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  • White, Black, and Yellow: Rethinking Multiethnic Los Angeles
  • John Putman (bio)
Scott Kurashige. The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. 362 pp. Illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography and index. $35.00.

In late April 1992 the streets of Los Angeles erupted with a fury unmatched in the annals of American history. Looting, assaults, and fires consumed neighborhood after neighborhood stretching from the ghettos of Watts to the outskirts of the tony enclave of Beverly Hills. Following the acquittal of four white police officers for the videotaped beating of an African American driver, residents of South Central Los Angeles poured into the streets to protest a verdict by what many believed was a racially biased jury. As the fires died down Americans watched television network analysts and political pundits opine about the racial nature of what many called the Rodney King riots. Commentators reminisced about the Watts Riot of 1965 and decried how Los Angeles and the nation had failed to overcome the racial divide that plagued the nation. Population charts, live video feeds, and emphasis on key moments seemingly confirmed that this was a black-white issue. White officers had assaulted a black driver named Rodney King, a suburban white jury acquitted them, and the most indelible image of this tragic event would be the brutal assault of a white truck driver by a young African American.

The LA or Rodney King riots thrust the nation into a political debate about race that many believed had been solved by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Less than a decade after the Watts Riot, Angelenos had elected an African American mayor who oversaw the growing power and influence of nation’s second largest city. Representations of the riot, however, belied the fact that this was in reality a multiracial event. While truck driver Reginald Denny may have been white and Rodney King black, a majority of those who filled LA jails were Latino and the most prominent racial conflicts preceding King’s beating involved Korean grocers. Such diversity, Scott Kurashige reminds us, has framed the history of Los Angeles since the early twentieth century. In a fascinating exploration of the formation of a multiethnic Los Angeles, Kurashige “traces the contours of the city’s multiracial hierarchy as [End Page 110] it changed from the “white city” of the early twentieth century to the “world city” of the more recent past (p. 2).

The Shifting Grounds of Race focuses primarily on how African Americans and Japanese Americans both competed and cooperated with each other as they struggled to improve their lives in a city that celebrated its white character. Kurashige examines the formative role of race, economics, and even foreign policy in shaping the triangular relations among whites, blacks, and Japanese residents who inhabited the urban space of Los Angeles. Changing historical circumstances, especially World War II and the Civil Rights movement, reoriented these relations, forging at times promising coalitions between African American and Japanese Americans, while at other times propelling them down divergent pathways.

To trace the multiethnic making of Los Angeles, Kurashige divides his study into three sections. In the pre-World War II years, racism and the use of restrictive covenants allowed LA’s dominant white community to promote a “white city” which promised newcomers neighborhoods free of crime, immigrants, and people of color. Real estate developers played a particularly important role in designing a new LA by utilizing housing associations and restrictive covenants to close off LA’s Westside neighborhoods to African Americans and Japanese residents. The author argues that these efforts marked a significant change from the turn of the century when racial minorities saw the city as a better place to live, especially when compared to eastern industrial cities.

Shut out of white neighborhoods, black and Issei residents worked hard to create a vibrant multiethnic community on the Eastside. Black homeowners, for example, organized improvement associations to beautify their surroundings hoping to allay white fear and resentment of African American residents. Kurashige reminds us that whites also represented an important part of the multiethnic Eastside; however, they were less successful than their...