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Racial Segregation in Los Angeles

by Gus Krider 2 years ago in history
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LA and Orange County Suburbs have a grim history

Racial Segregation in Los Angeles
Photo by Sterling Davis on Unsplash

Los Angeles life underwent major changes after the Second World War, it was pretty much the same for most citizens, races mingled very seldom on equal footing. Still the method of separating race, and the geography changed in a prominent manner. Racist laws that allowed for legal segregation were phased out. So now economic segregation ruled supreme, with detrimental effects to communities as identities were shaped, and minorities began to seek better lives. While white Los Angeles residents sought to maintain their status, and profit from it.

An early example of division in Southern California is brought up by Carey McWilliams’ book Southern California An Island on the Land, where he describes the living spaces of Mexican and Mexican American field workers that emerged around 1914 as the share of Mexican workers in the citrus industry began to expand. These workers were separate from whites and owners in the citrus growing towns between Santa Barbra and San Diego. “While the towns deny that they practice segregation, nevertheless, segregation is the rule.” So much so that few workers have the opportunity to learn English. This segregation was useful to the citrus growers as I kept their workers “Unorganized for social, economic, or political action…” This pattern of development was not driven purely out of racism, but was incredibly economically beneficial to the dominant white citrus growing society, and their poor and middle class white counterparts racist enough to stay quietly complicit. These communities of Mexican and Mexican American farm workers were often located in unincorporated areas, or separated by highways or railroad right of ways, often lacking running water and paved roads; therefore these areas consumed few public funds. The effect of keeping workers politically disconnected was even more profitable. It kept wages low, and so the dominant members of society invested much effort in keeping these groups marginalized. In 1936 an strike led by the workers caused the sheriff in Orange County to deputize and arm four-hundred special guards, leading to mass arrests, teargasing, and it was mostly financed by private citrus interests. “All this fury was unleashed by a demand of the field workers for an increase from twenty-five cents an hour to forty cents an hour.” Though the boundaries here were enforced through racially restrictive housing laws and violence, the primary purpose for the territorial behavior was not to continue separate racial living (though it was a huge factor), the main element was that the disenfranchisement kept wages down. Still similar scenarios will occur based on race.

Chavez Ravine was one such place, similar to the neighborhoods discussed in Orange County, it was unincorporated by the city of Los Angeles, Chavez Ravine had dirt roads, and 13% of homes still had outhouses on the property. Though many of the residents were agricultural laborers the marginalization of this area was very racial. The area was considered a blemish on the city and the downtown area. A primary difference between the 1930s labor slums in Orange County and Chavez Ravine in the 1940s was there existed a new kind of identity in Chavez Ravine. Instead of the closed off, Catholic, Spanish speaking communities that whites had grown quite accustomed to not interacting with and Mexican American’s felt safe in, a generation of American idealized Hispanic youths emerged. This group began to demand access and acknowledgment in public space. Unfortunately this progressive venturing out of the barrios was put to a stop by the placement of a Naval Reserve Amory and training school in Chavez Ravine that brought in a large number of white sailors. This began to create a tense and violent atmosphere as “Sailors often reported that for months prior to the Zoot Suit Riot, young civilian men, mostly Mexican American, often blocked their access to dance halls, theaters, or restaurants or chased them as they walked in ‘public’ areas of town.” This reversal of roles though positive could not be sustained as tensions grew the sailors and whites of Los Angeles decide that it was time to react. “When multiple social tensions within Los Angeles threatened to invert social relations and privileges of whiteness in June 1943, military men used the streets as a public venue in which to reexert power in masculine and racialized ways.” The Zoot Suit Riots represent the end of an era of racial bordering in Los Angeles. After the war and the loss of racially restrictive covenants in 1948 and 1953 due to Supreme Court Rulings and the wars industry caused influx of African Americans would change how racial borders were made in Los Angeles.

Gone were the days of drawing lines with laws and then enforcing them with violence, the separation of races would have to be done more craftily from now on, and a primary tool became economics, which actually gets it’s start in the 1930s with New Deal Housing policies.

Two Security Maps of Los Angeles from 1939 illustrates this point well, both documents written in March of 1939. The first map is drawn of a low income neighborhood, with an income ranging from $700 to $2000, and the map outlines the races present, 20% foreign families, “Japanese & Russians – Some Mexicans” along with 10% of the population being “Negro”. This map is then given a poor grade, which discourages loans in the area, citing “Those adverse racial influences which are noticeably increasing inevitably [creates] lower values, rentals, and a rapid decrease in residential desirability.” Conversely a map made five days later in Los Angeles County highlights a neighborhood with incomes of $6000 to $18000 and up is listed as having no foreign families or Negros at all. The strange element being that listed under nationalities in this new map the line is marked with three dashes. Which is impossible, people have nationalities, but in this neighborhood everyone was rich enough to just be white. Giving the area a high grade of “Med A”.

Which is why in Los Angeles the notion of passing has been important in literature. Due to the barriers that existed in life for a minority in Los Angeles, the ability to move seamlessly around the Southern California geography appealed to many. The benefits of passing appearing in Walter Mosley’s novel Devil in a Blue Dress in the form of character Daphne Monet, who is born African American, but lives as a Rich White Woman, and reaps the benefits of both communities throughout the novel. Daphne isn’t rich with money in this novel, but she is rich in looks, and for a woman that seemed to be enough to pass, “She can love a white man but all he can love is the white girl he think she is.” These words by the character Mouse illustrate the idea that it has to be a fake life, but that it is a viable option. This theme is also present throughout John Fante’s novel Ask the Dust about Arturo Bandini who is an ethnic white, the descendent of Italian immigrants, a manic person, but one he is still a white, and becoming semi successful as a writer he often feels that he is passing “Thank God I had been born an American!”. Both Bandini and Monet seek to live like the soldiers in Pagan’s piece felt they could “… that they were entitled to a free and open access to all of Los Angeles by virtue of their citizenship, race, class…”. Still this was not a vision that could be realized by the most the minorities in Los Angeles.

Race and class location took its current geographical distribution from the American postwar economy, more specifically the housing boom and white flight. “The shifting concentration of public resources and private capital, coupled with federal incentives toward suburban home owner-ship among broader segments of the population, accelerated the pattern of decentralized urbanization in postwar America and decimated the economic and social life of the inner city.” The experience for those whites who followed this migration pattern was“…one that marked an exchange of the heterogeneous, anonymous, promiscuous spaces of the centralized city for the contained, segregated, homogeneous experiences of the decentralized urban region.” This movement created a whole new identity for whites, one that is well described in D.J. Waldie’s Memoir Holy Land. A best example is “In the suburbs, a manageable life depends on a compact among neighbors. The unspoken agreement is an honest hypocrisy.” This was the new white identity in America, for sale to anyone who could pay and “Veterans need no down payment…”. This was a consumer driven migration, this was the new American economy, the way this happened was not designed in a racist manner, it wasn’t created to cause conflict, and yet it had an incredibly detrimental effect.

As Avila brought up, funding was quickly zapped from the inner cities leading to infrastructure and public safety to crumble, harming minorities for the most part. Westlake is a prime example of such area in Mike Davis’ Essay “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn” he describes the problem with “…public agencies that negligently disregard Westlake as Los Angeles’ Third World.” Overall there is a political disregard for the suffering of the inner city, as Davis points out the disparity of media attention that is received for fires that kill in the inner city, compared to the property damaging fires in Malibu. Laura Pulido in her essay “Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California” finds that this pattern of settlement has indeed lead to Environmental Racism. “…most industrial hazards in southern California are concentrated in the greater central and southern part of Los Angeles County. This older core is inhabited by people of color, while whites live on the periphery.” Life is not fair if it is spent in the inner city, and that is the lot of Southern Californian minority groups, however some did make it into the suburban lifestyle, but many did not fair better. Josh Sides in his Essay “Straight Into Compton…” highlighted the downfall of what was southern California’s nicest black suburb. To be destroyed by the crippling economic effects of white flight caused by racial tensions carried over from the Watts riots in 1965, at the same time that blue collar jobs began to leave Los Angeles from 1963 well into the 1970s.

“Shortly after the 1969 founding of the Crips at Freemont High School in South Central, a group of black youth on Piru Street in Compton started the Bloods, adopting the red color of their local high school, Centennial High. This territoriality intensified in the 1980s, as black gangs competed for control of the lucrative trade in “rock” cocaine (crack), a very affordable, easily distributable, and highly addictive drug.”

Certainly the proliferation of crack and gang violence in the community was a bad sign, but it did also indicate the presence of identities forming in the minority communities created by white flight, and in a similar case to the youths in the Zoot Suit Riots, an attempt to create boarders, not just be subject to them. Just as Bloods were not welcome in Irvine, whites would not be welcome in Compton.

This attitude was capitalized by the rap group NWA, “NWA did not invent images from the streets of Compton, but rather selectively filtered them in a way to deliver the most sensational and shocking impression to listeners.” Meanwhile other groups were busy claiming areas of Los Angeles for themselves, much earlier Kent MacKenzie’s 1961 film The Exiles illustrates the inner city and area that was bunker hill and young native Americans interact with each other and located public spaces open to them. Unfortunately after all this moving and shuffling boarders had to be redefined. White society had to make sure the lines were controlled by them.

White society didn’t look back fondly on the communities it left behind during the age of white flight, which lead to the creation of the Noir film style.

“As film noir coincided with a general retreat from the blackening spaces of industrial urbanism, the genre honed in on those spaces that sanctioned racial and ethnic transgression. The nightclub and its exotic music offer a quintessential noir setting where the boundaries between whiteness and blackness blur.”

This negative lighting cast on the minority neighborhoods would survive long after the style became less popular in the 1950s. Kristen Hill Maher in her essay, “Borders and Social Distinction in the Global Suburb” discussed the urge felt in Orange County cities like Irvine to put up physical boundaries to prevent non-existent crime. “It also appeared to be a way to articulate social boundaries in an economy in which geographic boundaries less effectively segregated groups by race and class.”

The notion that putting up walls is the best way to create borders in the new Los Angeles is a good closing, as it represents the change in a system that came from segregation, and became an economic advantage, in which minorities could use to gain access, while whites used it to make profit through disenfranchising workers, placing environmentally dangerous sites, and running slums. Boarders that may grow to be more defined, as economic mobility increases.


Avila, E. 2004. "Popular Culture In The Age Of White Flight: Film Noir, Disneyland, And The Cold War (Sub)Urban Imaginary". Journal Of Urban History 31 (1): 3-22. doi:10.1177/0096144204266745.

Davis, Mike. 1995. "The Case For Letting Malibu Burn". Environmental History Review 19 (2): 1-36. doi:10.2307/3984830.

Fante, John. Ask the Dust. HarperCollins, 1939.

Government, United States. "Government Securities Map Los Angeles County." March 6,


—. "Secuirity Map in Los Angeles County." March 1, 1939.

MacKenzie, Kent. 2010. The Exiles. DVD. Los Angeles: UCLA Film and Television Archive.

McWilliams, Carey. 2010. Southern California. 1st ed. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith Publisher.

Maher, Kristen Hill. 2004. "Borders And Social Distinction In The Global Suburb". American Quarterly 56 (3): 781-806. doi:10.1353/aq.2004.0039.

Mosley, Walter. Devil in a Blue Dress. New York, NY: Pocket Books , 1990.

Pagan, E. O. 2000. "Los Angeles Geopolitics And The Zoot Suit Riot, 1943". Social Science History 24 (1): 223-256. doi:10.1215/01455532-24-1-223.

Pulido, Laura. 2000. "Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege And Urban Development In Southern California". Annals Of The Association Of American Geographers 90 (1): 12-40. doi:10.1111/0004-5608.00182.

Sides, Josh. 2004. "Straight Into Compton: American Dreams, Urban Nightmares, And The Metamorphosis Of A Black Suburb". American Quarterly 56 (3): 583-605. doi:10.1353/aq.2004.0044.

Waldie, D. J. 2005. Holy Land. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton.


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Gus Krider

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