integration in Los Angeles than for African Americans. Housing segregation — an issue that has affected each group but to different degrees — may have been a top priority for black civil rights leaders, but it did not receive equal attention in Southern California’s Mexican and Japanese American communities.

When Latino and African American organizations teamed up in opposition to Proposition 14 — which attempted to dismantle the pro-housing integration Rumford Fair Housing Act — Los Angeles Times reporter and Chicano activist Rueben Salazar described the Mexican American Political Association’s (MAPA) anti-Prop 14 rhetoric as little more than a “shaky trial marriage” on behalf of “Latino-Negro Unity.”6

By the early 1970s, California’s black civil rights leaders endorsed bussing as a means to alleviate desegregation. But they also ran headlong into Chinese American and Mexican American activists who were concerned that bussing would rob many immigrant children from much-needed bilingual classes. Whereas NAACP leaders saw their actions as reactionary, Mark Brilliant points out that California’s Chinese and Mexican Americans believed their educational civil rights depended on access to these resources. Education civil rights continues to be a complicated matter, as demonstrated in late 1990s Compton when the city’s Mexican and African American communities bickered over the allotment of resources and jobs in their local schools.

All this is not to say that multiracial coalitions should expect perpetual failure, or that discord remains an inevitable result. But rather that understanding how to bridge differences and create community depends on understanding this history. One can hope that grasping these complexities might make future coalitions more viable. Moreover, knowing how institutional structures have used various means — without explicitly targeting race — to discriminate, heightens our awareness regarding similar tactics today.

Finally, it also helps to better grasp Los Angeles and Orange County’s increasing centrality in American history; California’s struggles with diversity provide a roadmap to the kind of debates coming to Middle America. As Horace Greeley once told his nineteenth century audiences: Go West!


1 Reyner Banham, Los Angeles: The Architecture of the Four Ecologies, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009), 7.
2 Mark Brilliant, The Color of America has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941 – 1978, (Cambridge: Oxford UP, 2010), 79.
3 Ibid, 86.
4 Ibid, 45.
5 Ibid, 49.
6 Ibid, 208.

This article first appeared on the KCET Departures website under the Intersections column in April 2013.