- Racial Formation and Re-formation in Twentieth-Century Civil Rights Movements
At the close of her landmark article "The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past," the historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall asks, "How can we make ourselves heard without reducing history to the formulaic mantras on which political narratives usually rely?" Too often, Hall argues, the ways that individuals and social structures work for or against certain groups remain "invisible to citizens trained in not seeing and in thinking exclusively ahistorical, personal terms."1 Scholars must nuance and complicate readers' oversimplified views of the civil rights movement by helping them recognize how individuals and organizations foment social, political, economic, and racial change. The past will always be used politically; it is up to those of us [End Page 291] who research and write history to reveal the messy combination of individual agency and societal structures that create the racial, gendered, political, and economic ecospheres Americans inhabit.
The five books under review here affirm that civil rights histories did not begin with the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education or end with Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 assassination, and that race in civil rights movements went beyond the oversimplified black–white binary. But more than this, these five scholars make larger arguments about civil rights movements in the United States by highlighting the ways that racial formation and identification informed social movements from the 1930s to the 1970s and from California to New York City.
Sonia Song-Ha Lee's Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement examines "the political world in which Puerto Ricans and African Americans conceptualized their racial and ethnic identities" in response to New York City's long civil rights movement (3). Lee argues that, although that two groups frequently lived in geographic proximity and faced similar discrimination, they were not natural allies. Americans defined Puerto Ricans as a racially "in-between" people, neither white nor black (unsurprisingly, they fought to be identified with whites rather than African Americans). Despite that preference, twentieth-century sociologists and anthropologists from Oscar Lewis to Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Nathan Glazer identified Puerto Ricans through a racialized "culture of poverty," as did government programs, which linked Puerto Ricans with African Americans. Over time, however, many Puerto Ricans began to work with African Americans for civil rights in matters of antipoverty policy. Indeed, one of Lee's great contributions, building on the historiographical trend toward examining interracial political coalitions after World War II, is her exploration of the ways that politics and class created common ground for members of different racial groups within civil rights movements.
Despite their shared economic disenfranchisement, New York's Puerto Ricans did not fight for political, social, and labor gains using the tactics embraced by African Americans before World War II. For instance, Lee shows that black and Puerto Rican members followed different paths in the struggle for justice in the workplace in the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU). Puerto Ricans' fragile status in the United States made them less willing to incur the wrath of their union bosses. African Americans, who did not fear deportation or other punitive measures, fought vocally for labor rights and used their connections to black community and...