Bernstein, Shana. Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles.

Author:Needham, Andrew
Position:Book review

Bernstein, Shana. Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xiii + 339.

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor in 1947, Mary Hornaday explained the dilemmas facing postwar Los Angeles. The war had brought unprecedented numbers of African Americans, Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants, and Jewish Americans to the city. Following the war, many Japanese Americans had returned to Los Angeles from years of internment. The multiethnic population of Los Angeles resided in a city governed by racially restrictive home covenants, a city where racist and anti-Semitic sentiment had been commonplace in the press and the private sectors during the wartime and prewar years, and a city home to an increasingly rabid anti-Communist movement. Los Angeles possessed, Hornaday wrote, "the racial problems of most American cities put together" (137).

Bridges of Reform explains how a series of multiracial coalitions sought to challenge discrimination in Los Angeles and argues that those efforts helped birth a vision of color blind anti-discrimination that shaped the course of postwar liberalism. Bernstein's narrative begins with the New Deal, which she characterizes as "an inherently multiracial arena" in its ability to both politicize ethnic and racial groups and bring them together in the Democratic Party, newly empowered labor unions, and the Communist Party, which formed the left wing of the Popular Front (Z9). That new common ground formed the basis for building bridges both between local concerns and the federal government and between organizations representing differing ethnic groups. During the 1930s and 1940s, the rise of global fascism also helped spur efforts at interracial activism, as groups formed coalitions to portray events like the Sleepy Lagoon murder case and the Zoot Suit riots as examples of local discrimination that endangered the nation in its war against fascism.

The most provocative and original section of Bernstein's book focuses on the postwar years. In most tellings, anti-Communism neutered the broad coalitions of the Popular Front. As groups like the NAACP and the Jewish-led Community Relations Committee (CRC) expelled suspected Communists and fellow travelers, most historians have argued such groups retreated from aggressive challenges to discrimination in favor of careful measured efforts at reform. Bernstein, however, argues that...

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