- The Struggle in Black and Brown: African American and Mexican American Relations during the Civil Rights Era
Brian D. Behnken has brought together an important group of senior and junior scholars on the making of black-brown relations to document the long history of cooperation and conflict between the two groups. Behnken's collection of essays successfully documents the many spaces of coalition and discontent between the African American civil rights and Chicano movements.
Lisa Ramos examines both the African American civil rights movement and the Chicano movement in the 1940s through the involvement of George Sánchez in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Thurgood Marshall in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Ramos states that both men assisted in each other's struggles. Comparisons of great men continue in Jorge Mariscal's "Cesar and Martin, March '68," which emphasizes their belief in nonviolence. Cross pollination of black-brown ethnic groups is also the topic of Luis Alvarez's and Daniel Widener's chapter, "Brown-Eyed Soul: Popular Music and Cultural Politics in Los Angeles." Alvarez and Widener document the musical links between African American and Mexican American groups like War, El Chicano, and Ozomatli and their ability to incorporate black and Latino sounds and lyrics on a local and, more importantly, the national stage. In a much needed gender analysis of black-brown relations, Abigail Rosas's "Raising a Neighborhood" tells the story of two women of color in South Central Los Angeles who became pillars of their communities. Elena Santiago from Mexico and Ruth Smith from the Deep South both called South Central home soon after the Watts uprising, a time when the neighborhood was in transition from African American to Mexican American. Both women worked with children and organizations to better their community and at times crossed ethnic lines to help each other. Closing the volume is Mathew C. Whitaker's "A New Day in Babylon," which explores the new age of black-brown relations in the United States. Whitaker tells us that even though African Americans and Mexican Americans share a long history of economic [End Page 328] and political disfranchisement cooperation remains limited, and conflict between the groups is still common today.
Behnken's collection of essays raises two questions. First, why have black-brown relations at the macro level seemed not to have worked when the potential for coalition action was so great? Second, why did black-brown relations appear to have worked at the micro level? At the macro level black-brown relations have had a history of ethnic, political, and economic competition, with only one place at the table for people of color. Yet, at the micro level individuals from both groups, African Americans and Mexican Americans, are able to overcome differences to help their communities and each other. As a result, the groups remain a mystery to each other on the national stage, missing many opportunities to work as one, while relating to each other well in their local communities.
The lesson to be learned from The Struggle in Black and Brown is that only when African Americans and Mexican Americans learn from cooperation at the micro level and overcome national political divisions that a true coalition will be built between the two groups. Behnken's work sets the stage for a national conversation between African Americans and Mexican Americans to begin to solve the long mystery of Black-Brown relations in the United States.