20 Feb / The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles by Scott Kurashige
How fitting to finish reading University of Michigan Professor Scott Kurashige‘s debut title on the 68th annual Day of Remembrance, which marks the anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt which led to the imprisonment of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II. Timing is everything … and better late than never, right? Especially since I’m supposed to be introducing him in a few hours to a waiting audience at the National Museum of American History (together with his co-guest, the fabulous playwright Philip Kan Gotanda)! I figured writing about his book this morning would be good practice indeed.
Shifting Grounds is a powerful read that brings together two seemingly divergent narratives (and how fitting we’re still in Black History Month, currently commemorating the Day of Remembrance). Combining detailed historical research with personal accounts, Kurashige presents the transformation of the city of Los Angeles “from white city to world city,” focusing on the trajectories of Japanese American and African American communities’ development through the 20th century.
Kurashige convincingly presents three pivotal periods during the century: During the two world wars, Japanese Americans and African Americans experienced “two overlapping processes of exclusion”; during World War II, Japanese Americans all but disappeared into U.S. prison camps while African Americans integrated with other non-Japanese minorities; and after WWII, the two communities experienced “two overlapping processes of integration that set the two groups apart and ultimately gave rise to multiculturalism.”
As Los Angeles grew exponentially after World War I, city leaders were able to construct a segregated city through a white racism that evolved from blatant Klan-type supremist violence to “more socially acceptable forms,” including housing discrimination, unequal employment, and political oppression. Shared experiences of white racism brought minority communities together, creating “a nascent sense of interethnic solidarity.”
With the advent of World War II, paths diverged dramatically. Japanese Americans became victims of Executive Order 9066 which negated their basic civil rights and sent them to U.S. prison camps for the duration of the war. African Americans benefited from Executive Order 8802 which “maintained Jim Crow policies in the military but outlawed discrimination by defense contractors.” For the first time, African Americans had seemingly equal employment opportunities. While the Japanese Americans were coerced into quietly submitting to imprisonment by their own leaders to prove their patriotism, African Americans celebrated a “Negro Victory” symbolized by the united wartime efforts of Black defense workers. As the U.S. government forcibly removed Japanese Americans, the African American community which grew to meet the employment demands of wartime factories moved into the vacated areas. Little Tokyo became Bronzeville (where legends like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis found grateful audiences).
As war ended, Japanese Americans slowly trickled back to Los Angeles. China became the next enemy and suddenly Japan was a major ally in the U.S. fight against communism. The 1952 McCarran-Walter Act brought an unexpected boon to Japanese Americans, providing long denied citizenship while opening Japanese immigration. But the legacy of imprisonment loomed large, and the submissive Japanese Americans were labeled the “model minority,” held up as shining examples of successful integration. African Americans were critical of the “stoic nature” of Japanese Americans, as the “Negro Victory” movement during the war effort transformed into agitated protests demanding equal rights. In spite of divergent paths, the Crenshaw neighborhood became a multicultural haven, playing an important role especially for younger Japanese Americans in the 1970s on a path to a new awareness. Upon these “shifting grounds,” Kurashige leaves a final image of a “possible future’ – the Hollywood Bowl and a local’s quote: “‘It’s the only place I know … where you can go and see an African American eating udon [Japanese noodle soup] next to a Japanese American eating grits.'”
Tidbit: Professor Scott Kurashige, together with playwright Philip Kan Gotanda, graced the Smithsonian stage to commemorate the 68th annual Day of Remembrance.