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Race and Politics: Asian Americans, Latinos, and Whites in a Los Angeles Suburb

Leland T. Saito
University of Illinois Press: Champaign, IL
0252067207 (pb); 0252024133 (hb)
US$21.95 (pb); US$49.95 (hb)
xvi + 256

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Based on ethnographic fieldwork and interviews carried out between 1988 and 1992 in San Gabriel Valley, LA county, this book moves beyond the African-American/White focus by discussing the experiences of Latinos and Asian Americans, the dominant 'ethnic' groups in this area. Described as 'reluctant ethnics' (p.5), Saito analyses the connections between 'whiteness' and constructions of identities among these ethnic minorities. The San Gabriel valley is described as 'an "incubator" for ethnic politics' (p. 10) and a place where the political and economic power of 'whiteness' is beginning to be contested. (Between 1970 and 1990 in LA County, the number of Latinos tripled in number and Asian Americans quadrupled their population). The redevelopment of Atlantic Square, Monterey Park in the late 1980s and early 90s is used as an example of how 'whiteness' is defended through the symbolic value of architecture and in the definition of American business as 'white'. The plan 'to go back to the history of the town' (p.47) in redesigning the square edited out the large Asian American presence. A history was invoked that included the Mexican past of the region, but its Mexican past was 'whitened' in translation into an architectural style that was initially described as 'Spanish' and eventually as 'Mediterranean'. Concern over the material and symbolic control of this public place was articulated in racial terms demonstrating how racial and ethnic identities can flow from attachments to certain places, in this case making it a place in which 'whites' could 'feel at home' (p. 51).

Case studies are used to demonstrate the ways in which the cultural content of racial identities is transformed when different regional and national histories are refashioned and combined with contemporary issues to produce political activism. In a discussion of political representation, Saito notes that the number of elected ethnic politicians is an inadequate indicator of political representation for ethnic groups. This is because numbers tell us little about the responsiveness of particular politicians to racial issues, their political beliefs, or the kinds of electoral strategies they pursue. 'White' representatives may also be responsive to racial politics and related issues. Differences within the Asian American community are discussed, for example, there was disagreement between Chinese American developers who favoured a free market approach to local development and Chinese and Japanese native-born Americans who were more supportive of consultative city planning. Yet, in some contexts these differences were put aside in the face of discrimination, anti-Asian incidents and lack of representation on public bodies. Issues of representation and class are also critically analysed because those taking part in Asian American organizations tend to be largely middle class professionals.

Latinos and Asian Americans came together to confront those modes of exclusion from American society that they shared. For both groups racial identities were not merely symbolic but had material consequences. Saito notes that behaviour supporting 'white' privilege can both produce solidarity between minority groups and competition or conflict between them. He traces shifts from bitter conflict (mainly emerging from restrictive immigration laws which cut off Asian labourers) to political alliances between Latinos, Chinese immigrants and established Asian Americans in order to demonstrate the fluid and circumstantial nature of racial and ethnic relationships. Overall, the book argues that political policies and everyday practices in the US support privileged access to power and opportunities for 'whites'. The book challenges approaches that emphasize resource mobilization and panethnicity because these tend to focus mainly on structural factors. Instead, Saito emphasizes the significance of everyday activities that reproduce 'race' as an important factor in political mobilization. The case studies are used to argue for the continuing need of a politics based on 'race' because it has material importance. Race and racism have not disappeared, instead Saito argues that it is the forms and sites of discrimination as well as ways of supporting 'white' privilege that are changing and in need of political and academic attention.

Breda Gray
The National University of Ireland

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