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date: 22 May 2017

Racial Diversity and Suburban Politics in 20th-Century Los Angeles

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.

Despite its cultivated reputation as the nation’s “white spot” in the early 20th century, Southern California was in fact home to diverse and numerous communities of color, some composed of relatively new immigrants and some long predating the era of Anglo settlement and conquest. In the years following World War II, the region engaged in suburban home construction on a mass scale and became a global symbol of what Dolores Hayden called the economically democratic but racially exclusive “sitcom suburb,” from the tax-lowering mechanism of its “Lakewood plan” to the car-friendly “Googie” architecture of the San Fernando Valley. Existing suburban communities of color, such as the colonias of agricultural laborers, were engulfed by new settlements, while upwardly mobile African Americans, Latinas/Latinos, and Asian Americans sought access to the expanding suburban dream of homeownership, with varying degrees of success. The political responses to suburban diversity in metropolitan Los Angeles ranged from Anglo resistance and flight to multiracial political coalitions and the incorporation of people of color at multiple levels of local government. The ascent by a number of suburbanites of color to positions of local and regional political power from the 1960s through the 1980s sometimes exposed intra-ethnic discord and sometimes the fragility of cross-race coalition as multiple actors sought to protect property values and to pursue economic security within the competitive constraints of shrinking municipal resources, aging infrastructure, and a receding suburban fringe. As a result, political conflicts over crime, immigration, education, and inequality emerged in many Los Angeles County suburbs by the 1970s and later in the more distant corporate suburbs of Orange, Ventura, Riverside, and San Bernardino Counties. The suburbanization of poverty, the role of suburbs as immigrant gateways, and the emergence of “majority-minority” suburbs—all national trends by the late 1990s and the first decade of the 20th century—were evident far earlier in the Los Angeles metropolitan region, where diverse suburbanites negotiated social and economic crises and innovated political responses.