American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Politics and Society in Modern America)
Robert O. Self
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As the birthplace of the Black Panthers and a nationwide tax revolt, California embodied a crucial motif of the postwar United States: the rise of suburbs and the decline of cities, a process in which black and white histories inextricably joined. American Babylon tells this story through Oakland and its nearby suburbs, tracing both the history of civil rights and black power politics as well as the history of suburbanization and home-owner politics. Robert Self shows that racial inequities in both New Deal and Great Society liberalism precipitated local struggles over land, jobs, taxes, and race within postwar metropolitan development. Black power and the tax revolt evolved together, in tension.
American Babylon demonstrates that the history of civil rights and black liberation politics in California did not follow a southern model, but represented a long-term struggle for economic rights that began during the World War II years and continued through the rise of the Black Panthers in the late 1960s. This struggle yielded a wide-ranging and profound critique of postwar metropolitan development and its foundation of class and racial segregation. Self traces the roots of the 1978 tax revolt to the 1940s, when home owners, real estate brokers, and the federal government used racial segregation and industrial property taxes to forge a middle-class lifestyle centered on property ownership.
Using the East Bay as a starting point, Robert Self gives us a richly detailed, engaging narrative that uniquely integrates the most important racial liberation struggles and class politics of postwar America.
markets as entirely distinct entities. There was a second, related dimension. Open housing threatened real estate industry control because it raised the possibility of chaotic market fluctuations. Rapid white turnover and property devaluation, wholesale white abandonment of rental properties, or the refusal of developers to build or banks to finance mixed-race developments, to name a few select fears, introduced market factors that undermined steady, predictable, upwardly trending property
1953. For an earlier interpretation of Milpitas, see Bennett Berger, Working Class Suburb (Berkeley, 1960). 29. On the ethnic Mexican communities of San Jose’s Eastside, see Pitti, The Devil in Silicon Valley. 30. Gross quoted in Plant Slants, December 1954. 31. Ibid.; Frontier, January 1956; letter from William Oliver to Walter Reuther, 6 February 1957, Box 65, Folder 10, UAW/ALUA; “Annual Report, San Lorenzo Homes Association, 1954–55” (photocopy, IGS). Also see Stanley S. Jacobs, “The
all contributed to a white working-class populism in this era. Though African Americans occasionally shared in that populist public culture, white racism prevented their more thorough inclusion. It would be a mistake to locate the interests and identities of Oakland’s workers solely in the institutions of organized labor and to assume that trade unionism reflected working-class aspirations in a transparent way. But it would be an equivalent mistake to overlook a critical process in Oakland in
organized labor’s strength. Moreover, Knowland and his family remained close to the owners of the Los Angeles Times, the leading anti-union newspaper in Southern California. Knowland’s strategy depended on the ability of the Times and his father’s Tribune to revive anti-unionism as a core conservative issue in order to animate California’s political right. He ran as the friend of ordinary workers, proposing an alternative “Worker’s Bill of Rights” that guaranteed union members freedom from
part to accommodate Acorn displacement. At the same time, however, the council delivered a stinging and condescending rebuke of the NAACP in chambers packed with representatives of West Oakland’s African American community. Councilmember Osborne, who voted against the plan, chastised NAACP members both for their behavior toward city officials—“minority groups have the obligation to assume duties as full citizens,” he charged—and for their support of public housing. The latter, he observed, “leads