Monthly Archives: July 2012

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Is Alabama the New California? Civil Rights History through a Multiracial Lens

Recently, thousands of people participated in the forty-seventh anniversary of the historic 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery.  Now, as in 1965, voting rights were front and center: marchers protested against the recent passage of restrictive voting laws in many states, arguing that such provisions disproportionately disenfranchise voters of color.  This was familiar ground for civil rights organizers in the South.  This year, however, there was a new theme: immigrant rights.  Those marching joined in opposition to Alabama’s H.B. 56, which targets undocumented immigrants in the state.  The tone, as recounted by Trymaine Lee for the Huffington Post, was one of solidarity: marchers commented on the shared struggle and shared aims of those of African, Asian and Latin American descent, of citizens and non-citizens.

Alabama is in a new phase of its own civil rights history, but this multiracial rights frontier itself is not new.  The deep South now grapples with issues of inter-group coalition building that were at the forefront in California more than a half-century ago.  In his impressive new book, The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941-1978, Mark Brilliant demonstrates that California experienced the challenges and rewards of “multiracial civil rights making” starting in the 1940s. (p. 12.)  He chronicles the post-World War II struggles for civil rights of African Americans, Asian Americans and Mexican Americans, as they attempted to dismantle segregation and legislate antidiscrimination.  In its diverse population, California was not an outlier in the history of civil rights but rather the vanguard.

The book is loosely divided into two parts.  The first four chapters trace efforts to dismantle legalized segregation in housing, education, marital relations, and the workplace.  California in the mid-twentieth century perpetuated a “multi-racial system of legalized segregation,” side-by-side with practices of private discrimination. (P. 106.)  Yet the extension of state and private discrimination was not uniform in either application or experience.  Not every racial minority experienced segregation in the same way; a particular experience  of racism led to differing legal priorities.  As Brilliant argues, “distinct civil rights priorities reflected distinct racialized experiences.” (P. 9.)  Different experiences of racism led to strategies that were often parallel – in terms of aiming to dismantle segregation – but along different tracks.  Asian American groups like the Japanese American Citizens League worked towards eradication of alien land laws; African American groups like the West Coast arm of the NAACP for equality in employment and housing; Mexican American groups like the Community Service Organization against school segregation of those of Mexican descent.  There were moments of overlap, such as in the battles against racially restrictive housing covenants and segregated schools, but these coalitions were “tenuous and fleeting rather than thick and enduring.” (P. 61.)

Due in large part to the disparate efforts of the diverse civil rights groups, state-sponsored segregation was largely eradicated in California by the end of the 1940s.  (As Brilliant points out, “the toppling of statutory segregation that would not begin in the South until 1954…managed to be compressed in California into less than a decade in the 1940s.”) (P. 114.)  Yet by no means were civil rights for all racial and ethnic minorities fully secured.  The second four chapters recount efforts of civil rights leaders to pass anti-discrimination legislation.   The passage of effective antidiscrimination legislation in employment, housing, and education turned out to be a far harder task than dismantling state-sponsored segregation.  Brilliant’s final chapters deftly recount the political quagmire of California in the 1960s and 1970s, when the tentative coalitions formed between diverse groups fell apart. Now, instead of running on parallel tracks, groups came into opposition against each other. Debates over education provide a powerful example.  The NAACP brought successful suits to end de facto segregation in the schools, forcing districts to bus students to other schools in order to create diverse student bodies.  These efforts were directly opposed by language-minority groups – those representing persons of Mexican and Asian descent – because of fears that decentralization would impede bilingual education.  Conservative politicians, foremost among them Ronald Reagan, exploited these differences in order to divide the liberal electorate.

Brilliant encourages us to rethink civil rights history in significant ways.  The most obvious new perspectives offered are regional and racial: civil rights movements did not just occur in the South and North, and they did not just concern blacks and whites.  But there is an additional new perspective offered here that may be less obvious but is equally compelling: the interplay of alienage with civil rights struggles.  Scholars of citizenship in American legal history often break out into two separate camps: those who study the rights struggles of American “second-class citizens” – women, African Americans,  and others who were territorial citizens but lacked full political and legal rights; and those who study non-citizens – immigrants who had no territorial rights and may or may not have any political, social, economic or legal rights.  Brilliant bridges this divide, demonstrating that the rights of non-citizens were sometimes in harmony with and other times in opposition to those of citizens.  Mexican American and Asian American groups were attentive to the problems of non-citizens and they set their civil rights goals accordingly.  Yet even within these groups the issue of alienage could divide.  Brilliant shows, for example, how Mexican American leaders in the farmworkers movement struggled to be anti-immigration (particulary anti-Bracero) without becoming anti-immigrant.

The Color of America Has Changed provides both a chronicle of civil rights successes and a cautionary tale.  The paths of various civil rights groups in California “occasionally crossed but never coalesced into something more enduring.” (P. 55.)  There were impressive gains but equally tragic losses.  As Brilliant shows, failures grew in part out of blind assumptions of common ground between groups with diverse interests and needs. Those now building coalitions across diverse groups would do well to take this history into consideration, thereby entering the struggle with eyes open both to the possibilities and the constraints.