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Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left Radical Activism in Los Angeles by Laura Pulido Book

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Overview: Laura Pulido traces the roots of third world radicalism in Southern California during the 1960s and 1970s in this accessible, wonderfully illustrated comparative study. Focusing on the Black Panther Party, El Centro de Acción Social y Autonomo (CASA), and East Wind, a Japanese American collective, she explores how these African American, Chicana/o, and Japanese American groups sought to realize their ideas about race and class, gender relations, and multiracial alliances. Based on thorough research as well as extensive interviews, Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left explores the differences and similarities between these organizations, the strengths and weaknesses of the third world left as a whole, and the ways that differential racialization led to distinct forms of radical politics. Pulido provides a masterly, nuanced analysis of complex political events, organizations, and experiences. She gives special prominence to multiracial activism and includes an engaging account of where the activists are today, together with a consideration of the implications for contemporary social justice organizing.

Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left Radical Activism in Los Angeles by Laura Pulido Book Read Online And Download Epub Digital Ebooks Buy Store Website Provide You.
Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left Radical Activism in Los Angeles by Laura Pulido Book

Black, Brown, Yellow, and Left Radical Activism in Los Angeles by Laura Pulido Book Read Online Chapter One

This book compares the historical experiences of African American, Japanese American, and Chicana/o activists who were part of the Third World Left in Los Angeles from 1968 to 1978.1 The idea for this project grew out of my general curiosity with the sixties, as well as my desire to understand the generation of activists who preceded me. Although I was only a child during the late sixties, I knew that this period was key to understanding contemporary politics, particularly in communities of color. How and why did the seemingly revolutionary politics of the sixties and seventies falter, and what were the consequences for those struggling to challenge capitalism and racism?

Particularly important to my thinking was my involvement with the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles, which, in the 1980s, was seeking to create a multiracial left by organizing in low-income communities of color. During my time with the Strategy Center, I learned the importance of organizing beyond the Chicana/o community and the need for an explicit class analysis.2 I came to appreciate how class consciousness could potentially bring various racial/ethnic groups together and contribute to a larger movement for social and economic justice. Moreover, I realized that although multiracial organizing was new to me, many people had done this sort of work before, and in fact the Strategy's Center project drew upon those experiences. Previous generations of activists had struggled with the tensions inherent in building an antiracist and anticapitalist movement, and I realized that a close examination of these efforts might yield important insights that would cast new light on contemporary efforts—an especially relevant task given the explosion of progressive and social justice activism that characterized turn-of-the-century Los Angeles.3 As I began exploring this subject, I saw that the left of color had a rich and deep history in Los Angeles. It included, for example, Japanese American participation in the 1930s Communist Party, the visionary work of Charlotta Bass and the California Eagle, and El Congreso de Pueblos de Habla Espaimagesola, led by Bert Corona and Luisa Moreno.4 Building upon this base, I sought to learn more about the sixties and seventies, but, despite picking up bits and pieces about organizations like El Centro de Acción Social y Autónomo/the Center for Autonomous Social Action (CASA), East Wind, the August Twenty-ninth Movement, the California Communist League, and I Wor Kuen, with the exception of the Black Panther Party (BPP) I could find little written on the subject.

I struggled to piece together what scattered evidence and historical clues I could gather until I finally had a breakthrough. In 1995 service workers on my campus, the University of Southern California, were at odds with the administration over the university's subcontracting policies, and I became involved with the workers and their unions (Justice for Janitors and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 11). Subsequently, I began researching the political backgrounds of union members and staff—imagining that, perhaps, Central American workers with revolutionary backgrounds were contributing to the rapidly changing labor politics of Los Angeles.5 Although I did not find much evidence for my “migrating militancy” theory, I did find a group of older organizers who had become politicized through the Third World Left, and thus an entry into this book.


Since my initial curiosity, the literature on the radical and revolutionary movements of the sixties and seventies has grown tremendously. One of its most popular genres is the political memoir or biography written by a leading activist.6 Books in this genre paint an intimate picture of how and why certain individuals became politicized, as well as the structure and culture of various organizations and movements. But, though rich in detail, they are limited by being written from individual perspectives. Another rapidly expanding genre is the sociological or historical study of the activism of a particular ethnic group.7 Together, these literatures have greatly enhanced our understanding of this era, but they have presented a somewhat skewed picture of radical politics in the sixties and seventies.

One problem is that many chroniclers of the New Left have defined it as a largely white event. The writer Elizabeth MartÍnez has dubbed this phenomenon “that old white (male) magic.”8 At the same time, though ethnic studies scholars have produced an impressive literature on the antiracist and nationalist struggles that emerged in communities of color, only a handful have seriously studied the left of color. Most have focused on the larger movements centered on questions of identity, community empowerment, antiracism, and culture. This focus is understandable because of the small size of the Third World Left relative to the larger nationalist movements, but I would also argue that it reflects an ambivalence, at best, toward anticapitalism. The result of these twin practices has been the almost complete erasure of the existence of a Third World Left, or a left of color, in the United States during this period. The primary exception is, of course, the BPP. The BPP is routinely mentioned in almost all accounts of the New Left and figures prominently in the literature on Black Power as well as that of other ethnic struggles. The problem with this emphasis, however, is that the BPP becomes a stand-in for the entire Third World Left and is viewed in isolation from its relationships with other Third World Leftist groups, thus obscuring the larger movement.9

The prominence of the BPP indicates another problem: most studies of the Third World Left are rooted in one particular racial/ethnic group, such as African Americans or Asian Americans. This is understandable insofar as many of the scholars studying these movements tend to come from those communities themselves and to be based in specific disciplines, such as American Indian or Chicana/o studies. While there is still much to learn about all ethnic groups in the United States, and reclaiming buried histories is an urgent task, a multiethnic approach enables us to see the interaction among various racial/ethnic groups and their influences on each other.10 Indeed, the fact that the Third World Left was not just a loose collection of revolutionary nationalists and Marxist-Leninists but a network of organizations that drew on each other's ideas led me to pursue a comparative study. I hope that by carefully examining the similarities and differences between these various activists and organizations, as well as the degree of influence and interaction between them, I can offer a new perspective on the movement.

Because this project evolved from a historical study into a comparative analysis, I had to grapple with a challenging set of theoretical issues around race, class, difference, and place. How would I compare the experiences of different racial/ethnic groups? What might the similarities and differences I found actually mean in terms of larger racial and economic processes? Fortunately, I was able to draw on the work of others who have forged a path in comparative and interethnic studies, including Claire Jean Kim, Susan Koshy, Linda Gordon, Neil Foley, Tomás Almaguer, Evelyn Nakano-Glenn, Nicholas De Genova, and Ana Ramos-Zayas. These scholars not only have helped clarify how and why various racial/ethnic groups experience distinct forms of racism but also have shown how racialization is a relational process: that is, how the status and meanings associated with one group are contingent upon those of another.11 Hence the idea of Asian Americans as “model minorities” exists only in relation to “less than model” Black, Latina/o, and American Indian minorities. The concept of differential racialization, which denotes that various racial/ethnic groups are racialized in unique ways and have distinct experiences of racism, is key to this discussion. Particular racial/ethnic groups are associated with particular sets of meanings and economic opportunities, or lack thereof, and these in turn are influenced by groups' history, culture, and national racial narratives and by the regional economy. I emphasize regions because although all of the United States is informed by a national racial narrative, class structures and racial divisions of labor take shape and racial hierarchies are experienced at the regional and local levels. Because the United States is so large and diverse, it is primarily at the regional level that nuanced and meaningful comparison must take place.

Although discussions of race in the United States are still largely confined to a Black/white framework, the scholarship emerging from American Indian, Asian American, and Chicana/o and Latina/o studies has challenged this notion, with profound implications for how we think about race.12 A crucial idea to emerge from these debates is the concept of racial hierarchies. Complex racial hierarchies are formed when multiple racially subordinated populations occupy a range of social positions. The precise configuration of any racial hierarchy will depend upon differential racialization, which in turn affects the regional economy, as seen, for example, in the racialized nature of labor markets. Though a growing number of scholars have examined complex racial hierarchies in detail, and though it is well known that resistance varies according to the nature of oppression, few have examined how differential racialization may contribute to distinct forms of revolutionary activism. Accordingly, one of the goals of this book is to examine this relationship in detail. I argue that differential racialization influences a racial/ethnic group's class position and that both of these factors then shape the local racial hierarchy. Thus differential racialization and class positioning have contributed to the distinct radical politics articulated by various leftists of color.

Because of my initial interest in the history of radical activism in Los Angeles, I did not always appreciate that the city also offers an unparalleled opportunity to study complex racial hierarchies. Not only does the Los Angeles metropolitan region defy the Black/white binary, but also the long histories of multiple racial/ethnic groups in the city provide a key to understanding the evolution of racial hierarchies over time and the relational nature of differential racialization.13 For instance, how did Asian Americans (primarily Japanese and Chinese) rise from the bottom of the racial hierarchy in the early twentieth century to a much higher position? And equally important, who took their place? Los Angeles is one of the few metropolitan regions that has long been home to a diverse population of Asian Americans, American Indians, Latinas/os, and whites, and it thus offers an ideal setting to study differential racialization, racial hierarchies, and political activism.


I define the Third World Left as organizations that explicitly identified as revolutionary nationalist, Marxist, Leninist, or Maoist and had a membership of at least half people of color. Having arrived at this definition, I soon confronted a bewildering array of organizations, such as the October League, Workers' Viewpoint Organization, the Socialist Workers Party, and the California Communist League. To make this project manageable, I narrowed my study to one organization per racial/ethnic group. Accordingly, this book focuses on the following organizations: for African Americans, the BPP; for Asian Americans, East Wind; and for Chicanas/os, CASA. To be sure, in making these decisions I risked generalizing about an entire racial/ethnic group of activists on the basis of a single organization that, arguably, could have been an anomaly. In addition, some readers might wish that I had chosen other organizations—say, an example of Chicana/o activism less well known or more multinational than CASA. But as any scholar knows, difficult choices have to be made based on the availability of materials, accessibility, comparability, and significance—in this case, a group's significance to the Los Angeles region.

I had originally intended to include American Indians in this study as well. But as I began sifting through the archival material, I learned that while there was indeed a great deal of American Indian activism—not surprising, given that Los Angeles has the largest urban Indian population in the United States—there was little evidence of left activity in the area. While this discovery was initially surprising, an explanation began to emerge. Not only did American Indians draw on a somewhat different set of ideologies than other Third World activists, but also the most radical organizing occurred in rural areas. This distinctive geographical pattern was partly a function of American Indians' unique engagement with nationalism. During the sixties and seventies, leftist ideology conceived of racial/ethnic minorities as “oppressed nationalities.” Thus, although both Chicanas/os and African Americans were categorized as distinct nations, the nationalist dimension of American Indians' struggles was far more immediate and concrete, as they focused on specific territorial demands and historic land claims.14 Accordingly, the geographic focus of more radical Indian activism was reservations and rural lands. Reservations became key sites of contestation, and while American Indians' struggles were certainly carried out in the cities, including Denver and San Francisco, they did not loom large in the everyday activities of the Los Angeles left. Instead, Third World activists operating in Los Angeles were more likely to visit and support American Indians in rural areas.15 For example, at one point East Wind sent a delegation of approximately twenty people to Wounded Knee, and the Black Panthers regularly hosted American Indian Movement activists when they came to town. Because no comparable American Indian group was based in Los Angeles, I decided not to include them in this study.

The BPP is the most well known of the groups I investigated. At first, I hesitated to include it because there is already a burgeoning literature on the party. However, the more I delved into its history, the more I realized that I could not ignore it. Whether organizations patterned themselves after the BPP or not, the party created the political space and inspiration for other activists of color to pursue more militant and radical forms of political action. The BPP was a revolutionary nationalist organization created in Oakland, California, in 1966. The Southern California chapter was established in 1968 by Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter. Like the larger history of the sixties, representations of the BPP are often polarized: mainstream society has typically depicted the Panthers as gun-toting thugs, whereas lefties and liberals have often romanticized them as revolutionaries. The reality is inevitably more messy, and there is, thankfully, a growing body of literature that portrays this complexity.16 The BPP was significant in that it was the most prominent organization of the era to embrace self-defense, but it also developed a remarkable set of “serve the people” or “survival” programs. I argue that these two concerns, self-defense and community service, emanated from the distinct racialization of African Americans and their particular class and racial position in U.S. cities during the 1960s and 1970s. Not only were urban Blacks an impoverished population in need of basic resources, but also, as “the Other” upon which whiteness was based, they were at the bottom of Los Angeles's racial hierarchy and represented an ever-present threat to a system of white privilege, requiring constant containment by the police.

The Chicana/o group I examined, CASA, was a Marxist-Leninist organization formed in 1972 that focused on immigrant workers. Its political ideology can best be summarized by its slogan Sin fronteras (without borders), which signifies its understanding of the Chicana/o and Mexicana/o working class as one. CASA was a vanguard group that sought to unite the workers of the world, or at least workers of Mexican origin. It was active in challenging the Bakke decision17 and, most important, attempted to effect policy changes toward immigrant workers. When CASA was formed, many Chicana/o organizations, including the United Farm Workers, viewed immigrant laborers as a problem rather than as workers to be organized. CASA contributed a great deal toward changing that position. I argue that Chicana/o leftists' preoccupation with questions of labor organizing and immigration reflected Chicanas/os' intermediate racial position as a “problem minority.” Their racial status and particular historical experiences cemented their position as low-wage workers in the region and all that such a position entails.18 Thus their ambivalent racial identity facilitated their incorporation into the formal economy, but only in a subordinated status.

Inevitably, when I tell people about this project, I am asked, “Are you studying the Brown Berets?” The Brown Berets, basically fashioning itself after the BPP, was active at roughly the same time and looms large in the Chicana/o imagination. I did not include it because, while it was radical, it was not left. In fact, the leader of the Berets, David Sánchez, was a strident anticommunist and espoused a much more nationalist politics. The Berets had members who openly embraced leftist ideologies, but the organization as a whole did not.19 The distinction between nationalists and revolutionary nationalists is an important one that will be discussed at length in chapter 5.

The final group that I consider is East Wind, a Japanese American collective that began in Los Angeles in 1972. Initially composed of revolutionary nationalists, it later became Marxist-Leninist-Maoist. Activists focused on politicizing the larger Japanese American population by doing community work and organizing. Although its roots were in study groups, community service, and numerous collectives, East Wind was significantly influenced by the BPP. East Wind became a highly disciplined organization that strongly emphasized serving the people by engaging in local struggles around drug abuse, worker issues, community mental health, and the redevelopment of Little Tokyo, to name but a few. Although relatively few, East Wind and other Japanese American leftists made significant contributions, as seen in their early organizing around the movement for redress and reparations. East Wind activists, like activists in the larger Asian American movement, concentrated on issues of identity, community service, and solidarity work, concerns that I believe reflect their mixed economic position and their status as a “middle minority.”

I focused on Japanese Americans, since they were the largest Asian American population in Los Angeles County in the late sixties and early seventies.20 To be sure, we already know far more about Japanese Americans than about other groups, such as Filipinas/os or Vietnamese Americans, in the diverse Asian/Pacific Islander population because many Japanese Americans have become successful writers and academicians and because they have simply been around longer to tell their stories. Moreover, in light of post-1965 immigration, Japanese Americans are rapidly becoming numerically insignificant in Southern California. These points underscore the need for more research on other Asian/Pacific Islander groups. For my study, however, I felt it was crucial to include Japanese Americans because not to do so would preclude a thorough interrogation of the racial dynamics of the time: the Nikkei21 were a central part of the Los Angeles racial hierarchy in the 1960s and 1970s, owing to both their size and their tenure in the region.


Part I of this book provides a theoretical and historical context for understanding the Third World Left. Chapter 1 is primarily theoretical and discusses differential racialization, racial hierarchies, and political activism. In it I develop a framework for analyzing the racial dynamics of the Third World Left. While this chapter is important conceptually, it can be skipped by those more interested in the Third World Left itself. The second chapter describes Southern California during the 1960s and 1970s to establish the setting for the larger story. In particular, I consider the racial and economic positions of Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans, and Blacks in terms of the racial hierarchy. I take up political consciousness in chapter 3: How and why did leftists of color became politicized? I highlight major political events that not only contributed to the prevailing political culture but also led to the rise of the Third World Left.

The second part of the book centers on the Third World Left itself. Chapter 4 introduces the key organizations—the BPP, CASA, and East Wind—and provides a brief overview of the history, structure, and demise of each. The fifth chapter compares the political ideologies and cultures of the various organizations, particularly on how the relationship between race, nation, and class was conceptualized. To portray a greater range of political ideologies, I compare each organization to a competing group within each respective racial/ethnic community. While revolutionary nationalism was certainly a dominant theme, it was by no means the only one at work. As Daryl Maeda has argued in the case of the BPP, these groups were simultaneously about the business of revolutionary nationalism, cultural nationalism, socialism, armed struggle, and worker and community organizing.22 Interethnic relations is the subject of the sixth chapter. Here I explore the politics of solidarity: To what extent did each organization work with other racial/ethnic groups? What do such practices reveal about each group's political ideologies and contradictions and about the larger racial hierarchy? In the seventh chapter I explore gender relations. While all the organizations can be called patriarchal, there were important differences stemming from each group's unique history and experience of racialization, as well as the politics they embraced. For instance, some political ideologies encouraged more egalitarian gender relations than others. Finally, in chapter 8 I consider where the activists and organizations are today, the legacy of the Third World Left, and some of the lessons to be learned.


A word on methodology: I am not a historian. While this book is very much about the past and I have borrowed heavily from the works and tools of historians, I am a social scientist—one deeply concerned with how race and class play out in the field of political activism. Accordingly, I do not offer a definitive history of each organization; I leave that task to the professionals. I seek to understand why activists developed the politics they did and how their actions might (or might not) make sense in light of larger racial and economic structures. My secondary goal is to analyze the breadth and diversity of racism. Over the years I have been frustrated by the assumptions that a person or action either is or is not racist and that there is only one kind of racism.23 I hope to show that the forms and expressions of racism can vary greatly and need to be examined from multiple viewpoints.

As I completed this manuscript, it occurred to me that this study should have included a predominantly white organization. As explained earlier, I did not include one precisely because of the paucity of material on the left of color. However, as the analysis progressed, I realized that inclusion of a predominantly white organization would have provided a useful contrast to the Third World groups. I trust that other scholars will pursue this line of inquiry.

A final caution: the case studies that make up this work are not contemporaneous. The BPP began in 1968 in Southern California, was in decline by 1970, and managed to hang on for a few more years. In contrast, both East Wind and CASA did not begin until 1972, and both dissolved around 1978. Although only a few years apart, the BPP is closely associated with revolutionary nationalism and Black Power politics, whereas East Wind and CASA are more aligned with the sectarian politics of the New Communist movement. Despite the differences between the left politics of the late sixties and the seventies, they are fundamentally linked and represent a historical trajectory. While this disjuncture precludes easy comparisons, I try to consistently take this into account.

Data for this study came from three sources: secondary accounts, archival materials, and personal interviews. With the exception of the BPP, the secondary literature on leftists of color is sparse, but a sizable body of work on the larger movements and politics of the time provided both valuable context and clues. Libraries and archives across the state contained newspapers, special collections, and ephemera related to the relevant organizations. In addition, I interviewed numerous individuals, venturing beyond members of the BPP, CASA, and East Wind. I found it enormously useful to interview activists of color in related or competing organizations as well as white activists. This gave me access to more viewpoints and deepened my appreciation of the political landscape by providing outsiders' views on specific organizations. Needless to say, my most valuable resources were the individuals who consented to be interviewed. I am extremely grateful to all those persons who gave of their time, memories, and experiences in helping me reconstruct this period. And while I know that not everyone will agree with what I have written, I hope this book will be seen as a serious effort to better understand the Third World Left.

Direct quotations from activists are not attributed to particular individuals in this book because of the numerous interviewees who desired anonymity. Early drafts included both pseudonyms and actual names, but this system grew unwieldy, so I dropped all references to individuals' names and just included brief descriptions of the sources. Only in a few cases where individuals have already made public their political past and there is some insight to be gained from revealing their identities have I disclosed names.

Writing about a movement that I was not part of posed special challenges. Some people did not wish to talk with me because I was an outsider—and, worse, an academic. Tensions still existed regarding this recent history, I quickly learned, and as an outsider I did not always detect the political minefields I was walking into. On the other hand, I did not have the prejudices of an insider. Although I still might seem overly sympathetic to some readers, I have tried to be critical, while honoring my responsibility to represent accurately what informants told me, by contextualizing their comments and pointing out contradictions. One reason for the seemingly positive slant is that the most critical individuals declined to be interviewed, not wishing to revisit their experiences or share them with me. Thus, despite my best efforts, my interviewees were somewhat self-selected. In addition, given the current political climate, many emphasized the positive aspects of their activist experiences, knowing what was at stake and the negative nature of previous portrayals of the Third World Left. No doubt an insider would provide a different perspective, and I encouraged numerous interviewees to consider writing their memoirs.

Authors choose to spend a part of their lives on projects that mean a great deal to them. I am no exception. This book addresses issues that I have thought about for decades: How do we mobilize to create a more socially just world? How do we overcome racial tensions to build a stronger movement? How can we mobilize around a specific class politics? Despite my initial fascination with the mystique of the Third World Left (partly because of its inaccessibility), any romantic notions I might have had were dispelled by my research. Though I have tried to be candid about the many problems and shortcomings of the Third World Left, my research also gave me a deep respect for the individuals who made up these organizations. In most cases they cared passionately about their communities and social justice. Besides daring to dream of a new world, they were often willing to give of their lives. While I did not always agree with their actions, I admit to admiring their conviction, and I believe that if we wish to create a different world—one free of racism, poverty, human rights abuses, and environmental degradation—we can learn a great deal from the passion and commitment of the Third World Left, albeit tempered with more wisdom, honesty, kindness, and flexibility.

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