Race, Ethnicity, and the State in Defining the Boundaries of Inclusion in the 20th-Century United States

AHA Session 178
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Continental B (Hilton Chicago, Lobby Level)
Shana Bernstein, Northwestern University
Shana Bernstein, Northwestern University

Session Abstract

“Race, Ethnicity, and the State in Defining the Boundaries of Inclusion” includes three papers that consider the interplay between the state and marginalized racial and ethnic groups in the US—African Americans, Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans, and Mexican immigrants—and how this shaped attitudes toward race, ethnicity, and civil rights issues in the twentieth-century United States. The panel adopts a definition of “the state” argued by scholars, such as historian Margot Canaday and sociologist Cybelle Fox, in which the state includes governmental structures and institutions familiar to us at the local, state, and federal levels, but also agencies and bureaucrats that acted on behalf of the government or influenced policy. This panel also expands our historical analysis of the US’s racial ideology beyond black-white relations by examining the experiences of African Americans, Japanese Americans, and people of Mexican-descent with the state. In doing so, the papers collectively contribute to the wide interpretation in civil rights historiography by considering the similarities among these populations, but especially by highlighting the key differences in the type of discrimination each group faced, where the state placed these groups within US racial ideology, and how these shaped civil rights strategies. Our panel brings together these two historiographies to highlight the relationship between the state and race relations: how both war and foreign policy shaped definitions of racial, ethnic, and national identity, and the ways in which marginalized communities used the state to challenge legal discrimination and fight for civil rights.

Taken together, the papers center on the impact of the state, in its various manifestations, on African American, Japanese American, and Mexican-descent communities. Guglielmo’s paper centers on World War II and considers US Military efforts to establish racial categories for bureaucratic purposes and how this stifled any possibility for interracial solidarities during the war and after. Also centered on World War II, Mendoza’s paper traces how both foreign policy and the war changed the way the federal government viewed its relationship with the Mexican-descent population in the US Southwest, and what this promised for Mexican American civil rights. Elmore’s paper highlights the efforts of Mexican immigrants to obtain civil rights protections in employment through US courts, revealing the legal challenge race and citizenship posed to how civil rights were defined.

Our panel raises questions about the relationship between the state and marginalized groups that lay outside the black-white binary that tends to drive contemporary and historical discussions on race relations. In what ways did these groups negotiate this black-white binary, and what role did the state play in this? How did the state attempt to make sense of where these populations fit in the US racial ideology? Our panel is chaired by Shana Bernstein, whose research on the wide civil rights movement reveals how interracialism was central to civil rights activism in California in the mid-twentieth century. Dr. Bernstein will also provide comments before opening up the discussion to the audience.

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