Sunday, October 26, 2014

California and Reconstruction

7.  California and Reconstruction

       If white southerners thought they had problems getting the better of blacks during the Reconstruction period, they must have been surprised by white Californians and their self-made predicaments.   The bi-racial issues of the ex-Confederate States seemed to explode exponentially in California, where whites plotted against Indians, Chinese and blacks.  The South, of course, had a two-hundred year head start abusing, sidestepping and legislating against blacks prior to Reconstruction.  California, on the other hand, gave birth to triple racial confusion and biases in the relatively short period from the middle to the end of the nineteenth century (and beyond).

      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.


  1. The question of the way African Americans battled for their rights at the expense of the Chinese and Indians strikes me as a difficult one. Were they deliberately hateful, or was it more likely they would achieve their goals by maintaining their different-ness from the other groups. By attempting to maintain solidarity with other minorities, mightn't they have irreparably endangered their own prospects? I think they might.

  2. Diane, When the subordinated becomes the subordinator is always an interesting study, and one that I think is always difficult to fully explain. Yes, maintaining different-ness, as Carol says, might reassure white California that some concessions to blacks would not open the floodgates of racial equality. But then I think we also must ask if black's vitriol towards Chinese was necessary to maintain different-ness. I think we would have to examine black-Chinese relationships in California more closely to really begin to understand why blacks distanced themselves from other nonwhite minorities who were fighting for the same recognition. But I think this is a great point to bring up, Diane.