City of Fear

City of Fear

A new book explores the historical ties between African-American and Japanese-American communities in Los Angeles.


Associated PressQuiet streets: Little Tokyo in July 1942, after the US government interned thousands of citizens.

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!”

Prominent Japanese Communists in the United States faced a terrible choice in the 1930s, when almost a dozen from LA were threatened with deportation. With the help of the party’s International Labor Defense, they “voluntarily” accepted exile to the Soviet Union rather than returning to Japan, where they faced execution. But in Stalin’s Russia, Kurashige notes, at least five of them were “imprisoned and executed as ‘infiltrators.'” As tensions across the Pacific grew, mainstream Japanese-Americans, represented by the Japanese-American Citizens League (JACL), were torn between allegiance to Japan and the United States. As late as 1940, LA’s Japanese daily newspaper Rafu Shimpo (founded in 1903 by three students at USC) was printing Japanese government propaganda in its English section, describing the Chinese in Manchuria welcoming invading Japanese soldiers as liberators and describing the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo as a “miracle of the 20th century.”

Before World War II, Japanese-Americans and blacks were, in Kurashige’s words, “roughly equal targets of degradation by whites.” But after Pearl Harbor, the former were defined as enemies of the state, while the latter were granted equal employment rights by the White House. However, Kurashige points out that there were hardly any calls for internment in the month immediately following the bombing. In fact, FDR, Attorney General Francis Biddle and many others spoke out against hostility to Japanese-Americans. In LA, the County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution on December 9, two days after the bombing, declaring that Japanese-Americans had “proven their loyalty to the United States by service in the [First] World War and in other ways.” And the Los Angeles Times ran a photo of Mayor Fletcher Bowron with Nisei leaders on December 8 headlined Japanese Americans Ready to Aid Nation. A liberal Republican supporter of civil liberties, Bowron had dismantled the notorious LAPD Red Squad and spoken out against anti-Communist witch hunts in 1940. Immediately after Pearl Harbor he assured Nisei leaders that the city would provide them with the “protection accorded any other citizen.” But by January 1942, with public opinion inflamed over news accounts of Japanese atrocities in the Philippines and with FDR issuing Executive Order 9066 requiring internment, Bowron had turned into a virulent advocate of rounding up all Japanese-Americans. He went so far as to argue that the Nisei posed the greatest threat of sabotage and espionage in what he said would be a “second Pearl Harbor” in LA.

It’s well-known that the mainstream JACL called on Japanese-Americans to cooperate with internment on the grounds that, although it was unjust, the community was powerless to stop it, and redress could be pursued after the war’s end. It’s also well-known that the CP supported the roundup on the grounds that opposing FDR would interfere with winning the war. (The leading Japanese-American CP member, Shuji Fujii, published a telegram he sent to FDR in the Popular Front Eagle that called on the government to “exterminate…un-American elements amongst us.”) But the most shocking fact in Kurashige’s book is that internment was not challenged by Nisei Communists. Despite their enthusiasm, the party suspended its Nisei comrades under the slogan “Everything for National Unity!”

The key research on black organizations’ positions on the internment has been done by Cheryl Greenberg, a professor of history at Trinity College, who found that the NAACP, the National Urban League and the National Council of Negro Women were mostly silent about the internment. Kurashige’s impressive research deepens the gloom. He searched the archives for LA blacks who criticized the internment as racist and found only one black newspaper, the Tribune, that “took a firm stand against” it–but “unfortunately the bulk of its wartime publications are unavailable in existing archives,” so we don’t really know what they said, or whether they changed their position when the climate became even more inhospitable.

Public opposition in LA to the internment was limited to a few individuals–notably Clifford Clinton, a white man and the proprietor of the famous Clifton’s Cafeteria downtown (which is still open). Even Carey McWilliams, then chief of California’s Division of Immigration and Housing (and not yet editor of The Nation), reluctantly supported internment in a 1942 article–although he soon became its most outspoken white critic. In black LA, the Eagle, published by leftist Charlotta Bass, ignored the internment and publicized the “Negro Victory Market,” a grocery co-op aimed at replacing the departed Japanese-American grocers.

Meanwhile, poor blacks from Texas and Louisiana were pouring into the city in search of wartime factory jobs. Whites didn’t want black neighbors, and so the newcomers moved to the suddenly vacant Little Tokyo. Overnight Little Tokyo turned into Bronzeville, an overcrowded ghetto known for its wild nightlife, centered on Shepp’s Playhouse, where young Charlie Parker and Miles Davis played. What the white elites had viewed as a Japanese slum they now saw as an even worse Negro slum.

The internment officially ended on January 2, 1945, but the mayor warned that Japanese-Americans “had better not come back to Los Angeles.” In Manzanar, they listened; over the next six months, only 3 percent of LA’s prewar Japanese-American population returned to the city. The War Relocation Authority (WRA) had to force the rest to leave Manzanar in the fall of 1945. Eventually two-thirds came back to LA, but they had nowhere to live–leading the WRA to house them (FEMA-style) in trailer parks in Burbank, Santa Monica, Hawthorne, El Segundo and Santa Ana. The city fathers feared rioting in Bronzeville, but it never materialized; in July 1946 Ebony magazine ran a story on “The Race War That Flopped.” The racial peace seems in part to have been the work of Common Ground, a 1945 project of the Pilgrim House, one of several Protestant church efforts to promote “interracialism.” But Bronzeville/Little Tokyo was still targeted for “urban renewal,” and in 1949, 2,500 Japanese-Americans and blacks were evicted to make way for a new LAPD headquarters and then a city parking garage.

The Protestant integrationists’ goal was to prevent the formation of a new Little Tokyo and instead integrate Japanese-Americans into suburban LA. Nisei leaders worried about undermining their historic community support institutions yet were drawn to the idea of integration; Kurashige notes that “public recognition that the Nisei were even potentially capable of assimilation represented a paradigm shift.” And so the same Japanese-Americans who were treated as criminals during the war became the “model minority” whose successful integration into mainstream America was contrasted with the failure of blacks to overcome what sociologists called “dysfunction.” Liberals like Ronald Reagan embraced them, honoring Japanese-American veterans and declaring in 1945 that “America stands unique in the world, the only country not founded on race, but on…an ideal.” Not everyone agreed; the Teamsters’ official magazine declared it “senseless to argue” that “Japs are American citizens.” The union lobbied for the revocation of citizenship for Japanese-Americans.

In 1952 Congress passed the McCarran Walter Immigration Act over Truman’s veto. The act banned “suspected subversives” from entering the United States–those kept out included Gabriel García Márquez, Pablo Neruda and Graham Greene. Yet it contained a political triumph for the Nisei. In a little-known provision, the bill asserted that Japan had become our principal cold war ally in Asia. It granted naturalization rights to Japanese immigrants and permitted many more Japanese to immigrate. The quota itself wasn’t as significant as family reunification: in the 1950s, tens of thousands of Japanese legally immigrated, almost all of them family members of US citizens. As a result, more Japanese people arrived in the United States in that decade than in the previous forty years put together.

The new model minority completed its move to the suburbs, notably Gardena, Long Beach and Pasadena. But for blacks, moving just one block into white territory provoked protests and then white flight. The neighborhood around Florence and Normandie, where the Rodney King riots began in 1991, was virtually all-white in 1950; 6,000 blacks moved into the neighborhood during the 1950s, and by the ’60s, only a handful of whites remained.

For blacks there was one shining exception to the sea of black segregation in 1960s Los Angeles: the Crenshaw district, west of USC and south of the Santa Monica Freeway. There, Japanese-Americans, blacks and liberal whites lived together–for a time. Crenshaw started out after World War II as “the new Little Tokyo,” and by the early 1960s it had Southern California’s largest Japanese-American community, centered around the new Crenshaw Square shopping center, with its 1950s “Oriental” architecture and landscaping and a Japanese summer festival. But that changed in 1965, when the anger from the riots in nearby Watts spilled into Crenshaw. Japanese-American stores were looted and burned. Afterward, Crenshaw Neighbors, an organization formed by white and black women in 1961, tried to persuade whites and Japanese-Americans not to flee. (It was perhaps the region’s only homeowners’ group that fought for integrated neighborhoods.) The city opened a new high school, Crenshaw High, hoping to keep white and Japanese-American families in the area. That effort failed; Crenshaw became a black neighborhood in the 1970s.

Still, Crenshaw’s political legacy was huge. Tom Bradley, LA’s first black mayor, elected in 1973, got his start in the Crenshaw Democratic Club, where he learned to walk precincts and began his lifelong alliance with Jewish liberals. After taking office, he provided the first real opportunity for Japanese-Americans to participate in city government, and “always maintained a significant Japanese American presence in his office.” During the Bradley era, even as much of black LA fell deeper into poverty, many Japanese-Americans prospered. (Kurashige, however, is more interested in another kind of globalization–the young Japanese-American radicals of the campus Third World liberation movements of the early ’70s.)

After Watts, one symbol of interracial harmony in Crenshaw remained: Holiday Bowl, the Nisei-run bowling alley that had opened in 1958. In its coffee shop, blacks ate udon and Japanese-Americans ate soul food. Kurashige ends his book with the battle to save Holiday Bowl from the wrecking ball in 2000, when Manzanar survivors teamed up with working-class black veterans of the Negro bowling leagues and Anglo preservation activists. They lost that fight. The place was torn down in 2001, but it’s been enshrined in local history by the Japanese-American National Museum of LA. (It also has its own website, For Kurashige, Holiday Bowl provides a model of an alternative future for “polyethnic” Los Angeles–a future we might call “bowling together.”

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