Making America White Again – Contemplating the Roots of Racism in My Hometown
Americans should not be surprised by the rise of nativism prompted by Trump’s rhetoric. White supremacy, xenophobia and red baiting have a long history in the United States. My hometown makes a good example.
It was said that my grandfather, Ben Wick, and William O. Douglas were the only two Democrats in Yakima, Washington in the early 1920s. Or perhaps they were the only two admitted Democrats. In my hometown at that time being a Democrat automatically labeled you as a Communist.
William O., then known as Orville Douglas, grew up in Yakima but as a young man left to find his fortune in the East. FDR appointed him to head the new Securities and Exchange Commission and then to the Supreme Court. He became the longest serving U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Yakima’s most famous native son but the town reviled him. The New Deal Democrat was far too liberal for Yakima.
My grandfather, a Norwegian immigrant, traveled with his family—my Swedish grandmother and their four daughters—to Yakima in 1921. He and Orville Douglas met at Yakima High School where they both were teachers.
When my mother was growing up in the 1920s and 30s, Yakima, with a population of about 20,000, was a conservative place. Today, with about 91,000 people, it remains a red blot in a blue state. In the 2016 presidential election Yakima County went for Trump/Pence. Washington’s population is concentrated on the west coast around Seattle. Rural Eastern Washington is another world.
Yakima’s story is not unfamiliar. It’s been reenacted in countless towns across this continent. Catholic missionaries had settled in the Valley and white settlers followed in the 1850s as the U.S. Army drove the indigenous population onto a nearby reservation. The Native Americans had fiercely resisted in what were known as the Indian Wars. The Yakama (the tribe changed to this spelling) Indian reservation is home to several different indigenous groups that were forced to settle there in what we call the Lower Valley, a few miles south of the town of Yakima. The sagebrush country with fertile volcanic soil was partly developed and irrigated by Japanese immigrant farmers who began arriving before the turn of the 20th century.
Researching what life was like in my hometown in this period, I found a book written by Thomas Heuterman, who was my journalism professor at Washington State University. The Burning Horse: The Japanese Experience in the Yakima Valley 1920-1942 documents discrimination against the Japanese community in Wapato, a town on the Yakama reservation where the farmers leased land from the tribe. In emails Prof. Heuterman told me he had been surprised to find what his research showed: a long history of racism and exclusion in the Yakima Valley. Japanese farmers in the Valley were persecuted relentlessly. Their houses, barns and crops were bombed and burned.
Heuterman grew up in Wapato. He wrote: “I went into the project predicting that the Valley Japanese were an exception among all the prejudice of the era. That’s what I remembered as a child from my folks’ attitudes. But, as you know, I found just the opposite. Most of the Nisei (second generation) who have read the book also didn’t know that racism was going on; their folks had protected them from that.”
Newspapers stoked the fires of racism. Prof. Heuterman’s research focused on stories in the local and state newspapers. These were headlines in the Seattle Star during hearings to determine the fate of Japanese immigrants in Washington State in 1920.
“WILL YOU HELP TO KEEP THIS A WHITE MAN’S COUNTRY?”
“JAPS PLANS MENACE WHITE CIVILIZATION”
“Japanese plans for expansion at the expense of the white race are a deeper menace to Caucasian civilization than were ever the dreams of Pan-German imperialists”
In the 1920 version of fake news, testifiers at the hearings repeated lies about the Japanese and weird ideas about racial purity that were then amplified by newspapers across the state. A well-organized American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Anti-Japanese League perpetuated the apocryphal threat of the Yellow Peril. Then the Grange took up the cause. Anti-alien laws passed in Washington State were modeled on those of California, which in turn had been promoted by influential Southern whites who had settled in the West after the Civil War.
… 200 men set upon blacks in Wapato, beating them and setting fire to one of their houses. Filipinos and unionists also became targets of harassment.”
Racist organizations gained influence after World War I. In the Red Scare of 1917-20 nativism swept the whole country. During that time Alien and Sedition laws were used to deport hundreds of immigrants deemed by the government to be radicals, the anarchist Emma Goldman among them. In the Yakima Valley anti-immigrant sentiment reached a peak in the 1920s and 30s. I was shocked to learn that the KKK held a rally in 1924 which drew 40,000 people to a field outside the town. A thousand robed KKK members marched in the parade.
The big industry in Yakima was, and still is, agriculture. My mother’s family worked in the apple orchards, hop fields and fruit packing plants. Farmers welcomed migrant laborers during harvest season and when labor was scarce. But when the economic cycle moved from boom to bust, these workers were targets of violence, forced removal and alien restriction laws. American workers who saw their jobs being taken by immigrants who would work for less were some of the worst perpetrators of nativist violence.
In 1938, 200 men set upon blacks in Wapato, beating them and setting fire to one of their houses. Filipinos and unionists also became targets of harassment. In 1933, the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) led a strike for higher wages of white migrant farmworkers that was put down by orchardists with pipes, clubs and bats. Then the strikers were marched five miles to a stockade that had been constructed in the middle of downtown Yakima. Some of those arrested were jailed for six months, and the stockade stayed up as a deterrent for a decade.
In the Yakima of my mother’s youth you could not escape the dominant paradigm. But by the time I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, my generation was ignorant of this history. I grew up near the Congdon orchard where the 1933 “Battle of Congdon Castle” took place. The owner’s summerhouse mansion was called Congdon Castle and we kids thought it was haunted. No one really lived there except caretakers. The wealthy owners had always lived in another state. (My Swedish carpenter uncle was a builder of the castle whose architecture was reminiscent of Medieval Europe.)
Our family often visited Fort Simcoe, the restored Army fort on the Yakama reservation, but I never learned about the Indian Wars as a child. Native Americans and revolution were scrubbed from our textbooks and xenophobia persisted.
My brother Don remembers as a freshman in high school in 1967 defending the rights of Native Americans in history class. The popular teacher launched into a diatribe against him in front of the whole class. She said “Indians” had an inferior culture and deserved to be conquered. She said they were dirty, barbaric and uncivilized. She believed it was the right of a “superior culture” to war against them and subjugate them. This was the inevitable march of history, she said.
In Yakima the xenophobes scorned anyone not of the “white race.” The irony was that these invading whites had themselves displaced indigenous people and it’s difficult to understand how they failed to see this giant contradiction. The trick, of course, was to make them subhuman.
My grandparents had a strong immigrant identity and they can’t have felt completely safe. Family lore tells of …”
The advantage my family had is that they were, in the language of the American Legion, of the “white race.” The white supremacists in Yakima and elsewhere were able to successfully construct a racial identity, the “white race,” made from hundreds of diverse cultures, people who spoke different languages and dialects, people who had themselves been the victims of oppression, as a way to successfully divide the population.
In Yakima white was all right as long as you didn’t upset the status quo. Whiteness didn’t always save you. As a method of exclusion, the definition of white has changed significantly over the course of our history. Europeans not considered white at some point in American history include Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, Irish, Scandinavians, Germans, Finns, Russians, French, and Jews.
My grandparents had a strong immigrant identity and they can’t have felt completely safe. Family lore tells of my grandfather Ben enduring taunts for his foreign accent from students at Yakima High School where he taught commercial arts. Mom told me she remembered her father’s troubled reaction to the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian immigrants whose incarceration lasted from 1920 to 1927. She was 14 years old when they were executed by the U.S. government. Her Norwegian father took the side of the immigrants, who most agreed had been falsely accused.
The Irish side of my family immigrated at the onset of the potato famine of the 1840s, what the Irish call the starvation because the crops they grew and harvested were shipped to their English overlords, leaving them with nothing to eat. In his book, Irish on the Inside, Tom Hayden posits that Irish immigrants had more in common with blacks and slaves than the white rulers who starved and oppressed them. Before epigenetics became a thing, Hayden made the case that we have all been affected by the plight of our ancestors. “That the Irish are white and European cannot erase the experience of our having been invaded, occupied, starved, colonized and forced out of our homeland,” he wrote.
We will become our nightmare without a chance of awakening from its grip.”
Hayden wanted to break the assimilationist mold among Irish Americans.
“If Irish Americans identify with the 10 percent of the world which is white, Anglo American and consumes half the global resources, we have chosen the wrong side of history and justice. We will become the inhabitants of the Big House ourselves, looking down on the natives we used to be. We will become our nightmare without a chance of awakening from its grip.”
One white Yakiman who tried to choose the right side of history and justice was William O. Douglas. My mother was one of the few locals who admired him. She shared his politics, which were shaped by class. He grew up fatherless and poor. When discussing how his personal experiences influenced his view of the law, Douglas said, “I worked among the very, very poor, the migrant laborers, the Chicanos and the IWWs who I saw being shot at by the police. I saw cruelty and hardness, and my impulse was to be a force in other developments in the law.”
The anti-communist John Birch Society smeared Douglas as “the only known Communist in Yakima County.” He was no communist but he did defend the concept of revolution in a 1969 screed. He is famously quoted in Points of Rebellion: “We must realize that today’s Establishment is the new George III. Whether it will continue to adhere to his tactics, we do not know. If it does, the redress, honored in tradition, is also revolution.” He survived four impeachment attempts.
When I asked my civil rights lawyer friend Judy Kurtz about Douglas she said, “Legal standing for trees!” He was famous for defending nature and the environment, often in dissenting opinions. She added, “I wish he was still on the court. Dear god, help us now.”
Douglas called Yakima his “Shangri-La.” He loved the orchards and the nearby Cascade Mountains. He returned often to our hometown and Mom and I ran into him and his wife Cathy in the 1970s. We had decided to splurge on lunch at the Larson Building, the town’s only high-rise, an elegant Art Deco architectural gem built in 1931. Mom spotted them as we walked into the lobby. “Justice Douglas, Justice Douglas,” my mother entreated as she ran up to him. He graciously remembered her father.
My grandfather’s membership in the Democratic Party came at a high price. He was let go from his teaching job at the nadir of the Depression in 1932. After that the family, with four young daughters, struggled to survive.
The wartime internment of Japanese did not happen in a vacuum. Finally, after decades of domestic terrorism, the American Legion and its ilk got their way. In June 1942, 1061 Japanese were evacuated from the Valley, sent by rail to a processing center at the Portland livestock grounds, and then incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Wyoming for the remainder of the war—800 miles from home. Only a few resettled in the Yakima Valley.
Now, a century after my grandparents immigrated, in a time when, once again, militias form to “protect” the white race from foreigners, we can look to our own history for insight. One of my heroes, the labor organizer Sister Addie Wyatt said, “If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going.” This is where we come from. I fervently hope it is not where we’re going. I’m so glad people like immigrants and Americans of color, the Wobblies, my grandfather and William O. Douglas found the will to resist.
[Molly Martin: I'm a long-time tradeswoman activist, retired electrician and electrical inspector and blog at tradeswomn musings. I live in San Francisco, CA. I also share a travel blog, Travels With MoHo, with my wife, Holly.]