Essay: Los Angeles as a Case Study for Racial Formation and Stratification

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  • Los Angeles as a Case Study for Racial Formation and Stratification
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What is Omi and Winant’s racial formation theory and what are racial projects?

Sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant define racial formation as a “sociohistorical construct in which the meaning of race is defined and contested through society, in both collective action and personal practice and in the process, racial categories themselves are formed, transformed, destroyed, and re-formed” (Rothenberg, 2016). Racial formation is accomplished by “historically situated projects in which human bodies and social structures are represented and organized” (Rothenberg, 2016). Racial formation is a dialectical process with the relationship going in both directions; the idea of a certain race feeds back to everyday and is reinforced by certain practices, such as cultural differences, which are prominent due to the practices. Racial projects are examples of the racial formation theory and are “[…] simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines” (Omi & Winant, 2014).

What is stratification and durable inequality?

Stratification are the inequalities between people in socially defined categories such as race, class, and gender, characterized by differential access to scarce resources such as income, wealth, race, education, power, status, and social capital. Stratification boils down to the allocation of people and the institutionalization of processes regarding the allocation of resources. The term durable inequality comes from Tilly (1999) who states that durable inequality depends heavily on the institutionalization of categorical pairs and is reproduced by exploitation and opportunity hoarding mechanisms such as discrimination, unfair treatment, and constant practices by the wealthy to prevent others from achieving resources. Exploitation rests on unequal distribution of rewards and these mechanisms cause residential segregation, housing discrimination, prevention of education which are imbedded in institutions, economy, cultural practices, stereotypes, etc.

How does Los Angeles serve as a case study for racial formation, racial projects, stratification, and durable inequality?

While Los Angeles is a multicultural city, it serves a great example of a case study for racial formation, racial projects, stratification, and durable inequality. There are many socioeconomic processes occurring in Los Angeles that reinforces who the other is and there are many mechanisms that create durable racism. Los Angeles county was built as a racial project and built on the backs of people of sellers (Latinos, Blacks, Asians) so that whites could retain their socioeconomic advantages. We can see Los Angeles as a case study by focusing specifically on how Los Angeles has constructed Mexican Americans as the “other”.

The racial battle between Mexican Americans and whites occurred back even before California was part of the United States. Even after the war fueled by Manifest Destiny, a doctrine that claimed that the U.S. had a destiny to occupy the North American continent, basically a racial project of white supremacy, ended, racial hate continued with Los Angeles growth achieved by hating Mexicans and immigrants. White capitalists engaged in racial projects of the separation of nonwhites as different to retain power and economic power in the 1850s. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, rancheros were to be honored but the 1851 Act passed to make rancheros provide proof that they own land and the boundaries of their land. This was in an effort to cut down markers as it was very costly to divest the ranchos. The government started taxing the land and the rancheros could not pay the taxes and therefore were kicked out. The act by the government demonstrated the power of whites as one institutional mechanism of white supremacy. Mexicans were seen as inferior and Whites superior.

Another example of Los Angeles as a project of racial formation is with the Spanish Fantasy Past. Los Angeles was portrayed with many false images about their history. In marketing events, Los Angeles was seen as a beautiful and vibrant city with a nice and friendly Spanish past. The San Fernando Heights Lemon Association turned Helen Hunt Jackson’s “Ramona” to project an image of romantic, erotic, sexualized Southern California. La Fiesta de Los Angeles was created to publicly whitewash the adobe past and create distinctions that were solidified in celebratory ways and show that peace had been achieved and to celebrate the triumph of the Manifest Destiny. The Spanish Fantasy Past was a construction of Los Angeles as a racial project as a creation of people as inherently superior or inferior to retain privilege and power as part of a sociohistorical process. Human bodies were organized in certain ways as meanings of racial superiority and inferiority and marginalization. This racial project of structuring of groups was the capitalist transformation of Los Angeles.

Include in these 3 examples specific policies or institutions that demonstrate how racial projects impact the structure of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles has instituted many racial projects that have impacted its structure. Back when there were many new immigrants coming into Los Angeles, there were restrictive racial covenants enacted. As immigrants continued to migrate, they were constantly kept out of white neighborhoods due to racially restrictive covenants which were first introduced in the 1800s but widespread in the 1920s. Racial restrictive covenants were not law but written in property deeds between sellers and buyers. It was written into contracts that houses could not be sold to those not white as realtors were engaged in racially steering covenants to keep out Mexicans, Blacks, Asians, and Jews. There was an “invisible wall of steel” and it was hard for immigrants to get loans, making property ownership difficult. Property ownership became equated with race and naturalization of segregation due to durable inequality.

The Chinese Exclusion Act also greatly impacted the structure of Los Angeles. The Chinese were subjected to harassment, labor exploitation, and a vast array of exclusionary national and state measures, notably the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which severely limited their immigration to the United States (Pulido, Barraclough & Cheng). The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) was the first law by Congress that barred a certain particular group from entering the U.S. for 10 years. After the Chinese labor source was cut off, agriculturalists panicked about the secondary labor market and lobbied to not cut off immigration from Mexico. Mexicans became the new labor force and have become crucial to all part of the labor industry today.

Another racial project that has impacted Los Angeles is the case of Chavez Ravine. Chavez Ravine consisted of three semirural Mexican American communities whose neighborhoods were threatened and ultimately destroyed as a result of the Los Angeles Planning Commission’s decision to develop new housing in blighted areas. It promised that rents would be based on a sliding scale, new housing would be racially inclusive, and that residents displaced by any land acquisition would have first chance at the new housing, but after a decade of legal and political battle, the housing projects never occurred, and many families lost their homes and moved into neighborhoods with rents higher than they expected (Pulido, Barraclough & Cheng) The story of Chavez Ravine demonstrates how minorities have been impacted by the city’s corruption, politics, and the persistent displacement of Mexicans.

How have residents of Los Angeles attempted to resist inequality?

Los Angeles is known to be a very liberal and progressive city that has taken many attempts to resist inequality. The city has proposed many legislations and lawsuits to circumvent and undo Donald Trump’s agenda on immigration and other liberal causes. Activists in Los Angeles have created grassroots campaigns to shield residents from the White House’s attacks and due to pressure from residents, California lawmakers have adopted the most expansive “sanctuary state” law in the country, restricting police from questioning people about citizenship status and limiting cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) (Levin 2018). The state has also challenged Trump’s travel ban on Muslim-majority countries and his decision to end DACA (Levin 2018). There were also hundreds of protesters who took to the streets of DTLA in November 2017 to protest against the Trump administration and its policies.

What type of city do you see Los Angeles becoming in the future?

While Los Angeles is known to be a very liberal and progressive city filled with many different races, I believe that Los Angeles is still far from achieving equality and there will still continue to be battles amongst the races. There will be a multiracial pattern of racial hierarchy and ethnoracial inequality. This ethnoracial future described by Schmidt (2010) sees a pattern that includes triangulation among multiple racialized groups and that stigmatizes, excludes, and/or pits minority groups in opposition to each other in multiple ways, but that systematically supports various forms of political, social, and economic advantage for a steadily decreasing White, European-origin population. There are still instances of racism, discrimination, and inequality going on inside Los Angeles with hierarchies prevalent even in the workplace with instances such as wage theft and threats by bosses to deport immigrants due to the Trump administration. As Tiffany Hsu and Chris Kirkham describe in their article (2014), of more than 1,600 Labor Department investigations into the Southern California garment industry since 2009, 89% found violations. The department has recovered more than $15 million in back wages […] with many of the workers suffering from wage theft to be minorities working under big companies (Hsu & Kirkham 2014). According to Andrew Khouri (2018) there are also more instances in which more workers are saying that their bosses are threatening to have them deported, a way of trying to control the immigrants and pay them less. Although Los Angeles is more liberal than many of the Southern states, there is still much room for progress and due to the new administration and its policies, Los Angeles is headed towards a future of a multiracial hierarchy.

Provide two concrete ideas about how we can work to make Los Angeles a more equitable city for all.

To help make Los Angeles a more equitable city, it will be important to create a mayor’s office for immigrant issues and affairs for new citizens. These offices will provide a number of services such as financial literacy, ESL classes, job search, etc. to help immigrants integrate into the city. These services will help immigrants better integrate into the city and help them understand their rights and protections while finding their ways around the city.

Another plausible idea is to implement municipal ID cards for anyone whether immigrant, native born, documented or undocumented with access to benefits such as library cards and public transportation to help immigrants feel a part of the city and have access to resources that will help them succeed and find jobs, housing, gain education, etc.

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