CHAPELL HILL, N.C. — A European Union investigation of race and ethnicity in Europe would not assume that the presence of Turkish immigrants in France has the same resonance as it does in Germany. Nor would it assume that Ireland's reaction to North African immigrants is similar to France's. Yet, Mary Frances Berry of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and Emerge magazine editor George E. Curry, among others, insist that President Bill Clinton's commission on race should make "black-white" relations central. Evidently, it's not just idle talk, since attorney Angela Oh, a member of Clinton's commission, has encountered stiff resistance to her idea that its focus should be "multiracial."
All too typically, this dispute will be framed as racial: Oh is Korean American; Berry and Curry are African American. But it would be more accurate to see their conflicting emphases as reflecting a regional difference: Oh hails from Los Angeles, while the two African Americans reside on the East Coast.
The larger issue is that as a federal nation, the United States, particularly east of the Mississippi River, where the bulk of the population continues to reside, is marked by the pervasiveness of the black-white dialectic. But west of the Mississippi, especially in California, the black-white dyad has not been as prominent historically and, to a certain extent, has been overshadowed by racial issues relating to Native Americans, Mexican Americans and Asian Americans. Already in California, there are more people with roots in parts of Asia and the Pacific islands than those with roots in Africa.
Thus, the commission must juggle a dual agenda, one "multiracial," the other "black-white."
The civil rights movement largely eroded the differences that distinguished how African Americans were treated in the Deep South versus the North and West. Yet, the steady increase in the Latino population, which in many ways is fundamentally an "Indian" population, suggests that the new racial divide is East-West, not North-South. When Mexican immigrants were recently found in conditions of virtual slavery in New York City and North Carolina, it was yet another sign that race relations in the western U.S. are moving east and that discounting Latino issues when considering race relations is terribly shortsighted.
The difficult challenge for the presidential commission on race is to acknowledge the pervasiveness of the black-white dialectic in determining the contours of U.S. race relations while recognizing that it may not shed much light on the overall issue of race.
History provides some insight. Los Angeles was a hotbed of pro-Confederate sentiment during the Civil War. This attitude reflected a more general ethos of white supremacy that had fueled murderous assaults on Native Americans and the Californios (today's Mexican Americans) and an anti-Chinese riot a few years after the war ended. Certainly, any racial minority faced segregation and discrimination once Reconstruction was overturned and racial liberalism faded.
It is similarly difficult to view African Americans as exclusively victims and persistent innocents in race relations since a significant number of them fought with the U.S. military's "Buffalo Soldiers" to dispossess Native Americans.
Furthermore, the African American population on the West Coast first became sizable during World War II, a development that paralleled the dispossession of Japanese Americans: In Los Angeles, Little Tokyo became "Bronzeville." Until that time, relations between the two groups had been mutually reinforcing: Elijah Muhammad, the "messiah" of the Nation of Islam, was himself interned during the war for pro-Tokyo sentiments and his organization was profoundly influenced by Imperial Japan.
The presence of four large "racial minorities" in California has affected the state's politics in a way that further suggests what would be omitted if the black-white dyad becomes the exclusive lens through which race is viewed. Tom Bradley served two decades as Los Angeles' first African American mayor, though blacks were rarely more than 15% of the city's population. Willie Brown, before becoming mayor of San Francisco, a metropolis with a similar racial makeup to its counterpart to the south, served for years as Assembly speaker, effectively the second most powerful political post in the state after the governor, though blacks make up but 7% of the state's population.
In the West, blacks have essentially operated as a "middle-man minority" who can turn to the Euro-American majority and speak the same language while sharing the same names, then turn to the ever larger Latino and Asian Pacific communities and say, in so many words, "We're people of color, too." Ironically, African Americans, in this role, are similar to a group with whom they sometimes squabble--Jews.