- Making a Non-White America: Californians Coloring Outside Ethnic Lines, 1925–1955
In 1943, a Mexican American woman and an African-American man, both in their early twenties, met on the production line at Lockheed Aviation and began to date. Ostensibly, Andrea Pérez and Sylvester Davis made an unlikely duo, but, in fact, the two shared similar biographies, having been raised Catholic in multiracial neighborhoods by working-class parents who had migrated to Los Angeles in the 1920s. These commonalities cemented their relationship, and when Davis returned to town after a stint in the Army, he and Pérez started to talk of a future together, bracing themselves to confront their parents’ opposition, if not quite anticipating the other barrier in their path—the county clerk’s office.
In 1948, Pérez and Davis successfully sued to nullify California’s ban on interracial marriage, becoming the first couple to quash an anti-miscegenation law in any state. Yet, although at the time their story made national headlines, in recent scholarship it has rarely surfaced beyond the occasional footnote. This lacuna is symptomatic of a larger problem: Comparative histories of race have tended to pivot on the color line between white and non-white, particularly white and black, seldom exploring encounters along other boundaries, boundaries like that between black and brown.
Varzally sets out to rectify this imbalance. Placing herself in conversation with historians of the consolidation of whiteness, such as Jacobson and Roediger, Varzally explores “the often hidden history of mingling and mixing among minorities” (2).1 She argues that if the dominant conception of national belonging during the first half of the twentieth century was of a White America (Varzally’s capitalization), then its counter-point [End Page 466] was of a “non-White America,” a racial imaginary founded on “situational commonalities” (184). In a society structured by white supremacy, Varzally points out, “non-Whites mixed because it was difficult not to” (6).
Spanning the period between the great migrations of the 1920s and the witch hunts of the 1950s, Varzally’s narrative surveys a handful of the experiences and concerns around which Pérez and Davis and others of their generation came together as “non-White”: youthful rebellion, interracial intimacy, nativism on the domestic front, and racism on the battlefront. These sketches culminate in a final chapter on such civil-rights milestones as Perez v. Sharp, the ruling that allowed Miss Pérez to become Mrs. Davis; echoing conventions in current scholarship on the long civil rights movement, Varzally concludes rather than begins with overt protest to demonstrate how “a spirit of quasi-cosmopolitanism” in the classroom and on the shop floor gave rise to a strategy of coalition building in the courtroom and in the legislature (4).
This claim about the seemingly apolitical roots of the political is entirely convincing, partly because of the historiography that Varzally references and partly because of the sheer mass of evidence that she presents. She taps all manner of sources—oral histories, newspapers, memoirs, novels, personal papers, court records, sociological treatises, census data, maps, and photographs (she includes a number of striking studio portraits). Although much of this material is already treated in other studies, Varzally’s focus is not excavation but juxtaposition. The memories of Cesar Chavez take on new significance when paired with the prose of Chester Himes.
But if Varzally’s sources hail from multiple disciplines, her methods never stray from the empiricism of social history. Analytically, Himes’ prose stands on equal footing with Chavez’s memories, and in turn with photographs and maps: All amount to mere units of evidence, not symbolic acts. Yet people do not put pen to paper or pose for cameras simply to record their worlds for posterity. People make themselves through memoirs and maps. Himes contributed to “the making of a non-White America” by writing a novel, for example, and it is important to read him as a novelist and not a sociologist. Only when historians use...