David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Racism in California: A Reader in the History of Oppression. Edited by Roger Daniels and Spencer C. Olin, Jr. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972. Bibliography. Notes. 345 pages. Softbound. $4.95.
Reviewed by Melvin Steinfield, editor of several history readers, including Cracks in the Melting Pot, (2nd edition, 1973), and Our Racist Presidents (1972). Mr. Steinfield teaches American history at San Diego Mesa College, has written for several local publications, and is editor of the San Diego Times Review, a new monthly.
Eight years ago Anglo San Diegans were jolted out of their sleepy complacency about race relations when, only 125 miles to the north, there burst forth like an earthquake a revolutionary protest of Black rage. Since the Watts riot of 1965 there has been a stready stream of militant expressions of severe discontent by other minorities in California. The shooting of Ruben Salazar, who was covering the East Los Angeles demonstrations for the Los Angeles Times; the Indian seizure of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay; the many confrontations in San Diego, such as the C.O.R.E. picketing of banks, U.F.W. picketing of stores, campus tensions and incidents from junior high schools to the universities (though usually given only token coverage in the local press), all serve to remind us that we live in a society split by wide breaches that no amount of rhetoric has yet been able to close.
In Racism in California the illusion is destroyed that racism is a problem of relatively recent origin in California. Watts may have been the first clear signal of discontent which the Anglo majority was able to understand, but it was by no means the first one given. Amply documented in this collection of thirty-two selections drawn from a variety of scholarly and journalistic sources is the fact of constant resistance to oppression and dominance going back to the earliest contacts between the Anglos and those whom they sought to subdue. Resistance took several forms, not always outright physical force. As the editors point out in an informative headnote preceding an article entitled, “Huelga, 1928 Style: The Imperial Valley Cantaloupe Workers’ Strike,” there was a great amount of militancy among Mexican-American farmworkers long before César Ch&aaucte;vez. Mexican sugar-beet workers struck in Ventura in 1903, and in 1912 Mexican field workers tried to establish a union of grape-pickers at Fresno.
There are several outstanding features of this book. One is the organization into four main parts, each dealing with a particular group of victims of Anglo racism in California. The Indians, the Asians (with emphasis upon Chinese, Filipinos, and Japanese), the Chicanos, and the Blacks are the four groups discussed. Each part contains a brief but informative introduction and each selection is preceded by a valuable headnote. In this respect it is a much more useful book than the California Historical Society’s 1971 publication, Neither Separate Nor Equal. Race and Racism in California, which contained trite headnotes and gave virtually no coverage to Black or Chicano experiences.
Another strength of this reader is its avoidance of shrill polemics, both in the articles included as well as the overall editorial tone. Yet it does not whitewash the horrible facts of intolerance, brutality, deceit, and genocide which are intimately woven into the fabric of California history. These facts, to a certain extent, have been presented before. For example, Walton Bean’s California, an Interpretive History (McGraw-Hill, 1968), contains an excellent chapter on racial oppression in California as experienced by Mexican miners, Chinese, Indians, and Blacks, and another chapter on the slow retreat of racial intolerance in the mid-20th century. In Racism in California, however, the impact is greater if for no other reason than the sheer volume of material presented and the broader coverage of events in greater detail.
Aside from its academic interest, this book has a practical value. By demonstrating just how deeply into our past the roots of racial tensions go, it helps clear up the delusion that harmony is right around the corner. Only by recognizing the full extent of the challenge can we begin to plan adequately for the long-range solutions sought by everyone for whom Watts is not a fading memory.