Early Interracial Alliances in the Twentieth Century US

Often interracial alliances or formations are presented as modern developments, previously untenable due to various racial or social prejudices that divided ethnicities/races. The rise of various “rights” movements from the African American led civil rights movement to the later Chicano politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s, led to a broad leveling, erasing complexities and tension within each. Additionally, though each secured greater political rights and space within the public sphere for their various peoples, they also contributed to the idea of differentiated protests based on unified racial or ethnic identities. Cross racial or ethnic developments were obscured by identity politics. However, several scholars point to the myopic nature of this viewpoint. Danny Widener, George Sanchez, and Theresa Gaye Johnson dispute such historical extrapolations, arguing that interracial movements existed for decades prior to the “culture wars” of the 1960s, 70’s and 80s. .

Johnson’s “Constellations of Struggle” examines the “cross racial” “inter-community” movement known as the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee (SLDC, 1943) through the experiences of two activists Charlotta Bass and Luisa Moreno. Johnson’s primary purpose is to reveal the “interracial and antiracist alliances, divisions, among aggrieved minority communities, and important insights into the intra-politics that informed and shaped a common urban antiracist culture of struggle …” In addition, Johnson emphasizes not only the importance of these alliances but also the key role women played in “the politics of education, desegregation, and gender and racial equality” regarding “urban activism in postwar Los Angeles.” Like Widener and Sanchez, Johnson’s work pushes back against recent works that highlight the role of conflict between non-white communities, most notably tensions between black-brown peoples.

Recent books, such as Nicholas Vaca’s Presumed Alliance, investigate the conflicts arising between black and Latino communities from Compton, California to Miami, Florida. Critics note that Vaca and others focus too narrowly on conflict within the structure of electoral politics which naturally creates interests and favor as various groups “battle” for municipal resources.

Unlike Vaca, Danny Widener’s “Perhaps the Japanese are to be Thanked? Asia, Asian Americans and the Construction of Black California” places the development of Californian African American identity not in terms of differentiated individual groupings but rather in a complex interplay between the West Coast’s rising Asian population and its Black citizenry. Marked by exclusion and inclusion, Black Californians came to define themselves in relation not only to whites but to Asians as well. Placing such identities within an internationalist framework illustrates the importance transcending national boundaries even when exploring domestic interracial alliances. Like Johnson, Widener points to the long interaction between groups, hoping to better understand Black self-identity but also to illustrate the interracial couplings that existed prior to the more familiar movements that unfolded after the mid-20th century.

George Sanchez’s work “What’s Good for Boyle Heights is Good for the Jews”: Creating Mulitracialism on the Eastside during the 1950s” articulates similar viewpoints. Using the formerly pre-dominantly Jewish Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, Sanchez notes the conscious interracial efforts made to foster a multihued coalition during the 1930-1950s. Emerging from a leftist class based political movement, Sanchez attempts to reverse the process that began during McCarthyite years in which “the history of leftist multiracial organizing in Boyle Heights would be erased.”

Though each provides valuable viewpoints and critiques, some questions arise. Johnson argues that many of the latter failures of such multiracial alliances resulted from white racism. Undoubtedly, white prejudice and attempts to divide groups by the dominant society existed, influencing these movements and their disintegration. However, when Johnson argues that the Pew research center’s observation “For Blacks, the growing presence of immigrant workers adds to the formidable obstacles they find facing a job” suffers from a failure to highlight that “many economists disagree that immigration is the reason for high black employment,” she levels the debate among economists concerning immigrations’ economic impact. Correct in her assertion that widespread disagreement on the subject exits, such issues are as much a matter of perception as reality. For example, are Mexicans really taking jobs once reserved for them? No matter what economists argue, some whites perceive this as true. It is possible a similar dynamic might be at play within segments of the black community as well. In addition, though Sanchez notes the intersection of class and race, several other writers obscure this aspect of the debate. Surely, class distinctions factored into these various movements. In fact, Sanchez’s examples illustrate that among the leftist working class Jewish population, an openness to interracial solidarity persisted to the extent that a portion remained in the neighborhood despite large demographics shifts. In contrast, their middle class counterparts vacated for other communities. While admittedly, some of this internal Los Angeles migration revolved around employment and identity, class surely played a part.

Ryan Reft

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