Only Some May Follow: Southern California, Asian Americans, and Housing during the Cold War

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“Years of media abetted conditioning to the possibility of war, invasion, and conquest by waves and waves of fanatic emperor worshiping yellow men,” the late writer Michi Nishiura Weglyn pointed out, “invariably aided by harmless seeming Japanese gardeners and fisherfolk who were really spies and saboteurs in disguise – had invoked latent paranoia as the news from the Pacific in the early weeks of the war brought only reports of cataclysmic Allied defeats.”[1]  Indeed, even before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and internment, the U.S. government questioned the loyalty of its Japanese citizens. The F.B.I. and Naval intelligence had performed exhaustive surveillance of the Japanese minority and 72 years ago last month, state department official Curtis B. Munson submitted his federally commissioned report in which he conducted a secret survey measuring Japanese and Japanese American loyalty to the U.S. Though the Munson Report found a “remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty” among Japanese Americans, State, War, and Navy departments nonetheless promoted internment policy with Henry L. Stimson leading the way.[2]

Japanese Internment - Not America's greatest moment

Japanese/Japanese American Internment – Not America’s greatest moment

The Munson report serves as a useful reference and departure point for the place of Asian Americans in pre – and post- WWII America and the kind of odd racial dynamics at play in a nation wedded to black-white binaries of racial understanding. Moreover, in the years following internment, SoCal Asian Americans fought housing segregation, battling for their own suburban dreams and demonstrating how foreign policy, shifting demographics, and the Cold War all combined to open up new venues for Asian American homeownership but failed to deliver the same opportunities to black Americans.   Few places embodied this complex amalgam of domestic tensions and foreign policy like Southern California.

As has been documented by numerous scholars, from the late nineteenth century through the Second World War, state and federal law had long discriminated against Asian Americans. Western states adopted Alien Land Laws preventing Asian American property ownership while federal immigration policies reduced the flow of newcomers from Asia to a veritable trickle. With the rise of Imperial Japan in East Asia and its expansionist policies of the 1930s along with the U.S. occupying the then-territory of Hawaii, many federal officials viewed the island empire as a threat to U.S. interests. By the late 1930s and early 1940s, fears regarding spies and foreign invasion, stoked by the media, inundated the public. In Los Angeles just prior to American involvement in WWII, even real estate brokers and white homeowners had begun to deploy the language of “invasion” to limit Japanese American homeownership, thereby handcuffing the rights of Nisei citizens.

Bungalows of Jefferson Park circa WWII

Bungalows of Jefferson Park circa WWII

Jefferson Park 1940 – 1941

In the late 1930s, few housing markets received more attention from the FHA than California. “Because of … recent residential building activity (primarily under F.H.A. type financing),” reported field agent T.H. Bowden and analyst D.W. Mayborn, “it is believed that the homeownership rate is now substantially larger than 1930, possibly as high as fifty percent.”[3] Unfortunately for Los Angeles’s non-white residents, the FHA largely excluded minorities from its program. Even ethnic whites like Southern Italians and Russians or religious minorities like L.A.’s Jewish population endured discrimination via federal policy. Yet, to Los Angeles assessors, who occupied a key place in FHA and HOLC policy making, blacks and Asians remained the most pressing threats to neighborhood housing values. Federal policy makers viewed racial and ethnic heterogeneity as problematic and purposely rated communities with such diversity as poor investments for private financing, thus establishing an institutionalized system of discriminatory lending that private capital followed rigidly.

Though ethnic whites and many Mexicans endured housing discrimination, “social class, occupation, and skin color provided a ladder to whiteness” for segments of these populations, notes Charlotte Brooks in her study of Asian American housing integration, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California.  For blacks and Asian Americans, no amount of income could reconcile their racial difference. As one surveyor put it, the best sign that homeowners “remained ‘low class Southern Europeans’” rested on their communities’ proximity to non-whites.[4] Obviously, the diversity of Central Los Angeles presented surveyors and homeowners with obstacles as assessors frequently highlighted the problematic heterogeneity of these neighborhoods and their pockets of Japanese and black populations.[5]

In 1938, a group of business partners led by two white businessmen, William Cannon and Ralph Edgerton, created the Pacific Investment Company (PIC) and secured FHA underwriting for a new tract home development for Nisei near the Baldwin Hills oil fields and La Ballona Creek.  As a sign of the land’s marginal status, the PIC paid only $35,000 for the property and assessors rated the surrounding districts poorly. Even with these caveats, Nisei Angelenos enthusiastically signed up for a chance at homeownership and a better standard of living, both denied their Issei parents.[6]

Nearby West Adams had already riled up local white homeowners. Restrictive covenants in the community had expired, enabling Japanese and black integration. Arlington Boulevard served as the racial dividing line, and the local West Adams homeowner association continued to fight against non-white newcomers. When the FHA approved the PIC development, it more or less ensured racial transition of West Adams and the FHA’s intent to contain non-white community expansion.[7] Furthermore, in a demonstration of how abstract conceptions of whiteness and the FHA’s protection of segregation affected relations between aggrieved minorities, many Jewish Angelenos residing in West Adams, approximately half the community, believed city elites did little to prevent the transition because of Los Angeles’ “casual anti-Semitism” and “Nordic ideology.”  Ultimately, FHA policies fueled such reactions since the organization established clear linkages between property values and segregation.[8]  Though having once been targeted for housing exclusion by Christians, some Jewish residents now internalized the racism of FHA policy in an effort to protect their home investments.

Likewise, when Japanese Americans discovered Jefferson Park’s racial restrictions specifically excluded blacks but allowed for Asian Americans, Nisei elites obscured this knowledge from public view to secure support from African American outlets like the Los Angeles Sentinel. Some historians have argued that this “sin of omission” demonstrated Japanese Americans’ own racism toward fellow minority groups.  In this way, John Modell has noted, Nisei still would not qualify as white but could distinguish themselves from other minorities.  Others, like University of Michigan’s Scott Kurashige have argued Nisei acceptance of these restrictions reflected class bias, not racism.  Often, the U of M historian argues, Nisei looked down upon “lower class Japanese Americans and other Asians [more] than their educated black and Mexican peers.”[9] Whatever the case in this instance, the fact remained the Nisei investors did not set the terms; racial restrictions had been the purview of the developer.  Already suffering from marginal citizenship, Nisei could do little to alter policy. In fact, white homeowners even challenged their own failure to include Asian Americans within the restricted groups, as many pointed to state miscegenation law that banned marriage between Asians and whites.  Whites feared the threat of interracial romances that many equated with housing integration.[10]

Jefferson Park

Jefferson Park

Still, this opposition could not simply deny prospective Nisei homebuyers as they had Asians in the past, since Nisei unlike their Issei parents and grandparents were citizens.  In previous decades, local elected officials and homeowners could deny Asians certain rights, particularly the ability to own land, due to their lack of citizenship, which of course Issei could do little about since federal law prohibited their naturalization.  Instead, local council members and residents deployed the language of “neighborhood invasion” amidst possible war in the Pacific to persuade the city council to “ignore the rights of Nisei citizens” and deny Japanese American efforts to integrate Jefferson Park. The language of invasion played no small part. “As the U.S. – Japanese relationship deteriorated,” notes Brooks, “these words began to convey something even more troubling: whites’ equation of what they called neighborhood ‘Jap invasion’ with actual Japanese invasion.”[11]

Internment followed soon after. Despite the aforementioned “Secret Munson Report,” which noted a great deal of anti-Japanese fervor related to white farmers coveting Japanese American land and resenting competition, U.S. officials rounded up the minority group and placed them in concentration camps in the American West.  Of the 127,000, Japanese Americans living in the continental US, 112,000 lived on the West Coast, 93,000 in California alone.[12]

Needless to say, US wartime propaganda depicted the Japanese as morally questionable and untrustworthy. When the war ended, however, so too did the need arise to change American ideas about Asian Americans.  Certainly along with their black, Latino, and Native American counterparts, Asian Americans contributed mightily to the war effort.  Still, even military service only brought these groups so close to full citizenship. For Asian Americans, the ensuing Cold War also helped. After all, with the communist threat looming and the Cold War just gearing up, American officials and the public realized the need to put on a good face for an international community that it hoped would side with the United States in future conflicts with the USSR, particularly in Asia.

If Jefferson Park demonstrated the boundaries that still prevented Japanese and Asian Americans from enjoying full equal rights, housing controversies of the 1950s illustrated new realities.  Not only had international politics impacted local concerns, so too did demographic change driven by WWII.  Blacks and Latinos, mostly Mexican Americans spurred on by the Bracero Program, rapidly increased their numbers in Southern California. Though Los Angeles assessors had considered blacks and Asians of equal threat to property values in the 1940s, by the 1950s the increase in SoCal’s black population ratcheted up white fears. Within this dynamic of Cold War politics and changing demographics, African Americans found themselves enduring the most pernicious housing discrimination, while Asian Americans enjoyed new opportunities, but not without facing a reactionary formidable opposition in both Northern and Southern California.

Garden Grove, Orange County, CA 1950s

Garden Grove, Orange County, CA 1950s

Incidents in Southwood, a suburb just south of San Francisco, and Garden Grove in Orange County demonstrated shifts in public opinion regarding racism toward Asians and Asian Americans. Worried about communists using American housing segregation as a means to discredit U.S. efforts in the Pacific and Far East, Senators like William Knowland and newspaper editors like the San Francisco Chronicle’s Scott Newhall admonished whites to understand how racism played internationally, figuratively stumbling into Russian hands by giving Asians real reasons to wonder about American promises of equality.

For some Asian Americans, blame for these sorts of incidents turned inward. This proved true in segments of the Japanese American community. “The Nisei who is refused a home acts like a scolded dog with tail between his legs and conceals his embarrassment and shame at having been racially rejected so no one else knows about it,” complained JACL Pacific Southwest Regional Director Tats Kushida.  “Instead of fighting bigotry, he is encouraging it because the discrimination succeeds by forfeit.” Yet Kushida’s rant could have been directed at his own organization, for the JACL frequently obscured the integration housing efforts of Japanese Americans by failing to publicize the issue.

Nonetheless, urban redevelopment, which displaced L.A. minority populations, and the growing homeowning desires of Japanese Americans led to the JACL’s greater involvement in such issues. When two time Olympic Gold medalist, Korean American, and Southern California native Sammy Lee attempted to establish a medical practice in Santa Ana, Orange County local doctors disparaged his efforts while realtors refused to sell him a home. Though at times displaying reluctance toward engaging in interethnic and interracial movements, the JACL came to Lee’s aid and after much wrangling Lee secured a home in the area.

While the period from 1943 to 1952 saw the collapse of “urban California’s legal racial hierarchy … residential segregation of all nonwhites persisted.” The dynamics of race emerged sharply altered. The Second Great Migration, historian Josh Sides has noted, brought unprecedented numbers of African Americans to Los Angeles while as pointed out earlier, the Bracero Program and wartime industry needs drew Mexicans North to the city as well.[13] The proximity of these racial groups recast race relations, as the perpetual foreigner stereotype that had hounded Asian Americans for decades now became the very reason to support Asian integration: it would send a positive message to future Asian allies in the Far and near East.

Obviously, Japanese internment illustrates a clear correlation between foreign and domestic policies, but postwar housing arguments demonstrate this relationship’s persistence. For example, if Los Angeles’s Japanese Americans suffered internment during the war, American efforts to rebuild Japan along with the valorization of Nisei war service, as later evidenced in films like the noir Crimson Kimono, subsequently provided a direct counterweight to anti-Asian attitudes. The influx of African Americans also contributed to this shift, as anti-Japanese agitators found their biases overwhelmed by others. “In Los Angeles, which by 1942 was experiencing a massive influx of people of all racial backgrounds, the question quickly lost its immediacy after internment,” Brooks says. “The issue of migration – particularly of blacks and Mexican Americans – completely eclipsed it.”[14]

San Francisco’s Chinese population – once harshly demonized prior to WWII – also experienced newfound American support. China’s WWII support along with later American military interventions in Asia made treatment of Chinese and Chinese Americans a key Cold War issue. Brooks points out that this “transnational identity” undermined Chinese claims to national membership, as they were seen as permanent foreigners, albeit welcome ones. Also, as with the Japanese American example, the arrival of larger numbers of African American residents recast white homeowner concerns that now Chinese Americans came to be seen, along with other Asian Americans, as the “model minority,” to be contrasted with more “troublesome” racial/ethnic groups. Accordingly, Brooks suggests that American interventionism in Asia along with pervasive domestic fears of communist infiltration and agitation “spurred white Californians to reconsider the impact of their segregationist decisions. In the end, the deepening Cold War short circuited the emerging pattern and replaced it with a far different one.”[15] White homeowners continued to exhibit a desire to live apart from nonwhites; even when they accepted Chinese or Japanese American neighbors, they did so out of a sense of anti-communism rather than any nod toward racial equality. As one white resident, who supported Nisei WWII veteran Sam Yoshira’s attempt to buy a home in Southwood (South San Francisco), commented, “My property values aren’t as important as my principles.”[16]  Such admissions reveal not only latent racial attitudes but also the effect of FHA/HOLC housing policies that dismissed communities with nonwhites as ineligible for home loans subsidized by the federal government.

Ironically, if early Cold War policies and fears about communism enabled Asian American populations to move away from segregated communities, the emergence of the Vietnam War promoted solidarities with those nonwhites they “had left behind.” Moreover, as Lisa Lowe points out in her groundbreaking 1990s work Immigrant Acts, the very Asian wars that served to reorient Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and later Vietnamese American citizenship also ruptured each community’s collective memory: “The ‘past’ that is grasped as memory is, however, not a naturalized, factual past, for the relation to that past is always broken by war, occupation, and displacement,” Lowe writes. “Asian American culture ‘re-members’ the past in and through the fragmentation, loss, and dispersal that constitutes the past.”[17]

The very presence of Asian Americans, whose post WWII  population flows directly relate to U.S. military engagement, reminds us of the interventionist (some might argue imperialist) foreign policies that have reshaped American demographics.  Under this aegis, Asian American immigration to the US sometimes unfolded under less than ideal circumstances. In places like Orange County, one forgets that one of the birth places of the New Right and anti-communism now contains 40% of all Vietnamese Americans, a result of refugee resettlement programs. This figure does not even mention the OC’s significant pockets of Chinese and Mexican American minorities. Nor are such circumstances isolated to the West Coast. In Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, growing Hmong communities have established themselves. Resettled after their allegiance to U.S. forces in the Vietnam War, the Hmong have helped created new urban dynamics in cities like Detroit. While in his 2008 film, Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood deals with this issue somewhat problematically, the aging director nonetheless demonstrates the nation’s increasing complex racial demographics and how they are sometimes tied not to economic advancement or up-by-the-bootstraps immigrant narratives but rather blowback from U.S. military interventions.

Perhaps consider larger changes in immigration over the past couple of years. East Asian migration to the United States eclipsed Mexican movement North in 2010.  With earlier generations coming of age and staking their claim to the nation’s popular culture under the banner of reality shows like K-Town and films like Better Luck Tomorrow, it would seem that understanding the long arc of this population movement behooves us.

“California at mid-century foreshadowed America at century’s end,” Brooks concludes, “a place where race was far more complicated than black and white and where international conflicts affected domestic race relations.”[18]  Indeed, while California’s tendency to gaze inward, wondering just how it became so awesome, can be frustrating, its early demographics served as harbingers of the America of today. From court cases of the 1940s to Orange County diversity to emerging all-Asian or Latino suburbs of today – like the “Chinese Beverly Hills” of San Marino (or Monterey, depending on your viewpoint) and Mexican American lower middle class South Gate – housing integration hinged on not just race.   Moreover, as Mark Brilliant points out, the extent of housing racism assigned to each group varied.  Different groups encountered different forms of racism.  No one avenue of redress could serve as a silver bullet for all minorities. Blacks continued to suffer the most egregious discrimination in this regard; so too did Mexican Americans struggle, though again not to the same extent.   In the case of Asian Americans, Cold War policies directly intervened and facilitated acceptance into segregated white communities whose residents feared African American neighbors and alienated Asian nation states more so than the average Japanese, Chinese, or Korean American.


[1] Michi Nishiura Weglyn, “The Secret Munson Report”, in Asian American Studies: A Critical Reader, Eds. Jean Yu-We Shen Wu and Thomas C. Chen, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010, pg 195.

[2] Ibid. pgs. 194-195.

[3] Charlotte Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009) pg  116

[4] Ibid, pg 117.

[5] Ibid, pg. 117.

[6] Ibid, pg. 118.

[7] Ibid, pg. 119.

[8] Ibid, pg. 120.

[9] Ibid, pg. 123.

[10] Ibid, pg. 123.

[11] Ibid, pgs.  125 – 127.

[12] Michi Nishiura Weglyn, “The Secret Munson Report”, in Asian American Studies: A Critical Reader, Eds. Jean Yu-We Shen Wu and Thomas C. Chen, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010, pg. 195.

[13] Josh Sides, L.A City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003) pg. 54.

[14] Charlotte Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends, pg. 132.

[15] Ibid, pg. 193.

[16] Ibid, pg. 206.

[17] Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), pg. 29.

[18] Charlotte Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends, pg. 239

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