7. California and Reconstruction
D. Michael Bottoms skillfully engages readers in California's racial turmoil in An Aristocracy of Color, Race and Reconstruction in California and the West, 1850 - 1890 (2013). Nineteenth-century white Californians expended tremendous energy to 1) keep their various racial prejudices straight and 2) design multiple campaigns against specific non-white groups according to complex reasoning, rationalizations and lies.
African Americans seemed to come out marginally ahead of other minorities in California, thanks to the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments, resulting from the sufferings of the black race and grudgingly acknowledged (though not ratified) by Californians. Human nature can be wicked: California's blacks were unwilling to share the fruits of their long-fought battle with fellow minorities. Instead, they adopted whites' sense of superiority. Whites had systematically crushed California's Native Americans before the Civil War, leaving Indians in the unwanted position of being, to use a Pacific Northwest analogy, last men on the totem pole. White Californians rated their bias against the Chinese between blacks and Indians, creating a mythology about Asians that rivaled the inventiveness of Aesop's Fables. They labeled "Chinamen" subhuman, dirty and infectious. But the resourceful Chinese fought back, employing American law to their advantage, riding on the coattails of Reconstruction legislation. Nevertheless, California mirrored the nation well into the mid-twentieth century as they strived desperately to maintain white supremacy, regardless of the color or race of its minorities.
Because of my surname, I would be remiss not to mention Bottoms' Chapter 2, "The Apostasy of Henry Huntly Haight." (I checked with my husband's Aunt Ladonna, our family genealogist, who assures me that HHH and we perch on different branches of the family tree.). Haight became governor of California as the Civil War segued into Reconstruction. He vocalized the belief, as Bottoms explains, that "black suffrage was . . . the first step in the inevitable elevation of all nonwhites" (59). Under his leadership, California refused to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Constitutional Amendments, realizing they would pave the way to full citizenship not only for blacks but also for Indians and Chinese. It was Haight who unwrapped California's "simple binary racial hierarchy" of whites versus nonwhites to reveal "a more complicated and more ambiguous hierarchy . . . along three, or even four, axes" (59). Haight brought already-roiling prejudices into open controversies. By then, there was no stopping the downward-spiraling process.