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Honorable Mention for the John Hope Franklin Prize, American Studies Association
Honorable Mention for the Oliver Cromwell Cox Award, Racial and Ethnic Minorities Section of the American Sociological Association
James Rawley Prize, Organization of American Historians
"We Have No Master Race"
Racial Liberalism and Political Whiteness
In January 1944, Los Angeles mayor Fletcher Bowron announced the formation of the Los Angeles Committee for Home Front Unity to bring together leading political, civic, business, religious, and labor leaders. The committee would ensure that divisions pitting "creed against creed, race against race, color against color" did not undermine the wartime effort. "Unlike our enemy," Bowron explained, "we have no master race."
Bowron's pronouncement echoed the calls of dozens of other civic unity, "human relations," and "fair play" organizations across the state and around the country during this period; Los Angeles alone was home to twelve such organizations or coalitions by 1944. These groups drew from the broad antifascist, prodemocratic discourse ascendant during the war to advance what the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal referred to as "the American Creed": a nationally bound civic culture that conferred individual rights and privileges without regard to religion, race, ethnicity, or national origin. Myrdal's landmark 1944 study on race relations, An American Dilemma, emphasized that racial discrimination was a problem "residing in the heart," one that contradicted fundamental American principles of equality, fairness, and social mobility. Myrdal, like many of his contemporaries, advocated a widespread "educational offensive against racial intolerance" to address this lag or contradiction, arguing that "a great majority of white people in America would be prepared to give the Negro a substantially better deal if they knew the facts."
These groups elaborated the basic ideas, commitments, and political strategies of a discursive framework we recognize today as postwar "racial liberalism." Like all political discourses, racial liberalism is best understood as variegated and contested rather than coherent and unified. Across U.S. history, liberalism has often connoted a set of shared political principles and commitments-individual rights, a reliance on private property and free markets, equal treatment before the law, and a representative and limited government-that shape a particular gaze on politics, an "attitude of mind rather than a political creed."
Liberalism has furnished a political vocabulary for a range of projects and purposes, with disparate political actors utilizing its key signifiers (rights, freedom, opportunity, progress, etc.) for distinct and sometimes conflicting goals. But organizations and individuals that embraced racial liberalism in the immediate postwar era generally shared the belief that racism and racial subjugation were fundamentally incompatible with the emancipatory tenets of the American Creed, and they supported various types of government intervention to ensure that "private" prejudices did not encumber the public good. For these groups, racial liberalism both described an idealized state of social and political relations-equal treatment under the law without regard to race-as well as a strategy for achieving that change. Progress toward racial equality would be realized when atavistic ethnocentric impulses steadily gave way to a more tolerant and inclusionary Americanism-a neutral and indeed universal form of political judgment that was inherently indifferent to social location, position, or perspective. As the organizational motto of one group based in Los Angeles had it, "If you have racial or religious hatred in your mind you cannot have true Americanism in your heart."
In California, as the war was in its last throes, the rising influence of this discourse was unmistakable. For example, a Fourth of July celebration in 1945 at the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles's famed outdoor amphitheater, attracted fifteen thousand people to observe "Interdependence Day ... a CELEBRATION to Promote Racial Friendliness in America." Mayor Bowron introduced the keynote speaker, Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy, who told the crowd to be vigilant against "all manifestations of the Nazi disease we may find among our own people." His speech, titled "All Men Are Brothers," urged a "spiritual battle" against "those in our midst who have been nurtured on the myths of the superior and inferior races and who practice discrimination against other Americans because of the color of their skin or some other arbitrary racial sign." Murphy warned of the "exaltation of any race, or nationality as superior to all others." Joining Murphy on the stage were a group of leading civic figures from the region, including Los Angeles archbishop John Cantwell, Rabbi Edgar Magnin, Supervisor John Anson Ford, and James Thimmes of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Had Myrdal located his study in California rather than the South, he would have found widespread violations of the American Creed at the time of the Interdependence Day celebration. Just a few dozen miles from the Hollywood Bowl, for example, school districts in Orange County still formally segregated Mexican American and Anglo students. Jim Crow regimes of segregation in public spaces could be observed in public swimming pools, railroad coaches, restaurants, and hotels. Large sections of residential housing in Los Angeles and many other cities in California were covered by racially restrictive housing covenants and occupancy clauses, which typically restricted ownership and residence of a property to "members of the Caucasian race," with the exception of live-in domestic servants. At the war's end, the state still had laws in place prohibiting interracial marriage and banning landownership by many Japanese Americans. Some local chapters of the American Legion, Elks Club, and Cub Scouts-and even public schools-continued to sponsor minstrel shows as fundraisers. And until 1941, the Los Angeles Times featured a weekly column titled "Social Eugenics," written by a prominent member of the American Eugenics Society who advocated for the widespread use of sterilization for "racial betterment." As historian Alexandra Stern explains, "California stood at the vanguard of the national Eugenics movement" led by an "influential sector of elite Californians that embraced Eugenics as the best solution to the state's perceived problems."
After the war, these policies and conditions became the object of public advocacy campaigns, litigation, and citizen organizing by groups determined to see California set the national standard for ensuring that its fair-minded residents embraced and accepted the ideals of the American Creed. For the California Federation for Civic Unity (CFCU), a coalition of some 150 state and local organizations united for this purpose, a progressive and patriotic national identity was the enemy of racial injustice. The organization's 1949 "blueprint for action" reasoned that when business owners and managers who enforced "racial exclusions in public places" were confronted by the inconsistency of their actions, they would "invariably realize how mistaken they were before. Their business grows better, not worse. Their patrons do not object. Everyone is happier and feels a lot more American." A similar group explained that its program was premised on the idea that "given full and accurate information, even on the most controversial subjects, the average American, if he has been reared in the democratic tradition, will remain fair-minded in the face of prejudice."
While similar organizations and campaigns could be found across the country, California offers an exemplary location to study the contours and trajectory of racial liberalism, and the ways it both purged and produced variegated forms of racial domination in the postwar era. That is, the sentiments expressed in Mayor Bowron's 1944 declaration, "we have no master race" and "our freedoms are for all people," rapidly become axiomatic within public discourse in the state. Postwar California political culture affirms the general observation that liberal ideas have "provided the essential frame within which political arguments, including those about race and other exclusions, have had to be cast ... they provide the boundaries outside which arguments cannot travel." And many of the policies, practices and norms endorsing and enforcing racial domination in the 1940s were soon vanquished. Assemblyman Augustus Hawkins of Los Angeles proclaimed with considerable pride in 1960 that "virtually every law, clause, or word facilitating discrimination or segregation has been wiped from our statute books"; nearly all these reforms were passed after 1935, when Hawkins became only the second African American state lawmaker elected in California history.
Surely if groups like the CFCU had a soothsayer in the their ranks during their heyday in the late 1940s, they would rejoice in the knowledge that few Californians at the start of the twenty-first century have ever had to stare down a vigilante mob fighting the desegregation of their neighborhood, encounter employment ads insisting on "white gentile" applicants, or face punishment for speaking Spanish on a school playground-experiences not uncommon at the war's end.
At the same time, would these groups recognize in contemporary California a civic order guaranteeing "freedoms for all people," which they so confidently anticipated would accompany the expansion of the American Creed? How would they account for the deeply segregated neighborhoods and school systems and the racial disparities in income, health, and longevity witnessed across the state? How would they explain why race has endured as a potent axis of power in an age when the vast majority of Californians seem to reject, as Justice Murphy put it, the "exaltation of any race, or nationality as superior to all others"?
The Backlash Thesis and the Rejection of Racial Liberalism
In the last three decades, similar questions have animated an important scholarly and popular debate. What is the relationship between the American liberal tradition and the enduring forms of domination that shape the U.S. political order? The most influential answer to this question emerged in the shadows of Ronald Reagan's ascension and what appeared to be an unrelenting conservative turn in American political culture. The "backlash theory" argues that racial liberalism failed to achieve broader structural transformations because large sectors of American society, especially the white working class, rejected liberal ideals. In these accounts, the beleaguered white voter/citizen/worker-weary, angry, or fearful of the looming "threat" of racial justice-reflexively struck back to limit the influence of racial liberalism and embraced a competing framework of racial conservatism. As Thomas and Mary Edsall explain in the definitive account of this process, "As the civil rights movement became national, as it became clearly associated with the Democratic party, and as it began to impinge on local neighborhoods and schools, it served to crack the Democratic loyalties of key white voters."
Studies of California politics have also relied heavily on explanations of white racial backlash. The electorate's embrace of a 1964 ballot initiative enshrining in the state constitution a right to discriminate by race, color, religion, or national origin in housing, explored in chapter 3, has been described by several commentators as a populist backlash against fair housing laws. Grassroots movements against busing to integrate public schools in the 1970s and against property taxes in the late 1970s and early 1980s have been described in similar terms. Today, backlash remains the framework of choice to describe public support for measures banning services to immigrants, opposing affirmative action programs, and demanding harsher sentences for criminal offenders.
The backlash narrative has proved useful and appealing to commentators on both the political right and left. For the former, it offers proof of the enduring conservatism of the populace-it was the radicalism and violence of the "rights revolution" and its coterie of feminists, student radicals, and Black nationalists that drove the Silent Majority into the GOP. It demonstrates, this position holds, the inexorable hostility most in the United States feel toward such "radical" claims. To commentators more identified with the left, the backlash justifies the conviction that the New Left failed when it abandoned the "universality" of class concerns and addressed itself instead to the "particularities" of race, gender, sexuality, and other narrow "interests." White voters abandoned the Democratic Party because the Democratic Party abandoned them.
Beyond the Backlash Thesis
If the backlash thesis proves appealing as a political claim, it remains inadequate as a historical explanation. As Jeanne Theoharis argues, its advocates "elide white ethnic working-class alienation and political powerlessness with opposition to desegregation, naturalizing racism as a response for politically alienated working-class whites." Political scientist Joseph Lowndes points out that backlash theorists fail to confront a central question: "Why should white workers necessarily have seen increasing claims for black equality as detrimental to their own interests?" By always insisting on the particularity and distinctiveness of "nonwhite" consciousness, interests, and demands, these scholars treat the white backlash that ensued as a fait accompli rather than the contingent outcome of historically specific events, claims, and struggles.
This error rests on what Alexander Saxton describes as a circular logic in explaining the causes and endurance of racism: "a system of ideas and attitudes that allegedly causes differential treatment of non-whites is said to originate as a result of such differential treatment." As historian Barbara Jeanne Fields has influentially argued, "since race is not genetically programmed, racial prejudice cannot be genetically programmed either but, like race itself, must arise historically." To posit, then, that "race" or "racial prejudice" functions as a motive force of history does nothing "more than repeat the question by way of answer."
At stake here are not simply scholarly debates but commitments to particular courses of political action. In 1967, Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton contested the claim that overreaching demands for racial justice and civil rights incited the currents of white backlash. In Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, they explained, "The so-called white backlash against black peoples is something else: the embedded traditions of institutional racism being brought into the open and calling forth overt manifestations of individual racism." Here, a subtle but important distinction must be made between taking the violence and power of these "traditions" of racism seriously without regarding them as primordial and thus inevitable. Carmichael and Hamilton argued that these conflicts required political responses and solutions. They criticized the reluctance of "almost all white supporters ... to go into their own communities-which is where the racism exists-and work to get rid of it" and insisted that the "white middle class suburbs need 'freedom schools' as badly as the black communities."
An alternative scholarly trajectory, extending from W. E. B. DuBois to James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, has sought specifically to interrogate the origins and development of these traditions of racism, insisting that a greater possibility of democracy and human freedom required their abolition. This work provides an important set of analytic and theoretical tools to understand the political struggles explored in this book.
In 1943, Loren Miller, a young civil rights attorney who would go on to lead a successful challenge to racially restrictive covenants in the U.S. Supreme Court and serve as one of the first African American judges on the Los Angeles County Municipal Court, wrote to a colleague about recent comments made by Los Angeles mayor Fletcher Bowron. The reform-minded mayor certainly regarded himself as a racial liberal. By the end of the war, he would support the creation of a Fair Employment Practices Commission and desegregated public housing. But Bowron remained strongly opposed to the resettlement of Japanese Americans who had been forced into internment camps a year earlier, and he hoped that "some legal method may be worked out to deprive the native-born Japanese of citizenship" after the war. Bowron described Japanese Americans as "a race apart," explaining in a public address that the "accident of birth should not make being born on American soil, of parents who are alien in legal effect and at heart, citizens of the United States, just the same as the descendants of the pioneer stock that has made America great and fixed a standard for Americanism."
In response, Miller wrote to his colleague: "I am very much disturbed by the rise of [Bowron's] kind of racism, and I believe it to be significant that it comes from people like him; persons who are not essentially demagogues but are rather the ordinary, slow and stodgy middle class Americans.... It is a smug, unreasoned feeling that 'we' Americans of the Old Stock are the elect of the Lord and can be stretched to mean that whoever and whatever challenges the Supremacy of the White Race has in some manner sinned against eternal verities." Miller admitted, "It is hard to tell how deep this feeling runs," but noted that local labor leaders had recently echoed similar sentiments, and that even the national newspaper of the Communist Party had not offered a response to Bowron's stinging remarks.
Implicit in Miller's comments is an alternative conceptualization of the relationship between long-standing currents of white supremacy and the ascendant racial liberalism Bowron embraced. Miller did not suggest that Bowron was merely expressing an irrational prejudice born of wartime hysteria, or conveying an attitude that was somehow contradictory to American values. Nor did he trace Bowron's comments to a brand of extremism or conservatism. His concern focused instead on the endurance of a political subjectivity and collective identity (evident in his reference to "'we' Americans of the Old Stock") that was constituted through and determined by a particular understanding of what race meant, and the kinds of hierarchy and power it authorized. Liberal commitments to tolerance, rights, equality, and opportunity did not nullify or negate this political subjectivity, which was "ordinary" and extended to even some progressive groups. Instead, this subjectivity could constitute the terms and boundaries within which such liberal commitments could be expressed-a liberalism that was always already racial.
Defining Political Whiteness
The political "feeling" that Miller described so deftly in 1944 anchors the conceptual category I define as "political whiteness." Political whiteness describes a political subjectivity rooted in white racial identity, a gaze on politics constituted by whiteness. This concept draws from and extends both George Lipsitz's observations about the "possessive investment in whiteness" and Cheryl Harris's critical account of "whiteness as property." Whiteness, Lipsitz argues is "possessed" both literally in the form of material rewards and resources afforded to those recognized as white as well as figuratively through the "psychological wages" of status and social recognition detailed by W. E. B. DuBois. Harris similarly describes a "valorization of whiteness as treasured property," recognized by the law and enforced by the state, which produces a "settled expectation" that its beneficiaries will face no "undue" obstacles in claiming its rewards. Whiteness, she explains, "is simultaneously an aspect of identity and a property interest, it is something that can be both experienced and deployed as a resource."
The concept of political whiteness describes how these norms, "settled expectations," and "investments" shape the interpretation of political interests, the boundaries of political communities, and the sources of power for many political actors who understand themselves as white. It does not simply describe the interests or politics of "white people," which after all are necessarily varied. It instead concerns the process by which some political claims and interests come to be defined as white. James Baldwin described an "American delusion" fostered by whiteness that leads people to believe "not only that their brothers all are white but that the whites are all their brothers."
Like whiteness in general, political whiteness is a subjectivity that constantly disavows its own presence and insists on its own innocence. It operates instead as a kind of absent referent, hailing and interpolating particular subjects through various affective appeals witnessed in claims to protect "our rights," "our jobs," "our homes," "our kids," "our streets," and even "our state" that never mention race but are addressed to racialized subjects.
Political whiteness is, in one sense, a widely studied phenomenon. Scholars and observers have long sought to explain the relationship between white racial identity and political behavior and action. In most accounts, however, white racial identity is viewed as fully realized and defined, constructed outside of the field of politics. Conflicts like ballot measures merely express its preordained interests. This account, by contrast, does not view political whiteness as a fixed, a priori identity that simply becomes expressed through political conflicts. Carmichael and Hamilton's argument certainly holds true: there are deep "traditions" of racism embedded in diverse institutions and structures that shape the contours and trajectory of white political identity at any given moment. But white political identity is hardly static; it also becomes transformed and renewed through struggles such as ballot initiative campaigns.
The Hegemonic Character of Political Whiteness
Political whiteness bears two characteristics that are central to all hegemonic formations. First, as cultural studies scholar Raymond Williams explains, "the hegemonic has to be seen as more than the simple transmission of an (unchanging) dominance. On the contrary, any hegemonic process must be especially alert and responsive to the alternatives and opposition which question and threaten its dominance" because a "lived hegemony is always a process." It must be "renewed, recreated, defended, and modified" as it is "continually resisted, limited, altered, [and] challenged by pressures not all its own."
California's racialized ballot measures reveal precisely such a process at work. Taken together, they demonstrate the contested formation of political whiteness, a gaze on politics that is characterized by both continuity and change. Rather than viewing these ballot measures as primarily concerning the rights of various racialized minorities, we can understand them instead as contests over the political authority and "settled expectations" of whiteness itself.
A central assertion of this book is that the political forces that opposed civil rights and racial justice policies are the ones that have best understood the malleable nature of political whiteness, and have constantly tested the ways they could adapt and incorporate new ideas, values, and experiences. Their opponents, by contrast, rarely attempted to challenge political whiteness as a fundamental identification, treating it instead as an inexorable force of political life.
Williams's second point about hegemonic formations concerns the question of opposition. By definition, ballot initiatives are viewed as contests between opposing political projects, which presumably do not share similar ideas, commitments, or values. But Williams argues that the very power of hegemonic formations derives from their capacity to shape the terms on which they are opposed: "nearly all initiatives and contributions, even when they take on manifestly alternative or oppositional forms, are in practice tied to the hegemonic: that the dominant culture, so to say, at once produces and limits its own forms of counter-culture."
Within California's racialized ballot measures, political whiteness has been sustained by forces on both sides of the initiative debates, as putative opponents often echoed and refined ideas that valorized and naturalized this subjectivity. Unwilling or unable to challenge political whiteness as a universal standard of political judgment, self-identified liberal groups played an active role in reproducing its normative assumptions, constraining the boundaries of acceptable claims for racial justice in the future. Such limitations became profoundly evident during the racialized ballot measures of the 1990s.
This conceptualization of hegemony challenges a dominant rhetorical arc long embraced by many civil rights supporters that draws a bright line between a racially egalitarian and liberal political order on one side and an ascriptive and conservative order on the other. From this perspective, the endurance of racial domination in political life is attributed solely to those who stubbornly refuse to renounce their commitments to the latter camp. Such representations mask important convergences in the ways diverse political actors and movements collaborated to racialize many critical policy debates in the postwar era. While the categories of racial conservatism and liberalism have some heuristic utility, particularly in describing differing policy prescriptions, such rubrics can often obscure as much as they reveal.
The trajectories of racial liberalism and political whiteness in postwar California may have certainly been intertwined, but their destinations were not preordained. White political identity did not teleologically absorb the lofty tenets of racial liberalism as it progressed from ethnocentrism to enlightenment. Nor did it abruptly and intuitively reject those tenets once civil rights protesters filled the streets. Their fates were determined through political struggles, waged across time, and argued within the same normative framework. The ballot initiatives examined in the pages that follow tell one story about how the high aspirations of racial liberalism ultimately ran aground on the shoal of political whiteness.
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