From 1920 to 1960, Los Angeles was the whitest and most Protestant city in the United States, and the American city with the smallest proportion of immigrants–just 8 percent in 1960. By the end of the twentieth century, it was a multiracial place: 3.7 million residents, with 30 percent white, 10 percent black, 10 percent Asian and almost half Latino. During “the white years” in LA history, you might think Asian immigrant groups and black migrants from the South lived in separate worlds. The truth is more complicated: sometimes they were pitted against each other, sometimes they fought–and sometimes they joined forces in left-wing campaigns for jobs, housing and political power. Those competitions and alliances are the subject of Scott Kurashige’s fascinating and important new book, The Shifting Grounds of Race. Kurashige’s originality lies mostly in his research on Japanese-Americans and in his use of black history as an illuminating counterpoint to their struggles.
A professor of history at the University of Michigan, Kurashige begins his story in the 1920s, when Japanese immigrants were legally defined as “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” although, alone among Asian immigrant groups, Japanese men were permitted to bring wives–and thus raise a generation of American-born children, the Nisei, or “second generation.” Because whites wanted to keep racial minorities out of their neighborhoods, the small number of Japanese in LA sometimes lived in the same neighborhoods as blacks. For those with some money, the West Jefferson neighborhood, near USC, was the place to be. Chester Himes described it in his 1945 novel If He Hollers Let Him Go as “a pleasant neighborhood, clean, quiet, well bred.” In a 1929 study of the neighborhood, USC interviewers found that while local whites were hostile to both groups, blacks and Japanese-Americans “generally held favorable views of each other.”
The Communist Party organized among blacks and Japanese-Americans in LA in the 1930s and ’40s, and Kurashige emphasizes the CP’s “multiracial vision of full equality” for both groups. In the ’20s, the party in LA was a small organization of mostly Jewish immigrants from Russia, but during the Popular Front period, beginning in 1936, it grew to nearly 3,000 members. The national CP had a “Japanese section” with 200 members and claimed a thousand more Japanese-American fellow travelers, vocal opponents of the rise of fascism in Japan. (LA at the time had a population of 35,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans.) Nisei leftists in LA organized the Market Workers Union in 1936, with 500 Japanese-American members. But when the Teamsters took over the union in 1937 in a jurisdictional dispute, they purged the Nisei.
Kurashige has found in the archives a few vivid cases where Japanese-Americans and blacks joined forces: in the mid-1930s Japanese-American Communists in LA produced bilingual fliers declaring “Scottsboro Boys Must Be Freed”; and in 1934 Langston Hughes gave the keynote speech at the party’s “Japan Night”–his topic was “The Japanese and the Darker Races.” Internationalism was the party line, but for those who saw World War II in the Pacific as a race war, there was a more sinister side to solidarity: in those same years, W.E.B. Du Bois praised Japan’s invasion of Manchuria for “showing the way to freedom” from white supremacy, calling the Chinese, as Kurashige puts it, “the Uncle Toms of the Far East.” This notion, Kurashige reports, “had spread through portions of Black America.” Hughes had a similar position, writing in 1944 about a white person telling a black church audience that “these Japs are really trying to wipe us white folks off the face of the earth”–to which “a dark and wrinkled old grandma in the amen corner” responded, “It’s about time!”