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Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left
Radical Activism in Los Angeles
By Laura Pulido
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2006 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Race and Political Activism
The experience of growing up in Los Angeles partly explains my interest in the issues of race, class, and political activism that this book addresses. Born in East Los Angeles, I lived for a number of years in San Pedro and subsequently moved to Westminster in Orange County. Throughout these various moves, one constant was riding in our station wagon with my brothers and sister while driving to visit relatives throughout the area. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s I regularly traveled the Harbor Freeway to visit Grandpa and Tía Lola in East L.A.; the Pomona Freeway to see my aunt in Pico Rivera as well as my ninos (godparents) in Monterey Park; and the San Diego Freeway to visit my cousins in Canoga Park (see map 1). Little did I know that the history and geography of my extended family was in many ways typical of working-class Mexican Americans: with a decrease in residential segregation, as well as a strong Fordist economy, many of my relatives began leaving the greater East L.A. barrio around 1970. Nevertheless, the maintenance of family ties was highly valued, and we managed to see some set of relatives at least once a week, usually on Sundays. The Southern California freeway system was key to maintaining this connection.
Aside from the usual childhood complaints stemming from seemingly interminable car rides, including such things as being touched and looked at by one's siblings, what I remember most was the landscape and geography of the region: eerie industrial buildings, dramatic mountains and palm trees, the downtown skyline, endless housing tracts, and of course, the racial patterns associated with them. Who lived in those vast expanses of South L.A. or the Westside, in which we knew no one? And why did our family seem to be strung out along the Pomona Freeway?
It was clear to me that East L.A. was the heart of the Mexican American community, and I suspected that Watts served a similar function for Blacks, but I could not identify a comparable place for Asian Americans. In my mind, Chinatown and Little Tokyo were tourist spots with only a limited connection to contemporary Asian Americans. Such partial knowledge stemmed from intense residential segregation and a resulting lack of familiarity with either Black or Japanese people. My world was largely brown and white.
As a youngster, I struggled with being brown. Living in San Pedro, I learned early that being Mexican was far from desirable. At various times I detested my brown skin, was embarrassed by the Spanish spoken in our household, and was envious of light-skinned Mexicans, wondering why I couldn't be a güera. My painfully limited consciousness concerning my Mexican identity was complicated by my awareness of other peoples of color. Although I did not really know any African Americans, I knew that Blacks were a devalued racial/ethnic group, and I sensed that my racial position was somehow tied to theirs—how that worked out exactly I wasn't sure, but I understood that what it meant to be brown in Los Angeles was somehow linked to what it meant to be Black. I vaguely recall one incident in which I came home from school crying one day. My mom, seeing my anxiety, inquired, "M'ija, what happened?" Apparently, a girl at school, who was white, had asked if I was Black, and this had caused me great anguish. What indeed if I was Black? It was a frightening thought to a little Mexican American girl who knew she was racially problematic but sensed that things could be worse. My mom assured me that no, I wasn't Black, but she also stressed, in her very Catholic way, that even if I were, what would be wrong with that?
In contrast, I actually did know some Japanese Americans, a family down the street in San Pedro. While they were nice enough, I considered them to be "foreign." Several things stood out about them: their yard was landscaped in a distinctly Japanese style, they did not wear shoes in the house, and they enjoyed a cuisine that was totally unfamiliar to me. But what was significant was how I perceived them relative to me: they were foreign. And while I was uncomfortable with my Mexican background, which I equated with being both inferior and different, I had somehow absorbed the dominant reading of Asian Americans as the ultimate foreigners. Moreover, I sensed that my Japanese American neighbors occupied a distinct social position. I did not feel that they were as despised as Blacks and Mexicans, but they clearly were not on the same level as whites either. They were somewhere in between.
I share this bit of autobiography to introduce a basic premise of this book: what we know as racial/ethnic groups (I use the term racial/ethnic to emphasize that racial groups may also function as ethnic groups) can be grasped only in relation to other racial/ethnic groups. In other words, racial/ ethnic groups, the meanings attached to them, the economic positions they occupy, and the status conferred upon them can be understood only in the context of the larger racial landscape. Further, the dynamics that produce racial/ethnic groups are so profound that a grade school child living through them can discern them. Unfortunately, what most kids know social scientists, myself included, are only beginning to pay close attention to.
My first political awakening centered on issues of racial oppression, particularly the plight of African Americans. I certainly did not learn these things in school, but as an avid reader I became aware of the civil rights movement and slavery (Harriet Tubman was my hero—I was deeply inspired by her courage). In addition to reading, popular culture contributed to my nascent consciousness. In particular, I recall the deep impact that Stevie Wonder's song "Living for the City" had on me. I experienced deep moral outrage upon learning how Blacks had been treated, and, having no idea what other groups had undergone, I came to believe that African Americans were the only oppressed racial/ethnic group in the United States. I knew that I was not Black, so it was impossible for me to think of myself as affected by racism. But I also knew that I was not white, and I struggled with being rendered invisible by the Black/white binary—despite living in a city with deep Mexican roots.
In addition to racial oppression, however, I was concerned with the plight of workers and the poor of all colors. Coming from a union family, I was all too familiar with the power that the "contract," which was negotiated every three years, had over our lives. In addition, I became acquainted with strikes, the rhythms of the hiring hall, and the idiocy of waterfront bosses that we heard about every night from my dad. These events provided a framework in my mind of what it meant to be a worker. Thus it was hardly surprising that when I learned about the United Farm Workers (UFW) and its struggle, it resonated deeply within me. Here at last was a group of Mexicanas/os giving voice to the inchoate feelings and consciousness that were stirring in so many of us. Not only did the UFW announce our presence to the world, but it mobilized around a series of issues that most poor and working-class people could readily identity with. When I was young, I had a very romantic vision of the UFW. I was appalled at the conditions that Mexicana/o field workers labored and lived under, but I was proud of this seemingly organic and charismatic form of Mexican American resistance. Although I sensed that Mexicans had long been subordinated in California, before I learned of the UFW I knew of no instance of collective resistance and/or struggle. Accordingly, my impression was not only that we were invisible but that we lacked the ability to mobilize and fight for our rights. Maybe we really were the "dumb Mexicans" that everyone said. Not surprisingly, I took the UFW struggle, as perhaps one of the most profound instances of Chicana/o resistance, to heart, and explored it more closely in my dissertation. One of the things I learned from that project, which compared how two Chicana/o communities mobilized around environmental issues, was how deeply anticommunist the UFW was. Yet I also knew that many people considered the UFW to be "radical." This led me to question the term. What is radical? Who is a radical? If nothing else, I have learned that radical is a relative term. While the Chicana/o movement was indeed radical, there was tremendous diversity within it, with some groups assuming far more conservative positions than others. Further, it struck me that much of the scholarship and teaching of el movimiento centered on a few themes and groups, such as the UFW, the Brown Berets, La Raza Unida Party, New Mexican land-grant struggles, and the Crusade for Justice. Though this work was of tremendous importance and had a great impact, I knew that it was not complete, as my own experience at the Strategy Center suggested otherwise.
I wished to study the Chicana/o left for this project because I was intrigued by this missing piece of history and was keen to learn how such organizations handled race and class. As I began the research for this book, however, I quickly became immersed in a larger set of racial/ethnic relationships. I realized that I could not grasp the Chicana/o left without addressing the Black Panther Party. The Black Panther Party loomed large in the national, including Chicana/o, consciousness, and it seemed to me that in addition to inspiring other peoples of color it had created the necessary political space for the development of a Third World Left. This could not be ignored. Thus I found myself having come full circle and needing to explore the very issues I had first become aware of as a child regarding the interconnectedness of racial meanings and structures. Accordingly, I decided that the project needed to be comparative so that I could examine the racial dynamics associated with these radical groups, as well as the relationships between them.
Several questions are at the heart of this book. They come from my personal experiences, the empirical research I conducted for this project, and larger debates within the literature. My primary concern was to examine the extent to which differential racialization leads to distinct forms of radical politics. Scholars have long noted that wherever domination exists, resistance will follow. Often resistance is invisible to all but the participants themselves, but at other times it evolves into a broad-based opposition. This book examines one moment when "revolution was in the air," engendering extremely public and overt forms of resistance, and thus offers an exceptional opportunity to explore the extent to which resistance is shaped by domination. To adequately explore this question, however, I needed to analyze how and why various populations of color are racialized in distinct kinds of ways. What are the processes of differential racialization, and what do they look like on the ground? To what extent are these processes shaped by racial dynamics and class relations, and how are these two factors linked? Finally, assuming that different peoples of color are racialized in different ways, what does this mean for the larger racial landscape? In particular, how do these processes translate into racial positions and hierarchies, and how do they change over time?
COMPARATIVE RESEARCH: TALKING TO EACH OTHER
Although comparative research within ethnic studies is hardly new, scholars have only recently begun seriously theorizing differences and relationships between various racial/ethnic groups. When ethnic studies first became a formal discipline in the early 1970s, each racial/ethnic group, including African Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans, and Chicanas/os and Latinas/os, operated from a largely bipolar racial approach centered on whites. In other words, the experience of, say, Asian Americans, was studied relative to the dominant white population. This meant both exploring how white society contributed to the subordination of Asian Americans and documenting various outcomes and indicators—educational, social, health related, and political—relative to whites. From a historical perspective, this approach is understandable given that whites were considered the norm.
Thirty years later the struggle for ethnic studies continues at the institutional level, but the intellectual content and focus of the discipline have changed considerably. While the initial focus of ethnic studies was corrective, challenging previous racist assumptions and scholarship, ethnic studies scholars have begun engaging each other in new ways. Researchers have come to appreciate that power relations, particularly racial and class dynamics, cannot be understood in a bipolar framework. Accordingly, there has been a growing effort to develop alternative approaches that capture the complexity of how race and class work in the United States.
One catalyst in the development of new strategies to the study of race and ethnicity came from the humanities. Heavily influenced by theoretical developments in literature, social scientists, including historians, began in the 1980s to conceptualize race and racial/ethnic groups not as given and natural but as socially constructed. To say that race is a social construction simply means that the idea of race has no real biological significance and is largely the product of human social systems. This does not imply that race is not "real" or a powerful force shaping our lives. But by recognizing it as the product of human activities and imagination, we can shift the focus of our inquiry to questions of process: How are racial/ethnic groups constructed? What are the boundaries for inclusion and exclusion, and how do they shift over time? How do groups and individuals challenge and (re)produce processes of racialization? By asking such questions scholars began to realize that individual groups could not be understood in isolation. Whereas before the emphasis had been on whites, researchers began looking increasingly to other groups of color in order to sort out the complex processes and meanings that produce racial dynamics and patterns.
The work of historians has been especially helpful to me in developing a comparative approach. In Racial Fault Lines, Tomás Almaguer showed not only how white supremacy worked to dominate all people of color historically in California but also how each group fared differently. He illuminated the particular meanings associated with various racial/ethnic groups, as well as the economic resources and/or opportunities they presented to white aspirations. This text was critical in forcing a reconsideration of the history of particular places and in insisting that racial positions are shaped by both discursive meanings and economic structures. Building on this work was Neil Foley's The White Scourge, which focuses on the central Texas cotton belt and analyzes how the racial meanings and attitudes associated with poor whites, Mexicans, and Blacks translated into particular economic outcomes, as well as how they played off each other. Thus the meanings attached to poor whites could not be understood outside the meanings and economic purpose embodied by Mexican workers.
The political scientist Claire Kim has sought to clarify this growing body of literature by developing a model to explain complex racial hierarchies. She argues that the racial position of "intermediary" or ambiguous minorities, such as Asian Americans, can be ascertained only through a process of triangulation. That is, it can be understood only relative to whites, as the universal dominant, and Blacks, as the universal subordinate. She conceptualizes the racial landscape as a field in which various groups have fluid but distinct positions.
This work has been invaluable in my efforts to build a comparative framework to explain the distinct forms of activism that developed among the Third World Left. But before launching into that discussion, I would like to take a step back and say a few words about race itself.
RACE AND RACIAL IDEOLOGY
Having established that race is a social construct, we can define it more specifically as an ideology that functions to separate the human population into various groups based on supposedly significant biological features, including skin color, hair texture, and eye structure. Although many of us were taught about race in school (I recall learning about Caucasians, Mongoloids, and Negroids and wondering where I fit in), racial groups and ideology are fairly recent developments. Humans have always found ways to distinguish ourselves, but only within the last five hundred years or so have we created the notion of inherent biological difference. The problem with the idea of race is that the closer one looks, the less viable the concept is. Numerous writers have demonstrated that there is more biological diversity within any given racial group than between racial groups. And when one examines how societies interpret these biological "facts," especially with regard to categorizing people, the contradictions mount. Our historical practice, for example, of categorizing as Black any person with as little as one drop of "Black" blood suggests that more is at work than rational scientific practice. Moreover, the fact that some people who are categorized as "nonwhite" but appear to be white can at times "pass" in order to access greater opportunities suggests the complex ways racial ideology is constructed and employed toward particular ends.
Excerpted from Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left by Laura Pulido. Copyright © 2006 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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