During my grade school history classes in Southern California, the Reconstruction was just another event that happened “over there.” I mentioned before how my schooling spent more time on the Gold Rush than on the Civil War, and the aftermath was always summed up as “after the South was ground into the dirt, the North attempted to change what had started the war in the first place, but the South was stubborn again and it wouldn’t get sorted out for another hundred years.” Segway to the Indian Wars, the rise of American colonialism, and the Spanish-American war.
Imagine my shock, then, upon reading D. Michael Bottoms’ An Aristocracy of Color: Race and Reconstruction in California and the West, 1850-1890. I found Bottoms’ treatment of the effects of Reconstruction in California endlessly fascinating, because suddenly what was just “over there” came much closer to home. The Reconstruction transformed from “Uncooperative South: The Sequel” to a far more nuanced and interesting look at race and equality across the entire nation.
Of course, I had learned of the various racial tensions in California before–it certainly wasn’t the thing one could ignore in the wake of the Rodney King riots–and an undergraduate course I took with Professor Landsberg concerning the changing perceptions of “whiteness” hammered it home even more. California, after all, was one of the driving states behind the immigration restriction laws of the pre-World War One and inter-war periods–unlike much of the country, aiming at Asia rather than Eastern Europe. California was also one of the state that clamored most for the interment of Japanese-Americans in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attacks, so it certainly wasn’t surprising that California had experienced racial tensions and problems..
I guess, perhaps, that the most striking thing for me was simply the connection between California’s racial problems and tensions with the era of post-Civil War Reconstruction. In retrospect, though such a connection should have struck me upside the head some time ago, it simply had never occurred to me to connect what happened “over there” with issues that affected and continued to affect California. I guess it goes to show that we are the same country after all. Go figure.
This week I commented on David’s post.