Academic journal article Social Justice

Immigrants, Racial Citizens, and the (Multi)cultural Politics of Neoliberal Los Angeles

Academic journal article Social Justice

Immigrants, Racial Citizens, and the (Multi)cultural Politics of Neoliberal Los Angeles

Article excerpt

THE CHANGING RACIAL LANDSCAPE OF LOS ANGELES EVIDENT BY THE 1990S EMERGED under the shadow of dramatic economic and social changes that were decades in the making. The deindustrialization of Los Angeles, most memorably the shutdown of Bethlehem Steel, marked the decline of what had seemed to be a stalwart industrial economy; it contributed to accelerating rates of unemployment in working-class communities and a massive reduction of the formerly unionized, mainly male, workforce (see, e.g., Oliver et al., 1993; Soja, 1996; Sassen, 1998). For example, between 1990 and 1992, over 600,000 jobs were lost in Los Angeles County, most of which were held by African-American men. The concurrent growth of the service sector and light manufacturing (such as the garment industry) offered work opportunities to over 2,800,000 Asian and Latino immigrants who had come to Los Angeles during the 1990s. (1) With the growth of these communities, Los Angeles became the first and largest U.S. city without a claim to a white majority population. This reality gave rise to a multiculturalist discourse of inclusion and anti-immigrant nativist fervor that was reflected in the greater militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, the demand that only English be spoken in schools and in government offices, and the 1994 passage of Proposition 187, which tried to deny undocumented immigrants access to health care and education. (2)

This article will explore the contradictory and paradoxical claims of the multiculturalist discourse in Los Angeles, which racially differentiated Asian and Latino immigrant populations from each other and from fully enfranchised citizens. These demographic and economic changes in Los Angeles were accompanied by representations of Los Angeles as a uniquely American space during the 1980s and 1990s. It is figured as emblematic of the achievement of wealth, progress, and inclusion in the U.S., but also as a space of (racialized) conflict and a dystopia of Third World encroachment. (3) An analysis of Los Angeles, which Saskia Sassen (2001) believes exemplifies a "global city," demonstrates the convergences and contradictions of neoliberal globalization; multiculturalist discourses that define nationalist cultural politics in the era of neoliberalism also contribute to this study. (4)

Multiculturalism emerged in the late 1980s and quickly became the dominant discourse to address the lack of racial diversity in media representations, curriculum, and in telling national history. Proponents argue that multiculturalist projects are a corrective to histories of racial repression that marginalize the cultural contributions of people of color, an erasure with ongoing, broad political implications. It is imagined as a continuation of the civil rights projects of the 1960s and 1970s, although this version is softer and easier to digest. Antiracist critics of multiculturalism, while agreeing that intervening in curriculums and emphasizing diversity are important, worry that multiculturalism represents "racism not as a form of institutional inequality, but as a matter of different mutually exclusive ways of life which must be preserved" (Davis, 1996: 45). Angela Davis (Ibid.) argues that women's rights, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, and native sovereignty rights are regarded as beyond the purview of multicultural politics because they are not part of "cultural traditions."

In this article, I argue that multiculturalism organizes difference and shapes political imperatives to erase material histories of oppression by discursively and politically situating the civil rights history of the 1960s as the "true" beginning of a U.S. (multicultural) nation. Legal scholars Rachel F. Moran (1998) and Kevin R. Johnson (1998) offer excellent analyses of how the gains of the civil rights movements are inadequate to address Latino conditions. The civil rights paradigm in Brown v. Board of Education and its progeny, they argue, privileges the particular African-American history of segregation. …

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