Make America White Again

Contemplating the Roots of Racism in My Hometown

Mom was no communist. There’s no evidence that she even flirted with the idea like so many did during the volatile period between the world wars. It was hard to find a communist in Yakima, Washington to flirt with. Unless you count William O. Douglas, the US Supreme Court justice, whom John Birchers dubbed “the only known communist in Yakima County.”

No, during my mother’s early life, the county was run by racist xenophobes whose mission was to Make America White Again.

In such a reactionary environment, how did my mother turn into a liberal? Trying to understand her politics, I’ve been investigating the history of her hometown, which is also my hometown. Yakima, on the dry eastern side of the state with a population of about 20,000, was a conservative place when my mother, Florence Wick, was growing up in the 1920s and 30s. Today, with about 91,000 people, it remains a red blot in a blue state whose population is concentrated on the west coast.

walandscape
Eastern Washington is desert without irrigation

Catholic missionaries had settled in the valley and white settlers followed in the 1850s as the US Army drove the indigenous population onto a nearby reservation. The Indians had fiercely resisted in what were known as the Indian Wars of the 1850s. The Yakama (the tribe changed to this spelling) Indian reservation is home to several different 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.

floschoolgirl
Florence Wick at school in the 1920s

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 U. 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. 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.

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 too.”

Japanese farmers were persecuted relentlessly. Their houses, barns and crops were bombed and burned. Newspapers stoked the fires of racism. Prof. Heuterman’s research focused on stories in the local and state newspapers. Here is some of what he found. 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 were modeled on those of California, which in turn had been promoted by influential Southern whites. The goal in Yakima was to drive all Japanese out of the valley.

Anti-immigrant sentiment reached a peak in the 1920s and 30s in the Yakima Valley and in the entire West. As a child and young adult, my mother must have been aware of it. I was shocked to learn that the KKK held a rally in 1924, which drew 40,000 people to a field outside the town after the state refused to grant them access to the state fairgrounds in Yakima. A thousand robed KKK members marched in the parade.

Farmers welcomed migrant laborers 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 racist violence. 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 Yakima, terrorism was directed at other groups as well as the Japanese. 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 1938, 200 men set upon blacks in Wapato, beating them and setting fire to one of their houses. Filipinos also became targets of harassment.

congdoncastle
Congdon Castle

I grew up near the Congdon orchard where the 1933 strike took place. The owner’s summerhouse mansion was called Congdon Castle and as kids we thought it was haunted. No one really lived there except caretakers. The wealthy owners had always lived in another state. I have a vague memory of Flo telling us about the “battle of Congdon Castle.” She surely knew about it. The primary industry in Yakima, then and now, was agriculture and agriculture was always big news.

Congdon Orchards label

Probably my mother already knew which side she was on by the time these events occurred. Her parents, immigrants themselves from Sweden and Norway, can’t have felt completely safe. Family lore has her father enduring taunts for his foreign accent from students at Yakima High School where he taught commercial arts. Her father’s thinking surely influenced young Flo. She told me she remembered his 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 US government. Flo’s Norwegian father took the side of the immigrants, who most agreed had been falsely accused.

wickfamily
My mother’s family in about 1922. She is the one on the right with glasses.

This was the Yakima of my mother’s youth, a place where, if you read the newspapers, you could not escape the dominant paradigm. But by the time I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, this history escaped us. 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. Indians 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 right of a superior culture to war against them and subjugate them. This was the inevitable march of history, she said. When Don told Flo about it she was outraged. She and the teacher had been friends but that killed their friendship.

The xenophobes 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 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.

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.”

My grandparents had a strong immigrant identity, but the advantage they had is that they were, in the language of the American Legion, of the “white race.” The Legion, the KKK and others demanded to make America white again. I’ve no clue how the xenophobes felt about Southern Italians, but it seems that if you came from Europe you were ok with them. In Yakima, they reserved deepest hatred for Japanese. But they also 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.

flobookcase
Flo with her precious books

That Flo’s parents identified as immigrants rather than white informed her understanding of the world. Flo was also a voracious reader and certainly was influenced by what she read. She spent hours at the Yakima public library, receiving her first library card at a young age and migrating to the adult section before children were allowed. She was one of those kids who took a flashlight to bed and often read under the covers at night.

moms-library-card
Flo’s library card

She was also active in the YWCA, quite a progressive organization during that period just as it is today. Besides championing racial integration, the YW also lent support to Japanese families who were incarcerated during the war. Her involvement in the YW got Flo out of Yakima to meetings across Washington State and in the big cities of Chicago and Columbus, widening her worldview.

Flo’s father, Ben Wick, overlapped with William O. Douglas for a year in 1921-22 when they both taught at Yakima High School. Flo may have known Douglas as a child. She would have been nine years old when he got fed up with teaching school in Yakima and and left to make his fortune in the East. In any case, Flo admired Douglas greatly and I believe 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.”

He was no communist either 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 two impeachment attempts.

When I asked my lawyer friend Judy 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. God help us now.”

Douglas returned to our hometown later in his life and Flo 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. We 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.

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.

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 mother, my grandfather and William O. Douglas found the will to resist.

What I Know About Stereotyping

The culture of the construction site was manmade. No women had been involved in its creation and so we had to negotiate the best we could. I said to myself I had a father and three brothers, I should be able to fit in. I’d been a tomboy as a kid and thought I knew how to hang with males of the species. Every new job, each with a new group of guys, held new challenges.SFconst2

I quickly learned that my coworkers thought women were incapable of doing the physically challenging work of construction. They brought to work a stereotype of women as whiny, useless, money-grubbing weaklings who needed a man to give them worth in the world. (Most of these guys were divorced and still angry at ex-wives). They repeated to me an old saying: If this work was easy, women and children could do it. Something told me that when they repeated it to each other, the word they used was not women.

“Cunt,” whispered the ironworker tying rebar next to me as I tied pipe to it. Then he quickly moved on. After I got over the shock, here’s what I thought: “Ironworkers are a bunch of cowardly sexist dickheads.”

My coworkers told me women weren’t good partners on the job because we couldn’t be trusted to hold up our end of a 300 pound piece of floor duct. We were all afraid of heights, we didn’t know how to swing a hammer and hit anything. We were just there to get a man. Our presence on the job would cost the contractor money since it took us twice as long to complete a task. When criticized we would cry, so they had to be careful what they said to us. (Too bad that didn’t translate to not insulting us.) Their worth was predicated on our worthlessness, our lack of merit. You are only as tall as the person you are stepping on.SFconst

I went to work each day with the objective of overturning the old stereotype. I was usually the only female on the job, and very conscious that I would embody a new improved stereotype. I worked hard, but was careful not to work so hard that I’d be accused of breaking down conditions and brown-nosing the employer. I tried to work just as fast as they did, but not faster. I picked up my end of the floor duct and used lifting skills to save my back, while thinking to myself that nobody should have to lift 300 pounds of anything. I was not afraid of heights, but if I had been, I never would have admitted it. I never cried, even when I felt like it.

A worker was welcomed into the construction culture in a backhanded manner. You didn’t know whether you were being dissed or included. Race and ethnicity as well as gender were called out with jokes and put-downs. How one responded was noted. You were supposed to go along to get along.

The men could be empathetic while at the same time expressing homophobia, sexism and racism. I tried to come out as a lesbian whenever the opportunity arose because I was convinced this honesty made the job easier for me. On one job I worked with a traveler* from Arizona. We were assigned to tape connectors and boxes in the trailer while we waited for the deck to be readied for the electrical crew, so we had time to chat. He told me his wife worked as a nurse in a hospital in Oakland and the place was overrun with faggots. She was disgusted. Here was my opportunity! I admitted to being a dyke and probably noted that fags were a lot more fun to work with than his sorry ass. At that he did an about-face. He needed to make a confession too. He acknowledged that he was an alcoholic, that he was in recovery and that he was letting me in on the secret. That made us even, and we were friends from then on.hospital

Ethnic slurs were thrown at people with what seemed like a try at love. Wetback, Chink, Dago were used inclusively, like welcome to our club, this is your identity. If I didn’t object in the beginning, my nickname would be Girl. I objected, but not to every slight. You had to pick your battles. I let them know I wasn’t keen on sexist or racist remarks. No one ever said the N word in racially-mixed company, maybe because they didn’t want to risk getting the shit beat out of them. The exception was travelers who came from sister union locals in the South, but they only used the word when conversing with whites. Talking about football, one remarked, “I never understood why anyone would want to watch a bunch of niggers running around a field.” The Northern white guys on the crew were silent after that. Maybe they were seriously considering that football was no longer a white game. Or maybe they were silent on my account and would have agreed with the cracker if I hadn’t been there. I hope it was because they were so appalled they were speechless.

The Southern travelers were a different breed—bigots who bragged about killing cops and evading taxes. All white. The story was told about one guy that he kept a length of 000 wire under the seat of his truck and had once used it on a cop’s head. One day he drug up** and asked for his check. He was on the run, they said. White trash and dangerous.

That’s the way it was, and few of us minorities were exempt. On one job I had a Jewish foreman. I knew he was Jewish when others on the job started making gas chamber and oven jokes. Jewish men—at least out Jewish men—were rare on the construction site, although I knew many Jewish women who worked in construction. This guy had been a carpenter and later got into the electrician apprenticeship. He was a skilled mechanic and a competent foreman with an upbeat attitude. He let the jokes slide off.

The job was an interior remodel of the Hyatt Regency hotel in San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center. Cozy and insulated, we worked on an upper floor of the high-rise, piping in the ceiling, running up and down ladders. The construction crew would assemble in the basement in the mornings and ride the service elevator up to our floor together. The hotel pastry chef, a stern Austrian, came to work at the same time and rode the elevator with us. He never spoke to us, we figured, because he thought himself better than a bunch of construction workers. An unflattering stereotype of Austrians immediately took root in my mind. Austrians equal Nazis. Our crew began to refer to him as Herr Pastry. My foreman always spoke to him. Good morning or how are you this morning. The pastry chef may have nodded but he never spoke or smiled. It became a game. The Jew would force the Nazi to acknowledge us lower class plebes (the irony was that we union workers probably made way more money than he did).

Our IBEW contract gave us a half-hour lunch break 12 to 12:30 and one ten-minute coffee break, which we took at 10 am. I usually brought a bagel with cream cheese for break. I’d be starving by 10 even after eating a huge breakfast at 7. On jobs where the ten minutes was taken literally, I found I barely had time to down the bagel, which required some chewing, and to wash it down with my thermos of tea. This job was a bit looser. Coffee break might last 15 minutes.

“It’s too short,” I whined to no one in particular while standing on a ladder with my head in the ceiling. The piece of EMT*** I’d just cut didn’t fit and I’d have to start over. “What a thing to tell a man!” came back to me from the Irish carpenter foreman whose head was the only one I could see up there. That made me smile. Irish guys—full of blarney.

“Break time,” someone yelled, and I looked down to see coffee being served in a fancy silver service with a huge plate of pastries beside it. The gift had come from the pastry chef, and for the rest of that job we had complimentary coffee and pastries at 10 am, thanks to the persistent civility of our foreman. My stereotype of Austrians crumbled. I’m still waiting for help with my prejudice against ironworkers and white Southern men.

*Travelers follow the work around the country when work at home is slow.

**To drag up is to quit the job.

***Electrical Metallic Tubing, a kind of pipe used in the electrical industry.