Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement, Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement, Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York

Article excerpt

Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement, Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York, by Sonia Song-Ha Lee. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press, 2014. xi, 332 pp. $34.95 US (cloth).

By documenting and analyzing the many ways in which African Americans and Puerto Ricans, debated, connected, clashed, confronted, and overcame obstacles on the path toward racial justice in New York City during the 1960s and early 1970s, Sonia Song-Ha Lee has made a significant contribution to the study of ethnic and racial politics in the United States. Her book is meticulously researched and beautifully written

Lee shows how African Americans and Puerto Ricans were at times insular in their approach to socio-political action and at times entangled in ways that were both crippling and propulsive. In some instances, the process of working together brought about transformations in consciousness, so that movements that began anchored in concepts of racial and ethnic self-determination would transform into movements bound by working-class solidarity and / or anti-colonial sentiment. According to Lee, synergistic impulses were nurtured by three basic factors: malleable racial identities, the rich tradition of political radicalism of New York City's history, and the physical proximity between African Americans and Puerto Ricans in neighborhoods and workplaces.

Lee's analysis is distinctive because it steers away from approaches that either see "Hispanicity" and "blackness" as irreconcilable or reject the idea of commonality between African Americans and Puerto Ricans because it is considered degrading and stifling. Lee further distinguishes herself by rejecting the notion of political alliances as natural if situated within a context of a similar, "objective," socio-economic status. She is also clear about the scope of action of her protagonists: they are primarily political activists whose trajectories often intersected with the trajectories of others in the fields of music and culture but who were mostly concerned with labour issues, educational access and attainment, poverty, and civil rights.

Lee builds her case systematically, looking first at the types of racial discourse and structure that provided the ideological context for African American and Puerto Rican socio-economic and political participation in Postwar New York City. From that platform she examines the relationship between African Americans and Puerto Ricans in the labour movement. She then pauses to examine two elements that doubled as context for, and promoters of, action: settlement houses and social reform organizations. These agencies not only brought together African Americans and Puerto Ricans in time and space, but also gave opportunities and encouraged them to discuss and test ideas about how to best engage in political action against poverty and racial discrimination. One aspect of this part of the story that is significant is the role that whites played: bringing together blacks and Puerto Ricans, promoting their agendas and making things happen: racial and minority coalitions ultimately cannot succeed, and in some cases cannot even come off the ground, without support from the ethnoracial majority. …

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