The Great American Song Cycle
Election results got you down? Surprised by what happened on Election Day? Ready to pack it all up and move out?
Before you start strapping the mattress to the top of the car, it might help to get some long-view context (aka history) from the History Dude.
It probably is small comfort to remind you, but racism, sexism, homophobia and immigrant-bashing are all themes in the Great American Song Cycle going back to the beginnings of the Republic. They’re as American as apple pie.
Those isms and phobias wax and wane -- usually in counterpoint with the economy. When the economy is good they decline and lie dormant until the economy goes into the dumper at which point 1they burst forth. “We’re baaack!”
Mexican farm laborer, Salinas Valley, 1930s. Between 1929 and 1936 over 1,000,000 Mexican and Mexican Americans were forcibly driven or taken back to Mexico. The program was carried out by local and state-level politicians and law enforcement and was not legal. It is still little known. In 2005 the California Legislature issued a formal apology to those where were removed and their families.
Filipino strawberry pickers Monterey Bay Region, 1930s. Filipinos were targets for prejudice and discrimination from their first arrival in the Western United States in the early 1920s. In January, 1930, the largest anti-Filipino race riot in US History occurred in Watsonville eventually resulting in the death of Filipino farm worker, Fermin Tobera.
The anti-Japanese movement in California had reached its peak in the election of 1920. James Duval Phelan, owner and developer of the grand park at his summer home, Lighthouse Point, Santa Cruz, was a candidate for re-election to the United States Senate and his primary campaign slogan was “Keep California White.” He was in favor of alien land laws that prohibited Japanese immigrants from owning property, and he opposed continued Japanese immigration. Japanese immigration was stopped in 1924. And Phelan lost the election of 1920.
National Hazing and the Horns of the Scapegoat
The usual targets of these paroxysms are immigrants, those “huddled masses” or Others who come into the land looking and sounding differently. If their timing is bad, they arrive during an economic downturn (or in the case of California a drought – click here to see drought’s effects locally) we crown them with a set of national Scapegoat Horns. After all, goes the simplistic logic, Happy Days were here until THEY showed up so it must be THEIR fault. Then, in a crude form of National Hazing, those already here beat the crap out of the newcomers. Once sufficiently beaten the Others become one of US and turn, axe handles at the ready, prepared to beat down the new guys. And so it goes.
America has been an equal opportunity harasser – everybody gets a chance to wear the Horns of the Scapegoat. Some, like African-Americans, have never been permitted to take them off.
Some local and regional examples
“Don’t Know Much About History”
- Song lyrics from Wonderful World by Sam Cooke (1960)
Whenever I tell a gathered group of Santa Cruz County folks that their blessed precious little paradise was the epicenter of the California anti-Chinese movement in the 1870s and 1880s, they usually respond with surprise and astonishment. “Really? Racism in Santa Cruz?” Yep right here in River City. Speaking of the river, the news that a pair of Californios was lynched (executed without the benefit of trial) in 1877 from beneath the Water Street bridge brings the response, “No! You can’t be serious!” Or that the Ku Klux Klan had several Klaverns in Santa Cruz County in the 1920s terrorizing Jews and Catholics by burning crosses on Lighthouse Point. Or, speaking of Lighthouse Point, the man who owned it and had a lovely garden estate there, James D. Phelan, in 1920 ran for re-election to the U.S. Senate on the anti-Japanese campaign slogan “Keep California White.” Or that in 1930 the largest anti-Filipino riot in California history occurred in Watsonville, resulting in the murder (unsolved) of a twenty-two year old Filipino farm worker named Fermin Tobera. Or that 54% of county voters in 1964 approved Proposition 14 that allowed landlords to continue to discriminate against African-Americans when renting or selling real estate. (65% of the voters approved it statewide.) And so it went.
As you luxuriate in the 2016 blue haze that now covers the county congratulating yourself at the high percentage of liberal voters that live here, you need to know that it wasn’t always this way. Go back just 50 years (see Proposition 14 above) and Santa Cruz County was pretty much like every other rural area in the state and country. The coming of Cabrillo Junior College, and UCSC, changed all that.
If you ignore the deep, dark, racist and violent history of this place, you might conclude that it was always this island of liberalism and tolerance and that those isms could never take root here. Those isms are still here, in the very soil beneath our feet, ready to burst forth.
Think Locally; Act Locally
So, what do we do now? First off, we need to recognize our local and regional history, with all the warts and what my students used to call The Bad Stuff. Secondly, we need to recognize that there’s nothing inevitable about the cycles, at least not locally. We may not be able to effect change in Louisiana, Florida, or South Dakota, but we can help see to it that those among us who are currently wearing the Horns of the Scapegoat are supported and made to feel and be safe.
A Great Christmas Gift – Our Kryptonite – The U.S. Constitution
It probably sounds simplistic, but the defense we have against those isms and phobias is the U.S. Constitution. It is 229 years old, lumpy, maligned and scarred, but it is our ultimate defense.
What can we do, you ask? Get a copy. Many handbook versions of the Constitution are filled with commentary giving it a particular agenda. In the spirit of Santa Cruz County you should get one that’s organic, no additives, artisanal, no GMO, free-range, gluten-free. You can buy it from the Government Printing Office:
Great stocking stuffers. Put them at the place-settings at your family Holiday dinners. Staple your business card on them and distribute them at your Chamber of Commerce meetings, when networking.
Here’s a special Constitution Recipe that I’ve developed that you can make for yourself. Serves one. Click here.
Join or give memberships in organizations with local branches committed to protecting our civil rights.
This year, instead of Saving a Heifer, or sending fruit, pajamas or teddy bears, why not give friends and family a membership in an organization devoted to upholding the rights and liberties guaranteed in the Constitution.
Here are four suggestions – three of which have active local chapters: download PDF here.
Kick off the Holidays by attending a Free Forum at Cabrillo College
A Free Forum! Thursday evening, Dec. 8, Cabrillo College Aptos Campus, 7:00 PM
Title: “What the Hell Happened? How the 2016 Presidential Election fits into the context of U.S. History.”
The Cabrillo College History and Political Science Departments are sponsoring and participating in a non-partisan post-Election 2016 forum.
A wide-ranging and provocative discussion of the 2016 election in the context of U.S. History. We all might learn something.
Date: Thursday, November 8, 2016
Time: 7:00 PM
Place: Room 450 (Forum Building, Aptos Campus)
The collected talent of Cabrillo’s prize-winning History and Political Science Departments will conduct a forum to help attendees put the recent Presidential Election in the context of U.S. History and try to answer whether anything like this has ever happened before.
Free Constitution: The first 100 attendees will receive a pocket book copy of the United States Constitution and Declaration of Independence. This is an additive-free printing by the US Government Printing Office. No commentaries, just the Constitution as James Madison and the Founding Fathers wrote it. Limit one per person.
A note about Parking: We are negotiating with the Cabrillo College administration about making that evening a free parking evening. Stay tuned.