Sunday, July 6, 2014

Entitlements of Different Sorts: An Applied Book Review

People initiate political acts in varying ways. One may entail the regular junta of diverse groups at sites such as avenues or armories in the case of cruising lowriders and dances. Another might involve people of different races formulating a band to create music influenced by the multicultural traditions of rhythm and blues and Latin American sounds. When historically subordinated groups, such as Blacks and Chicanas/os, did so in Southern California during the post-WWII period, they claimed spatial and sonic entitlements. Black Studies Professor Gaye Theresa Johnson makes this argument in her sagacious book, Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles (2013).

Johnson examines the practice of such entitlements, or rights, in the form of the geographic, aural, and imagined. The last act is defined as the “discursive” throughout the book which, depending on the context analyzed, serves as a synonym for the: adaptive, ideological, subjective, stylized, or symbolic assertion of power. The concept of the “discursive” is an elusive definition commonly used by acolytes of post-modern theorists. Further obscuring the understanding of this idea are non sequitur explanations in dictionaries. But if the general reader substitutes her or his own fitting adjective for the abstract, a clearer grasp for the author’s claim will be made.

Nonetheless, the a priori of Black and Brown entitlements lay in the racist dispossession and segregation of communities during the 1950s onward: at Chavez Ravine that resulted in the eventual establishment of Dodger Stadium, the dislocation of minority communities with the construction of five freeway systems (the 5, 10, 60, 405, and 710), as well as the containment of people of color, many displaced by the aforementioned projects, to the enclaves of East and South Central Los Angeles.

To guarantee the concentration of people of color within these geographic camps, municipal, state, and federal agencies conspired with free enterprise institutions of banking, developers, and real estate to isolate Blacks and Mexican-origin communities. The emplacement of racially restrictive real estate covenants, development plans, and the lending poliices of federally subsidized private lenders consummated this apartheid.

As a capstone, aerospace industries emerged adjacent to the exclusive suburbs of Southern California while automobile related manufacturing relocated abroad. As a result, people in the suburbs enjoyed federally financed housing and employment as those contained within the inner-city found themselves with shrinking opportunities to pursue trans-generational happiness. In this regard, Johnson poignantly writes:

This channeled money away from communities of color and toward whites, who could in turn secure the assets that build trans-generational wealth. . . Thus, while whites received subsidies to acquire assets that appreciate in value and can be passed down across generations, African Americans and Mexican Americans received only access to means-tested [i.e., public] housing in segregated areas (58-59).

The bequeathment of wealth is the privilege that masks the legacy of institutionalized racism. Families that lived in middle-class suburbs (because of the federally subsidized contracts granted to McDonald Douglas, Boeing, or Northrup) enjoyed superior schooling and equity appreciation. On the other hand, Black and Brown families trapped in the ghettoes and barrios of Los Angeles did not benefit equally to their counterparts in suburbia.

But this system was not without its cracks; cultural and social miscegenation occurred nonetheless. Simultaneously, youths made spatial, sonic, and discursive entitlements. Asian, Black, Mexican-origin and White youth of the post-WWII era, ironically, commuted on the freeways that enabled social fragmentation to unite at dance venues in East Los Angeles and buy R&B music in South Central. Youths also traveled from different parts of Southern California to cruise Whittier Boulevard as they blared on the fresh technology of car radios the syncretic sounds of MOTOWN and regional artists of the likes of The Mixtures (originally from Oxnard), Thee Midniters, El Chicano, and WAR.

An important contribution, among several, of Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity is how it reveals how segregation in all its manifestations (in terms of demography, schools, health, the trans-generational transfer of wealth or not) impacted the life chances of groups. Indeed, Johnson dismantles the popular idea that segregation developed purely out of custom and social mobility depended on people reaching for their bootstraps when the oppressed were largely forbidden to wear boots.

As in Los Angeles, Ventura County neighborhoods, public space, schools, and employment were segregated concurrently by de facto and de jure forces. In relation to education and the life chances advanced or diminished by it, this was highlighted in the early 1970s with the Soria v. Oxnard Elementary School District Board of Trustees case. During the course of the trial and school district’s appeal of federal Judge Harry Pregerson’s decision to desegregate by mandatory busing, the machinations of racism were exposed. Board minutes dating back to the 1930s revealed how school trustees and their superintendents bowed to the demands of pressure groups to segregate Mexican and Black students.

As legal decisions of the Post-WWII era dismantled de jure segregation—starting with the Mendez v. Westminster case of 1945 and Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas nine years later—Ventura County youth claimed spatial and sonic entitlements of their own to challenge remnant de facto oppression. This was particularly underscored by Chicana and Chicano students at the high schools and community colleges during the late 1960s and ’70s.

Inspired and awakened, or awakened and inspired, by the movements for Black Civil Rights, farmworkers, and their peers in East Los Angeles, Ventura County Chicana and Chicano students formulated El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA) clubs in high schools and community colleges to demand the discursive, or moral, entitlement of Mexican American faculty as well as support services to recruit, retain, and graduate students in their communities with college degrees.

At Ventura College, MEChA and Black Student Union (BSU) clubs demanded the spatial entitlement to have a Minority Student Center to provide advising, tutoring, and financial aid services by Black and Chicano counselors: the first two being Isaiah Brown and Ray Reyes.

With the support of culturally sensitive faculty from a variety of backgrounds (Anglo, Black, Jewish, and others) at Moorpark College and Ventura College, Mechistas exacted both spacial and sonic entitlements in the sponsorship of Cinco de Mayo and Diez y Seis de Septiembre (Mexican Independence Day) celebrations.

The quads of these schools were taken over during the course of a week. Mechistas at Moorpark and Ventura College emceed the performances of Mariachi Grupo Mexicano de Santa Paula, Teatro Queztzalcoatl, and Ballet Folklorico de Moorpark. On other days, Chicana and Chicano movement people spoke to diverse audiences made up of students, faculty, administrators as well as chicanitas and chicanitos invited, in the spirit of El Plan de Santa Barbara, from pre and grade schools in the surrounding areas.

College students were also politicized by the messages of Sal Castro of the East L.A. student walkouts, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez of the Crusade for Justice, comedian Dick Gregory, Dolores Huerta vice-president of the United Farmworkers union, Ms. Magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem, and Reies Lopez Tijerina, leader of the La Alianza Federal de Mercedes in New Mexico.

The planning and funding of these events exposed Mechistas to the bureaucracy of academe. It also enhanced their connection to their respective campuses as well as enlightened them to the relevancy of their higher education. A discursive entitlement if you will that instilled in them a sense of triumph and moxie.

Although many recently graduated high school students and Vietnam veterans of the Oxnard Plain commuted to Ventura and and Moorpark College via the “barrio bus,” Chicanas and Chicano who traveled to Moorpark, particularly, during the early 1970s exercised their spatial entitlement to attend the district’s newest campus. It was here that the Brown Berets and Mechistas successfully demanded the discursive entitlement of a Chicano Studies curriculum, Mexican American faculty, and services specific to the needs of first generation students.

And by the mid-1970s, Ventura College MEChA had become a dominant political force. In the spring of 1975, it ran a slate of Mechistas in the Associated Students executive board election. The club’s organization enabled it to attain the discursive entitlement of winning all four seats on the executive board—the presidency, vice-presidency, secretary, and Office of Finance. With this power, the MEChA controlled board reformed the AS constitution to permit a broader representation of student leaders from other clubs in the affairs of AS.

As in the case of student athletes, the spatial and discursive entitlement of MEChA clubs throughout Ventura County afforded students unconditional acceptance to realize their scholastic potential and leadership not only on campus but also in their communities. Many Mechistas, inspired by the community work of the Brown Berets, volunteered their time tutoring elementary students. Others who went on to attend UCLA or UCSB returned to Ventura County to visit high schools and community colleges to encourage others to obtain university degrees.

In the planning of cultural events and seeking permission to work in K-12 schools, high school and college Mechistas interfaced as equals with administrators, faculty and staff. All this entitled them to remain in school in their journey to becoming, in different spatial and contested settings, the attorneys, educators, entrepreneurs, healthcare professional, peace officers, and engaged citizens for the remainder of the 1970s to the present.

Frank P. Barajas

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david tayler said...
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