…the insistence on what one might call “San Diego exceptionalism,” the notion that our city is somehow free of the same troubled history as the rest of the country, is at the heart of our city’s failure to truly serve the needs of all San Diegans.
By Jim Miller
Last week, leading up to this week’s special focus on race and racism, the San Diego Free Press posted a story about a new report released by the Equal Justice Institute (EJI) that notes how, “Capital punishment and ongoing racial injustice in the United States are ‘direct descendants’ of lynching, charges a new study, which found that the pre-World War II practice of ‘racial terrorism’ has had a much more profound impact on race relations in America than previously acknowledged.”
This hidden history of racial terrorism in America is far more influential than many of us would prefer to acknowledge. As EJI Director Bryan Stevenson observes, “I also think that the lynching era created a narrative of racial difference, a presumption of guilt, a presumption of dangerousness that got assigned to African Americans in particular—and that’s the same presumption of guilt that burdens young kids living in urban areas who are sometimes menaced, threatened, or shot and killed by law enforcement officers.”
And if a lack of awareness or outright denial of the significance of our racist past is a problem in the United States at large, San Diego is certainly not immune though our civic religion—banal self-promotion by the tourism industry—would have us think otherwise. But underneath the official ahistorical pastiche of styles and fantasies designed to aid commerce and nature-packaged-as-spectacle there is another story.
Yes, beneath the veneer of the non-conflictual space of the theme park lays a more complicated history. Indeed, San Diego as we know it is the legacy of Social Darwinist City Planning, Chamber of Commerce racism, reactionary vigilantism, and open class warfare.
San Diego’s “narrative of racial difference” was always clear and it was underlined in the lead up to the Panama-California Exposition just after the turn of the twentieth century. As I document in the introduction to my section of Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See, some saw the first Exposition as the perfect vehicle for Anglo-Saxonist mythologizing:
The ground-breaking events for San Diego’s 1915 Panama-California Exposition were an Anglo-Saxon interpretation of Spanish California. There was a “pontifical military mass” in Balboa Park, a grand fiesta that lasted half a week, and a “Pageant of the Missions.”
During one ceremony, a liberal interpretation of a Spanish Caravel sailed across the harbor from North Island to Broadway Pier. There, “King Cabrillo” was met by an eager crowd and carried up Broadway in a sedan chair by Anglos dressed as Indians. At the courthouse, his highness stopped for the coronation of “Queen Ramona” (based on the character from Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona, the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of California’s Mission Indians). Ramona awaited him dressed in an Edwardian interpretation of Spanish Renaissance clothing. After her crowning, the royal couple headed up Broadway to the carnival booths at the Isthmus. As events such as these served to transform the city’s history into an Anglo booster’s mythology, the San Diego Union explained what the Exposition meant with regard to the Social Darwinist struggle between the “Latin” and “Saxon” peoples:
. . . the weaker was absorbed by the stronger; but with the passing of the weaker they left a legacy of their art and culture, which the survivor has gladly possessed to beautify and decorate his own. We have received this tradition gladly; we have made of this romance the background of our own history. . . in the fair port of San Diego and on this golden coast of California.
Thus, according to the booster oligarchy, a new Anglo bourgeois utopia had arisen out of the quaint ruins of the Spanish past. Such a mythology was easily fostered in San Diego at the turn of the twentieth century with a population that was 91.3 percent white and only 5 percent Mexican and Mexican-American. What this myth neglected, however, was the fact that the “romance” of the Mission past had never existed.
The reality that underlies the mythic Mission past is that the Spanish crusade to “save” the indigenous peoples of our region resulted in cultural genocide. As historian Douglas Monroy notes, “The Spaniards had the best of intentions; they meant to bring reason and salvation to the Indians. Instead, they shredded their native culture and infested them with fleas and microbes.
Then the padres buried the Indians.” In fact, California’s “priest-civilizers,” as the prospectus of the 1915 Exposition called them, saw little of value in the culture of the “gente sin razon.” The Native peoples’ lack of a linear sense of time, uninhibited sexuality, and desire to work with rather than over nature struck the missionaries as barbaric.
The Native peoples’ lack of a linear sense of time, uninhibited sexuality, and desire to work with rather than over nature struck the missionaries as barbaric
Indeed, Padre Serra noted their “pernicious disposition” and, as Monroy observes, “The priests unilaterally transferred their role of loving, kind, protective European father, and ruthless castigator of their errant, incontinent, and lesser charges to the California Indians.” Hence, the loving Padres taught reason and conveyed their Christian charity with the musket and the lash.
And it didn’t get better for San Diego’s indigenous people. Again from Under the Perfect Sun:
The secularization of the Missions in 1834 did little to change the plight of the Indians. Debt peonage and vagrancy laws tied them to the ranchos of the Californios where they occupied the lowest rung of the social order. After the conquest of California, thousands of Indians continued to work in de facto slavery as laborers for whites in the fields and mines. San Diego Indians rebelled against their Anglo masters just as they had against the Spanish. In 1851, Indians reacted to local officials who sought to tax them despite their lack of citizenship privileges by planning to drive the Americans off the land. The revolt failed quickly, however after four Americans were killed and a leading San Diegan was expelled from his ranch. Antonio Garra, the leader of the rebellion, was betrayed and given over to the authorities for execution.
In general, from the 1840s to the 1870s, most accounts dealing with Indians show that San Diegans were fearful of attack from wild bands of savages. In the 1880s, however, Helen Hunt Jackson’s book A Century of Dishonor along with her novel Ramona briefly changed the image of San Diego’s Indians from savage to victim. As the perceived threat faded, the “noble savage” of the past came into vogue in Anglo circles even as tales of the drunken “savage beast” of the present continued to fill the pages of local newspapers.1
By the time of the Panama-California Exposition in 1915, Indians’ best opportunities came through their ability to play themselves in an exhibit.
Even the San Diego labor movement, with the exception of its more radical elements, was more interested in limiting Mexican “immigration” than in organizing Mexican workers.
After the American conquest, the Californios who had once oppressed the Indians also befell a fate unfitting of a “romance.” As Cary McWilliams notes in Southern California: An Island on the Land, “As the gente de razon lost their money and holdings, they began to be called Mexican and the old practice of referring to them as Californios or native Californians was abandoned. Mexicans were frequently murdered by Anglos in Southern California and “[t]he practice of lynching Mexicans soon became an outdoor sport.” Although the level of mob violence against Mexicans that Los Angeles saw did not reach San Diego, individual acts of violence, slurs, and discriminatory legislation such as “the greaser law” which made it easier to harass “vagrants” were daily facts of life for San Diego’s Mexicans. Rather than being “absorbed” as the Union proclaimed, Mexicans were driven off their lands and forced to become laborers or leave. This combined with the huge influx of Anglo immigrants toward the end of the 19th century, seemed to the boosters to have permanently exorcised the Mexican influence.
Thus San Diego’s Anglo oligarchy could rewrite history and focus on limiting the influence of other “undesirable elements” and forging the city in their own image. Even the San Diego labor movement, with the exception of its more radical elements, was more interested in limiting Mexican “immigration” than in organizing Mexican workers.
By the time San Diego reporter Harold Keen checked the “mood of the barrio” in the late 1960s, the legacy of this history was clear as Mexican-Americans had the highest unemployment rate of any minority group at 25%, the highest school dropout rate, the lowest level of educational achievement, and dilapidated, deteriorating housing and schools.
San Diego has also not always been a welcome place for African Americans either, despite their small numbers. A paragraph in an 1852 Grand Jury report bemoans the presence of “a den of sable animals” and demands that ”these colored men be compelled to leave our town.”
A little more than fifty years later in 1907, the San Diego Chamber of Commerce received a letter from Los Angeles inquiring about the possibility of purchasing “a thousand acres of good farm or ranch land” to be sold as small tracts for “an industrious class of Negro farm families.” When the request was forwarded to the Chamber’s Transportation and Immigration Committee it was not acted upon because, according to the Chamber’s own records, “negro colonization is not to be encouraged.”
The African American population in San Diego did not increase much until World War II brought a large number of industrial jobs. Even then, displays of overt racism in employment were not uncommon. As the president of Vultee Aircraft told a group of African Americans, “it is not the policy of this company to employ people other than the Caucasian race.”
Despite President Roosevelt’s Executive order banning racial discrimination in the war industry and a labor shortage in San Diego during the war, the Navy, the Chamber of Commerce, and San Diego city government all maintained a Jim Crow perspective. After the brief, modest gain in the black population, it fell again in 1946 and the city’s de facto racial segregation continued for years and shaped the city as we know it today.
In San Diego, the racial, political, and class lines that separate the north and south of Interstate 8 and the west and east of Interstate 5 where quite consciously drawn by racist realtors and their political allies in the local Republican party and elsewhere. This history is also outlined in Under the Perfect Sun:
As Leroy Harris notes in The Other Side of the Freeway: A Study of Settlement Patterns of Negroes and Mexican-Americans in San Diego, California, “Throughout its history as an American city, San Diego has contained a numerically and proportionally smaller number of Negroes and Mexican-Americans than most other large American cities.”
In addition to the overt social and economic discrimination faced by people of color in San Diego with regard to employment and civil rights, the persistent efforts of realtors have also stood in their way. As Harris’ study shows, “restrictive covenants in real estate deeds” and the active “role of real estate agents in the formation of segregated housing patterns” were a very strong force in creating a segregated San Diego.
Indeed, as late as 1964, the San Diego Realty Board lobbied hard against the Rumford Act, California’s fair housing law, and actively campaigned to have it annulled through a ballot proposition. The Committee for Home Protection, spear-headed the anti-Rumford Act drive. Their public relations consultant was William Shearer, an ultra-conservative former Oceanside newspaper publisher and then administrative assistant for Republican Assemblyman Richard Barnes of San Diego. Shearer, who also wrote for the segregationist journal The Citizen arguing that the GOP could win national elections if it could “kick free of the ball and chain of integration,” helped frame the anti-Rumford Act fight as a defense of property rights and freedom of choice.
…in 1965 the Fair Employment Practices Commission called San Diego one of the most segregated areas in the country
The California Real Estate Association may have been embarrassed by the support it received from the American Nazi Party members who marched outside the El Cortez Hotel where they met in 1963, but when the realtors voted overwhelmingly to fight against the Rumford Act and all future legislation against housing discrimination, they were marching in lock step with the fascists. Proposition 14 which would have overturned the Rumford Fair Housing Act passed with a large majority in the state and by more than two to one in San Diego County.
If not for the California Supreme Court, the far right would have won . . . In addition to housing discrimination, in 1965 the Fair Employment Practices Commission called San Diego one of the most segregated areas in the country and linked that segregation to employment discrimination.
And San Diego’s inglorious racial history was not restricted to discrimination against indigenous, Latino, and African American residents.
From Under the Perfect Sun once again:
As far as the Asian presence in the city goes, the Chinese were literally “imported” to San Diego as a cheap labor pool, exploited, and generally reviled by their fellow workers and the population at large. Very few Chinese people lived in San Diego until some local businessmen met Ah Quin in Northern California and asked him to come to San Diego as a labor contractor for the construction of the railroad.
By 1884 there were hundreds of Chinese working on the line. As that number grew to 800, San Diego developed its own anti-Chinese movement. In December of 1885, the anti-Chinese Club was founded to call for the firing of Chinese workers “as long as a white man was out of work.” San Diego’s first strike was also partly an effort to force companies “to pledge not to hire Chinese labor.” This despite the fact that no Chinese worker held any of the highest paid skilled jobs and suffered “the least pay and job security.” As a result, San Diego’s Chinese population fell to 561 after the railroad was finished in the 1890s. Those who stayed were segregated into the Stingaree, the city’s red light district, where they lived amongst prostitutes, pimps, criminals, gamblers, and drug addicts in quarters behind opium dens or illegal gambling houses.
Because of the Exclusion Acts, their numbers stayed low for most of the first half of the twentieth century until some of the most repressive limitations on Chinese immigration ceased. Today, most of the traces of the original Chinese community have been erased, except for a tiny block on the edge of the gaslamp quarter and a few hard to discern historical markers.
The Japanese first came to San Diego in the 1880s as well. They made charcoal for the Hotel del Coronado, worked as waiters, gardeners, shopkeepers, handymen, farmers, fishermen, and cannery workers. They out-fished the natives and brought innovations to agriculture. Their competence, however, created a racist backlash as laws were passed that banned Japanese land ownership. When forced into wage labor, they were seen as an unattractive workforce because of their tendency to organize. As one writer put it, “they demand high wages and are exceedingly independent and untractable.”
In 1914, James Phelan, a candidate for the Senate argued that the Japanese government should be told that Japanese immigrants were “unassimilable” but “efficient human machines” who were “a menace to our prosperity and happiness.”
…in 1943 the San Diego Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution protesting the “coddling of these Japanese in internment camps
A 1932 issue of the San Diego Labor Leader includes an article blaming “Japs” rather than the Depression for woes of the fishing industry. Pearl Harbor provided the perfect excuse for exercising the already virulent racist hatred of the Japanese. In February of 1942, Executive Order 9066 was issued and all of San Diego County south of the San Dieguito River was designated a Military Zone and “all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien” were rounded up.
They sold whatever they could and abandoned the rest and then were forced to report to the Santa Fe Depot and were placed on guarded trains. Their first stop was a racetrack in Los Angeles. By August, most of the detainees had been shipped to a hot, barren Relocation Camp in Poston, Arizona to choke on dust and ponder their fate as the desert wind swirled around them. San Diego’s Japanese community was gone.
As if this was not enough, in 1943 the San Diego Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution protesting the “coddling of these Japanese in internment camps.”
But of course, race has always intersected with class. Thus, the city of San Diego was not built on Anglo-Saxonism alone as the boosters’ aversion to major industrial development shows.
From the beginning, San Diego’s elite knew that if they were to build a garden city free of not just the ethnic conflicts but also the class strife that plagued other cities, especially the dreaded Los Angeles, they would have to devise a growth plan that avoided the importation of an unruly working class.
Central to this strategy was their decades-long courtship of the Navy, as San Diego’s obsession with the military shows. The Union summed up the dominant sentiment succiently, “[Men] of that establishment [were] of a high class.” And the early twentieth century Navy was white and brought with them huge amounts of Federal dollars to the city. Hence San Diego’s early boosters’ relentless pursuit of the Navy was a way to both keep out “undesirable citizens” and bring in loads of government largesse at the same time.
And the legacy of San Diego’s unique form of boosterism continued for the rest of the twentieth century.
One last time from Under the Perfect Sun:
Even after World War II, the Chamber of Commerce was still working “to bring to San Diego the right type of people” by maintaining a “well-directed advertising campaign designed to reach a better class of resident and visitor.” The post-war city was still segregated with a relatively tranquil labor movement. Even most of San Diego’s “Rosie the Riveters” had been forced out of gainful employment by defense industry cutbacks and the wave of returning GI’s.
…official preference for a distinctly white image of San Diego as a carefree beach town where “happy happens” is the face of the new racism
While the Civil Rights Movement and other 1960s’ upheavals challenged the city’s status quo, the city’s basic economic structure remains favorable to a conservative Anglo elite. The military remains a central economic engine, followed by federally subsidized aerospace industries, tourism, and universities. This has perpetuated a wide gap between affluent professionals and the growing low wage service sector. Unionization has steadily declined and women and people of color are over-represented in the lowest paying service sector jobs. Part-time employment with no benefits is also on the rise as housing prices and rents soar beyond the reach of many workers.
Overall, poverty in San Diego County has increased at a faster pace than elsewhere in California and in the United States as a whole. While the changing demographics of San Diego present a challenge to the new boosters, the city continues to reward corporations and sports teams with substantial benefits while largely failing to address the needs of the poor and racial minorities.
Thus when one knows this history, it is easy to see how, despite much of the progress we have seen and the continuing diversification of the city, San Diego’s racist past continues to haunt its present.
From the Lincoln Club’s successful racist attacks during the last mayor’s race to the Chamber of Commerces’s war on Barrio Logan and the city’s low-wage workers who are disproportionately of color, San Diego’s contemporary boosters continue to do whatever they can to keep the city firmly in the hands of the same old monied interests with the same negative effects on those on the wrong side of the new narrative of racial difference, which prefers not to talk about race, but continues to preserve a racist hegemony by means of that very erasure.
Indeed, the insistence on what one might call “San Diego exceptionalism,” the notion that our city is somehow free of the same troubled history as the rest of the country, is at the heart of our city’s failure to truly serve the needs of all San Diegans.
At a time of historic inequality and entrenched oligarchy, our official preference for a distinctly white image of San Diego as a carefree beach town where “happy happens” is the face of the new racism. Such talk might please the folks in the marketing department but San Diego’s racist unconscious still roils beneath the surface of such pleasant thoughts.