World War II and Ethnic Conflict in LA

Against the Current, No. 144, January/February 2010

Daisy Rooks

The Shifting Grounds of Race:
Black and Japanese Americans
in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles
By Scott Kurashige
Princeton University Press, 2007, $29.95.

IN THE SHIFTING Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles, Scott Kurashige provides new insights into the struggle for racial equality in Los Angeles by focusing on collaboration, and competition, between African-American and Japanese American residents of the city.

Although the book’s time frame spans from the 1900s to 1970s, the bulk focuses on the 1930s and 1940s. Kurashige argues that the fates of African-American and Japanese residents in pre- and postwar Los Angeles were more closely linked than has been previously thought. Kurashige contrasts their shared experience of exclusion with the disparate strategies that the two groups employed to confront housing discrimination, crime and employment discrimination.

In doing so, Kurashige seeks to offer a new narrative about the birth of multi-ethnic Los Angeles, beginning with an examination of first-generation Japanese (Issei) and African-Americans’ struggle to obtain safe and affordable housing in Los Angeles. Both groups sought alternatives to the overcrowded, dilapidated housing stock found in the West Adams and Little Toyko neighborhoods of Los Angeles.

Both groups confronted race-based discrimination, in the form of restrictive covenants, when they tried to gain access to the new housing developments in pre-war Los Angeles. Both also contended with overt resistance from white homeowners, sometimes quite violent in nature, when they tried to rent or buy housing in existing majority white neighborhoods. Issei faced additional housing barriers; as “aliens ineligible to citizenship” (52-53), they were barred from owning property.

Despite these similar barriers, Kurashige contends, African Americans and Japanese Americans adopted different strategies in their struggles to secure safe, affordable housing. While both groups launched legal challenges to restrictive covenants, Issei also employed covert resistance to restrictive covenants. Frustrated by the limitations on property ownership conferred by their “seemingly permanent status as foreigners” (53), Issei relied upon their children, in-laws and white allies to buy houses for them.

Although not a direct affront to racial discrimination, Issei’s efforts to undermine restrictive covenants were met with relentless harassment and threats of violence from white neighbors.

African Americans engaged in more direct confrontation, and Kurashige offers several examples of violent, public standoffs between African-American homeowners and their white neighbors. The strategic differences, Kurashige argues, do not reflect political or cultural differences, but instead reflect the reality that Issei’s “status as resident aliens heightened their sense of insecurity” and stoked existing fear about “the repressive power of the state.” (57)

The rest of Kurashige’s book explores the distinct economic and political behavior of African Americans, Issei, and Nissei (second-generation Japanese). While African Americans and Issei cautiously supported each others’ struggles against discrimination and exclusion in the pre-war period, Kurashige argues that the war altered relations between the two groups forever. In particular, Kurashige demonstrates that internment profoundly shaped patterns of political engagement among Issei and Nissei.

Suspect Loyalties, Divergent Strategies

Japanese Americans were forced to confront lingering accusations about their insufficient loyalty and “Americanness” for years after internment was officially ended. In response, some Nissei and a smaller number of Issei joined radical political organizations, such as the Communist Party, that advocated direct confrontation with these anti-Japanese sentiments. However, many Nissei and most Issei eschewed direct confrontation on the grounds that radical organizations, including the CP, were either ineffective, or too confrontational and therefore too dangerous, given Japanese American’s tenuous political and social status.

On the other side of the political spectrum, conservative political organizations such the Japanese American Citizen’s League (JACL) called for assimilation and public demonstrations of “loyalty” throughout Japanese Los Angeles. Most Nissei and Issei, however, dismissed the JACL’s call for loyalty as ineffective and “collaborationist.” Kurashige argues that internment soured Japanese Americans on the value, or possibility, of “assimilating” to white American society.

Instead, Kurashige demonstrates, most Nissei and Issei residents of Los Angeles consolidated their social and economic resources around efforts to re-invigorate Japanese American entrepreneurism during the postwar period. In these ways, Kurashige argues, the experience of internment shaped both the nature and content of Japanese American political involvement in the postwar era.

In contrast, Kurashige argues, the war spurred African Americans onto new, more confrontational forms of political engagement. In the postwar period, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) advocated class-based, multiracial organizing efforts despite strong pockets of resistance among its white members.

Publisher and editor of the California Eagle, African-American Charlotta Bass promoted multiracial resistance to white intransigence as the only way to achieve racial progress in Los Angeles.

Emboldened both by their sense of the importance of their contributions to the war effort, and by their experiences in integrated factories, African Americans began agitating for full integration into American society and politics. Organizations such as the NAACP articulated the community’s demands for full integration, as well as the belief, widely held among African Americans in Los Angeles according to Kurashige, that the State should and must intervene on their behalf.

Kurashige argues that the disparate political strategies employed by the two groups reflect the nature of the social and political exclusion that both groups confronted in the postwar years.

Was There Collaboration?

There are many strengths of Kurashige’s book. He makes a compelling case that the economic, social and political fates of African Americans and Japanese were closely linked in the pre-war period. He also demonstrates how the political climate before and after the war shaped both groups’ political traditions as well as their expectations of, and relationships with, the State.

The book has several limitations, though. Although Kurashige demonstrates that the fates of both groups were closely linked, he provides scant evidence of sustained collaboration between the two communities. Surely one reason for this is African Americans’ and Japanese Americans’ assessments of the other group’s suitability as a political partner.

Another reason, certainly, is direct competition, especially in regards to housing. When internment began, African Americans quickly moved into vacant housing in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles. This created a new set of tensions between the two groups, when Japanese Americans returned to this neighborhood.

Finally, the book would have been strengthened by a more detailed discussion of the role of Latinos, and Chicanos in particular, in the “making of multiethnic Los Angeles.” George Sanchez’s Becoming Mexican-American, Eduardo Obregón Pagán’s Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A., and Waldinger and Bozorgmehr’s Ethnic Los Angeles demonstrate the this group’s importance to the history of Los Angeles. [The “Sleepy Lagoon” case, a killing resulting from a youth gang fight in August 1942, led to rioting by white soldiers and sailors against young Latino men wearing “zoot suits” popular at the time — ed.]

While Kurashige does mention the galvanizing effect that the Sleepy Lagoon case had on African Americans and Japanese Americans, he does not have much more to say about political and social collaboration among the three groups. This seems like a missed opportunity and important oversight, given how central Latinos, and Chicanos in particular, were to the development of contemporary Los Angeles.

The Shifting Grounds of Race is nonetheless a provocative, fascinating read. It convincingly argues that the political strategies adopted by African Americans and Japanese Americans were profoundly shaped by broader political, organizational and economic factors. It also injects Japanese Americans, and Nissei in particular, squarely into the history of Los Angeles. Kurashige’s emphasis on Japanese Americans adds another important layer to our understanding of racial politics and urbanization in the United States.

ATC 144, January-February 2010