Llana Barber’s engaging, thoughtful book Latino City explores the transformation of Lawrence, Massachusetts, into the first Latino-majority city in New England. She argues that Latino migration from the 1960s onward revitalized a declining city suffering from deindustrialization and white flight to the suburbs. Yet Lawrence’s “white” residents, unwilling or unable to recognize the role played by structural problems that largely predated Latinos’ arrival, viewed the immigrants as the cause of the decline. This misplaced blame stemmed partly from racialized assumptions and nativism, and led to prejudice, discrimination, and even violence. In 1984 both white and Latino residents rioted. Barber explores the consequences of these riots, which helped catalyze the Latino community’s significantly increased political power and inclusion. At the same time, subsequent media and state and federal government portrayals obscured whites’ role in the riots and their anger at the economic marginalization that they too faced in a deindustrializing city, portraying the violence as exclusively caused by Latinos’ anger at discrimination. Such narratives helped fuel and justify the city’s shift toward Latino political inclusion. But they also obfuscated the structural conditions that fueled white participation, resulting in a failure to remedy the deep structural conditions that left the recently politically empowered Latino community nonetheless economically marginalized in a struggling city. The book is firmly rooted in recent urban history scholarship, offering a Latino variation of the “urban crisis” story of the second half of the twentieth century that scholars have mostly explored in an African American context. In Lawrence, white flight looked different than it did elsewhere, as whites there were more drawn by suburban opportunities than they were fleeing in order to maintain segregation (the city was 99 percent white when suburban flight began). Barber explains, though, that while race did not cause the suburbanization, white flight did have racial consequences. Suburbs drew resources and people from the city, and deindustrialization made urban jobs disappear at the same time that Latinos migrated in from places like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and New York City. As a result, whites remaining in Lawrence racially scapegoated the new arrivals, blaming them for the city’s problems. Moreover, Latinos found themselves increasingly isolated in the under-resourced city. Alongside its contribution to urban history, the book is a wonderful example of the fruitfulness of bringing together historical fields often considered in isolation. Barber emphasizes that the chronological alignment of U.S. industrial cities’ economic collapse with the large influx of migration from Latin America means that we must take a global perspective on what is often considered a domestic story of urban rustbelt crisis. In Lawrence, the role that U.S. military and economic intervention played in sparking much migration from Latin America is essential to understanding how the economic downturn and deindustrialization shaped race relations and the shifting political and economic power relations of suburb and city. Barber also shows the importance of integrating Lawrence’s urban history into a metropolitan context. Lawrence was “enmeshed in its region, economically, socially, and politically” (214), despite the suburbs’ attempt to distance and exempt themselves from responsibility for its “urban problems” (214). Yet the city’s urban crisis stemmed inherently from educational, housing, and other policies that favored suburbs at Lawrence’s expense. For instance, suburbs’ unwillingness to build affordable housing meant that poor and working-class Latinos were confined to urban areas facing steep economic decline. Again, even as Latinos in Lawrence became the numerical majority and gained significant political, social, cultural, and economic power, they lived in a city impoverished by the metropolitan region’s structure—namely, suburbs’ refusal to share the region’s economic burden. Lawrence was what Barber calls “a subordinate partner in a regional and global economy” (245). The heart of Barber’s story is the 1980s and 1990s, an era she persuasively argues is central for understanding how the urban crisis that exploded in the 1960s and 1970s deepened as racialized disinvestment and concentrated poverty worsened and as riots broke out in Lawrence (and New York City, Los Angeles, and elsewhere). During this period, many white Americans moralized about a permanent “underclass” of poor urban blacks and Latinos. This is also an important era, Barber argues, for understanding how American cities developed two different trajectories. While major metropolitan areas experienced revitalization and gentrification alongside disinvestment, smaller cities like Lawrence experienced only economic decline. Related attributes of the book include its emphasis on the diversity of “the” urban crisis narrative, even beyond the diversification Barber has already brought to that narrative by focusing on Latino rather than African American racialization. The Latino community in Lawrence, for example, was extremely diverse. Latinos came from different countries, including Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, as well as directly from New York City. They were also diverse in their outlook and activism, with some viewing themselves as victims of violent racist attacks from whites and others as willing participants in an antiracist protest. The book also carries forward significant historical conversations about the relationship between class and race, specifically, how white class anxiety at declining economic opportunities has at times resulted in the scapegoating of particular racial communities. Neil Foley’s classic White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture (1997) illustrated how early-twentieth-century rural whites relied upon ideas of white racial superiority to differentiate themselves from African Americans and especially from Latinos as they faced socioeconomic decline that accompanied agricultural mechanization. Barber in a way updates the story for the late-twentieth-century city, showing how deindustrialization and globalization shaped white resentment in cities like Lawrence. While the main focus of the book is the Latino community and the transformation of an increasingly Latino city, the book misses some opportunities to complicate what it presents as a rather monolithic “white” community. Differentiating whites could help explain the nuances of how economic decline in small cities like Lawrence manifested racially. Who were these whites? Barber mentions that they were often second-generation Europeans. The book shows that, though conflict and racial animosities were common, some whites accepted and befriended their Latino neighbors, as did figures like the Italian American Nunzio DiMarca, who was fluent in Spanish and sympathetic to Latino empowerment. Many other whites instead highlighted the difference between their own immigrant families and the new Latino immigrants. Perhaps there was more kinship and sympathy between Latinos and certain white ethnic groups, for instance Catholics, than between Latinos and other whites? Did whites who scapegoated Latinos do so as part of a claim to greater acceptance in late-twentieth-century America? Scholars have shown that Jews, Irish, Italians, Poles, and other marginalized “white ethnics” did this earlier in the century, distancing themselves from blackness in order to claim whiteness. Barber suggests that white ethnics of French Canadian descent composed “most” (135) of the white population that participated in the riots, but she might have delved further into the population’s significance. For instance, apparently the French Canadians’ presence partly shaped the media’s difficulty discussing the riots in preexisting racial frames. Were French Canadian white ethnics actually “white”? (Relatedly, was it a race riot if Latinos were an ethnic rather than a racial group?) Oral histories might have helped flesh out this “white” community to show whether and how tensions in Lawrence revealed fears of white ethno-racial decline as well as socioeconomic decline. This minor suggestion aside, Latino City is an excellent, engagingly written book that is a must-read for anyone interested in Latino, urban/metropolitan, immigration, and political history. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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