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

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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 … [Read more...]

A Community Erased: Japanese Americans in El Monte and the San Gabriel Valley

Nishida Family in El Monte

A visit to El Monte, California reveals many official signs and markers that harken back to the town’s pioneer past. The local history museum is designed to look like an American West frontier town, complete with wagon wheels and mannequins outfitted in long skirts and bonnets. With its fertile location between the San Gabriel River and Rio Hondo, El Monte is often presented as a dream destination for westbound wagon trains, not to mention the indigenous populations and the Spanish before them. Not surprisingly, as had happened throughout the West Coast, the verdant farmland that made the San Gabriel Valley attractive to white settlers in the late-1800s would prove inviting to later … [Read more...]

Spitting Hot Fire: Malibu Wildfires and the Santa Anas

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"To live with the Santa Ana, is to accept consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior," reflected Joan Didion in 1968. Quoting Raymond Chandler, she noted the environment's deterministic control over Californians. On nights when the Santa Ana gust through the homes of Angelenos, Chandler asserted, "every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen."1 Though the winds alone might have inspired unpredictable behavior in people, every year from October through January, the Santa Ana's love affair with fire existentially pokes Los Angeles like a carving knife to a husband's … [Read more...]

Structured Unrest: The Rumford Act, Proposition 14, and the Systematic Inequality that Created the Watts Riots

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If “you keep telling people that they are unfairly treated and teach them disrespect for the law,” Chief William Parker told reporters in the aftermath of the Watts Riots, then violence is inevitable. Parker’s commentary, an attempt to deflect his own department’s culpability for the civil unrest veered into increasingly racist territory. In Parker’s worldview, trouble only started “when one person threw a rock, and like monkeys in a zoo, others started throwing rocks.” Calls by assemblyman Mervyn Dymally for a civilian police review board were little more than a “vicious canard,” argued the imperious police chief.[1] The legacy of the riots, fifty years old next year, has reverberated … [Read more...]

“Taking Compton National”: Schools, Race, and Modern Suburbia in 20th and 21st Century California

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 “Our nation is moving toward two societies, One Black, One White – separate and unequal,” announced the 1968 Kerner Commission. In 1967, following riots that had erupted across urban America, President Lyndon B. Johnson enacted the commission, appointing former Illinois Governor Otto Kerner Jr as its chairman, to delineate the causes of American unrest; unsurprisingly, the report concluded that poverty, segregation, and lack of economic opportunities corroded urban minority neighborhoods while whites fled to middle and upper class suburban environs, taking income and businesses with them.Undoubtedly, the Kerner Commission correctly identified many of the systematic problems afflicting … [Read more...]

The American Military: Nineteen Histories about War, Society, and the U.S. Military’s Influence on the Nation

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Even today, the category of military history still elicits a bit of head scratching. Our own John Southard noted as much in a 2012 essay for ToM: “Crayons, Fraternities, and Military History.” Southard pointed out that in the last throes of the twentieth century and the first decade of the new millennium, there existed among historians a great deal of doubt regarding the efficacy of military history. At the 1997 meeting for the Society of Military History, John Lynn publicly confided that one of his University of Illinois colleagues inquired, in the best voice of academic condescension one can imagine, if military historians “write in crayon.” At the 2008 meeting of the American Historical … [Read more...]

“Capital within a Capital”: Covert Action, the Vietnam War, and Creating a “Little Saigon” in the Heart of Northern Virginia

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“That flag is the symbol of the spirit of the refu­gee,” Springfield resident and Vietnamese American talk show host Liem D Bui told journalists in 2012. The flag to which Bui referred is that of the fallen South Vietnam government and it along with an American flag fly over Eden Center shopping plaza in Falls Church, VA, a symbolic embodiment of Vietnamese American culture that some call “a capital within a capital,” for D.C.’s 80,000 residents of Vietnamese descent. Unfortunately, in recent years, the shopping center has garnered attention for more than its restaurants and markets. A murder-suicide left two men dead in July of 2012 and gambling raids in 2011 linked Eden Center and its flag … [Read more...]

Diving into Integration: Sammy Lee, Historical Memory, and the Complexity of Housing Segregation in Cold War California

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Even with the clearest of minds, personal and historical memory ebb and flow. Recollections of our own past and that of the society around us often become shaped by current circumstance and selective recall. If one adds dementia to the mix, personal memories become scattered vestiges of our former selves that bound across the mind. Lest one thinks society as a collective operates any better, it does not. You need only point to the occasional survey of American knowledge of U.S. history to know the past might stalk us invisibly at every moment, but as Americans we seem blissfully unaware. When two-time gold medal Olympic diver Sammy Lee disappeared for several days this past April, the … [Read more...]

Not Bowling Alone: How the Holiday Bowl in Crenshaw Became an Integrated Leisure Space

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In May 2000, the New York Times reported the upcoming demolition of the Crenshaw District's Holiday Bowl. Built by Japanese American investors in 1958, just as Crenshaw and neighboring Leimart Park were reemerging as one of the city's most diverse neighborhoods, the bowling alley served as an integrated leisure space where African, Mexican, and Asian Americans could interact. "It's like a United Nations in there,'' longtime employee Jacqueline Sowell told writer Don Terry. ''Our employees are Hispanic, white, black, Japanese, Thai, Filipino. I've served grits to as many Japanese customers as I do black. We've learned from each other and given to each other. It's much more than just a bowling … [Read more...]

The Shifting Cultures of Multiracial Boyle Heights

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In a critical scene from the 1997 neo-noir "L.A. Confidential," the ambitious and overzealous Detective Ed Exley (Guy Pierce) escorts rape survivor Inez Soto (Marisol Padilla Sanchez) through the tumult of press coverage upon her discharge from the hospital. Soto's testimony proved vital in convicting four black men of murder at the famous Night Owl diner massacre; a case that led to Exley's promotion and subsequent municipal fame. However, in a brief exchange, Soto reveals that while guilty of sexual assault, the four men never stepped foot in the notorious Night Owl. "I don't know what time they left me, I wanted them dead," she tells Exley in a private moment. "Would anyone care that they … [Read more...]

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