Book Review: A Trayvon of another time….

Author and UCLA historian Brenda Stevenson had no way of knowing that her new book, The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins:  Justice Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots, would be so tragically timely.  The headlines she dissects could have been written about the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida – but this innocent teen was gunned down more than two decades ago in a corner store in Compton.

Brenda Stevenson, The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Book Cover: The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins (2013)

Book Cover: The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins (2013)

Review by Elaine Elinson

The unarmed African American teenager was shot and killed.  The shooter, claiming self-defense, served not one minute of jail time.

The sorrow, anger and disbelief in the Black community was palpable.  One mother wrote to the daily newspaper that she feared the justice system has “told us it is open season on our children.”

This might have been last month’s headline about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder case in Florida.  It actually happened more than two decades ago, across the country in Los Angeles.

Just two weeks after the brutal beating of Rodney King Continue reading 

Paiute Indian teen sues school district, 1923 – and wins

This item from CSA Steering Committee member Elaine Elinson:


Elaine Elinson and recent human right exhibition

Alice Piper, a 15-year-old Paiute Indian girl, knocked on the door of the recently built Big Pine Grammar and High School seeking to register for classes.  She and six of her Indian friends were refused admission – denied enrollment because they were Indian.   So they headed to the courthouse where they filed a lawsuit that challenged school segregation in Inyo County – and had an impact all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  The year was 1923.

Read more about the story and the Exhibit Envoy exhibition here.

Wherever There’s a Fight!

San Francisco is rich in civil rights history – but you may have walked past certain street corners many times and not realized that battles were fought there for labor rights, lesbian and gay equality, freedom of expression, disability rights and more.   Join Elaine Elinson and Stan Yogi, coauthors of Wherever There’s a Fight:  How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California takes us on a virtual tour that uncovers San Francisco’s hidden history – from the Yick Wo Laundry, whose owner challenged anti-Chinese laws,  to the Votes for Women Club where working women organized their victorious campaign for suffrage, to the site of a police raid on a lesbian and gay New Year’s Eve gala that predated Stonewall.

Wednesday, February 13 from 6:30 – 8 PM, at the San Francisco Main Public Library.

Elaine Elinson Writes to Commemorate the Centennial of Women’s Suffrage in California

This month marks the centennial of women’s suffrage in California, a victory won almost a full decade before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote nationally.  In the San Francisco Chronicle edition of Oct. 9 CSA Steering Committee member Elaine Elinson described in her article “S.F. Women Helped Forge Suffrage Victory in State”, the creativity, tenacity and pure chutzpah involved in this crucial campaign for women’s right to vote.

From the article:

The campaign for suffrage began long before that momentous victory. In the late 1800s, California women – primarily from the urban upper-middle class – lobbied state and local governments for the right to vote. Buoyed by visits from leaders of the national suffrage movement, including Susan B. Anthony, California suffragists organized an intense lobbying campaign in the Legislature. Three hundred women went to Sacramento, claiming they represented 50,000 more who wanted the vote. They were met with ridicule. One legislator told them, “You are no more than 50,000 mice. Go home and look after your own girls. They may be walking the streets for all you know.”

In 1896, the first attempt to win the vote through a referendum suffered a crushing defeat, especially in San Francisco, then the most populous city in the state.

After the earthquake and fire of 1906, however, the movement regrouped and was transformed. It moved out of the parlors of upper-class women and into more public spaces – union halls, theaters, African American churches, libraries and even the street. In 1908, three-hundred women marched on the state Republican convention, meeting in Oakland, to demand that the party include suffrage in its electoral platform.

Elaine Elinson reviews Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, by Erika Lee and Judy Yung

Blog editor’s note: Elaine Elinson has forwarded the CSA blog the following review of a new book about immigration through Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay. The blog is open to submissions of reviews of other relevant books.


Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, By Erika Lee and Judy Yung

Reviewed by Elaine Elinson


In the last month of summer, I arrived in America on ship.

After crossing the ocean, the ship docked and I waited to go on shore.

Because of the records, the innocent was imprisoned in a wooden building.

Reflecting on the event, my heart is vexed and depressed.

I composed a poem to rid myself of sadness and worry…

Sitting here, uselessly delayed for long years and months, I am like a pigeon in a cage.


This anonymous poem found carved into the walls of the men’s detention barracks at Angel Island, captures the anguish faced by many of those who passed through the West Coast’s most famous immigration station.

From 1910 until it was closed in 1940, half a million people stopped first on Angel Island before being allowed onto the shore at San Francisco.  Another half million caught their last glimpse of the United States from the island off the coast of San Francisco as they were deported.

Thanks to the work of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, the site is now a National Historic Landmark. The Chinese poems first recovered by U.S. Park Ranger Alexander Weiss in 1970 just before the building was to be destroyed, give a glimpse into the experiences of the 100,000 Chinese who were detained there, the largest immigrant group to pass through Angel Island.

But a new book by Erika Lee and Judy Yung.  Angel Island:  Immigrant Gateway to America,(Oxford University Press) for the first time uncovers the history of the wide range of immigrants who landed there from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe.  Aging photographs show Japanese women in kimonos, an African woman wrapped in patterned cloth holding her two children, a Turkish mother and son, and Sikh men in suits and turbans.

In addition to the treasure trove of 187 Chinese poems, now carefully preserved and translated, the authors examined another 156 inscriptions in Japanese, Korean Russian, Punjabi, Spanish, Italian, German and English.

Exclusion not admission

Though it is often called the “Ellis Island of the West,” Lee and Yung point out that the Angel Island Immigration Station was designed “with exclusion, not admission” in mind.  No Statue of Liberty greeted the hopeful immigrants fleeing from hunger, war and political chaos in their home countries.  There was no plea for the “huddled masses” to enter the lamp-lit “golden door.”   Instead they faced harsh interrogation – sometimes lasting for weeks — grueling medical inspections, and bleak quarters, segregated by race and gender, all designed to prevent the newcomers from entering the country. If they did succeed in gaining entry, the law barred citizenship for those of Asian ancestry.

Lee and Yung argue that the immigration station itself was mainly built to enforce the Chinese exclusion laws of the late 1800s, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  Previously there had been an “open door” immigration policy, but as more and more restrictive laws were enacted, the growing number of new arrivals could not be contained at the rickety wharf side detention shed or in steerage quarters on steamships docked in San Francisco Bay.  The crowded, inhumane conditions put political pressure on the government to build a new immigration station for persons arriving from Asia.

On opening day, January 21, 1910, the authors describe how 101 Chinese detainees and “one gloomy Hindu” were brought from the detention shed to the island barracks. More than 400 others were transferred from steamships in the harbor. These were the first of the estimated one million people who were kept there over the next three decades.

Their personal stories are the heart of the book.  Though the authors have a commanding knowledge of immigration law and the U.S. national interests and changing international politics that shaped it, the most fascinating aspect of this book is the richly detailed examination of the lives of those who came from all corners of the earth to this island.

The stories of Angel Island powerfully illustrate how race, class and gender have all shaped U.S. immigration policy.  The authors conclude that Angel Island “directly helped to maintain two Americas:  one that allowed immigrants to make better lives for themselves and become Americans, and another that treated immigrants as unwanted foreigners who were to be denied entry and removed.”

Though a 1940 fire destroyed most of the administrative records, the authors combed through government archives, INS records, personal diaries and letters and conducted scores of oral history interviews with those who passed through Angel Island and their descendants, unearthing detailed, often poignant stories.

The Chinese came in the largest numbers, but through the decades they were joined by 85,000 Japanese, 8,000 South Asians, 8,000 Russians and Jews, 1,000 Koreans, and 1,000 Filipinos and others.  There are even records of 400 Mexicans who decided it was safer to come by sea rather than overland during the stormy period of the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath.

Indian revolutionaries

Through their tenacious research, the authors have uncovered some surprising history.  For example, immigrants from South Asia came through Angel Island just as the nascent independence movement against the British in India was gaining strength.  Many became involved in the Gadar (Rebellion) Party, fighting against British imperialism at home, while challenging discriminatory laws in the U.S. Immigration officials collected surveillance on the Indian arrivals and shared it with the British.  When Gadar members returned to India to join the popular revolt after World War I broke out, many were arrested by the British raj.  Singh Sarabha, a Gadar activist who had passed through Angel Island on his way to study at Berkeley, was sentenced to death and executed.

Filipino immigrants faced perhaps most unusual and unjust situation of all. When the Philippines was under U.S. rule, Filipinos were generally admitted to the United States as “U.S. nationals.”  But after the path to Philippine independence was set in 1934, with the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act (which Philippine nationalists termed the Philippine Commonwealth and Independence Law) their status abruptly changed to “aliens.”

The new law offered independence for the Philippines after a ten-year waiting period, but also subjected Filipino immigrants to the quota system for the first time. Reclassified as aliens, Filipinos became subject to the same restrictions as other Asian immigrants – they could not own land or become naturalized citizens.

This was particularly cruel for hundreds of Filipino passengers who arrived in San Francisco just days after the law was passed.  They had left their homeland before the law was signed and therefore had no valid visas.  Lacking proper documentation, they were denied admission.

Repatriation “trick”

The following year, Congress passed the Repatriation Act, which Angel Island Commissioner Edward Cahill called a “Big Brotherly gesture of help and assistance to the Filipinos who have come the US and now find themselves in difficulties.”  It offered government assistance for Filipinos to return to their homeland – but it also barred them from ever reentering the United States.

Calling it a “massive deportation campaign in disguise,” the authors cite muckraking journalist Carey McWilliams ‘ description that “repatriation is a “trick and not a very clever trick to get Filipinos out of this country.”  Though officials hoped that half the total Filipino immigrant population would “voluntarily” leave the U.S., in the end only 2,000 Filipinos (out of 108,000) took them up on the offer.

Lee and Yung have amplified the voices of those who carved messages in the walls of the Angel Island detention barracks, whether classical Chinese poems or barely legible words in Korean or Punjabi. In doing so, they have allowed them to tell the stories that were long missing in U.S. immigration history.


Elaine Elinson is a member of the CSA Steering Committee and coauthor of the award-winningWherever There’s a Fight:  How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California. An earlier version of this review appeared in theLos Angeles Daily Journal.

Elaine Elinson reviews two books on immigration, by Bill Ong Hing and Peter Schrag

Blog editor’s note: Elaine Elinson has forwarded the CSA blog the following review of two new books about immigration, a topic obviously relevant to California Studies. The blog is open to submissions of reviews of other relevant books.


Ethical Borders: NAFTA, Globalization And Mexican Migration, by Bill Ong Hing, Temple University Press, 2010

Not Fit for Our Society:  Immigration and Nativism in America, by Peter Schrag, University of California Press, 2010

By Elaine Elinson

Hope is waning for those who counted on the Obama administration to come up with a comprehensive immigration reform package before the end of  its first four years.

To be fair, the President did speak passionately in his 2010 State of the Union address about the failure of the DREAM Act, which he had previously called his “biggest disappointment of the year.” That simple slice of immigration reform would have allowed children who came to this country before they were 16 and who graduated from a U.S. high school, to go to college and gain a chance of citizenship – instead of facing deportation.

But he also vehemently vowed to step up enforcement of the border, already the site of an arsenal of high tech surveillance and weaponry that has not been able to stem the flow of migrants desperate for work.   In the last decade, the Border Patrol has almost doubled from 11,000 to 20,000 agents – making it the largest federal enforcement agency in the country.

Like many presidents before him, President Obama has discovered that there are many contradictions, and no easy solutions to this vexing problem.

Before the Obama administration and Congress put forward concrete proposals for comprehensive immigration reform, they would be well-served by looking at two new books by prominent Californians, law professor Bill Ong Hing’s  Ethical Borders: NAFTA, Globalization And Mexican Migration (Temple University Press) and Not Fit for Our Society:  Immigration and Nativism in America (University of California Press) by veteran journalist Peter Schrag.

Though Hing and Schrag bring very different experiences to the debate, both come to similar conclusions.  Comprehensive immigration reform must encompass viewing the region – North America – as a whole, and addressing the deep economic and political inequities that drive immigration.

Without that holistic view, any new policy is bound to fail.  Increased militarization of the border will not work. Neither, they assert, will piecemeal reform.

Hing brings decades of first-hand experience as an immigration lawyer to the table. Currently a professor of law at the University of San Francisco and Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Davis, Hing teaches Immigration Law and Policy.  The founder of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Hing has represented hundreds of immigrants in all levels of the judicial system, including serving as co-counsel in the U.S. Supreme court asylum case INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca (1987).

Schrag served for many years as editorial page editor and columnist at the Sacramento Bee.  A visiting scholar at the Institute for Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, Schrag has followed the immigration debate since the 1980s, and has written about it for the Bee,the Los Angeles Times and numerous other publications.

Though Hing has extensive practice in dealing with the day-to-day legal problems of immigrants, in this book he takes a very expansive view,  focusing on the political economy of the North American region.  He argues that as long as the great economic imbalance between Mexico and the U.S. exists, Mexican immigration will persist.

Hing digs back to the roots of the 1910 Mexican revolution to show how economic relations between Mexico and its powerful northern neighbor have been skewed.  But he targets NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement, signed under the Clinton administration) as exacerbating and institutionalizing Mexico’s dire economic woes. Mexico, he asserts, “gambled its economic future with NAFTA and it lost.”

He cites the egregious example of U.S. subsidized corn being sold in Mexico at prices cheaper than Mexican corn – thus driving Mexican peasants off the land and into the migrant work force. Moreover, NAFTA’s  promise of new jobs in Mexico was not fulfilled, and today the second largest source of foreign income after oil for Mexico, are the remittances that Mexican immigrants send home from the United States — more than $25 billion a year.

Hing contrasts this with the European Economic Community where the establishment of the European Social Fund moderated significant immigration from poor countries to wealthier nations within the EEC.  The fund boosted the standard of living in Spain, Portugal, and Ireland – before they joined the EEC – narrowing the disparities in income between rich and poor members and mitigating the push for massive immigration.

Schrag takes an equally long, but substantively different view.  With the research skills of a social historian and the deft pen of a veteran journalist, he describes the contradictions of U.S. immigration policy as “a sort of double helix, with strands of welcome and rejection wound tightly around one another.”

Schrag highlights the early impact of California on federal law, starting with the first California Constitutional convention in 1849.

He notes that while the conventioneers debated whether free blacks should be allowed to migrate to California, they never even considered denying citizenship to the Californios – Mexicans who lived on the land prior to annexation and statehood.

Schrag also notes that California’s anti-Chinese laws and violent purges led up to the passage of the federal Exclusion Act of 1882, forbidding the entry of almost all Chinese into the country.

But America’s industrial growth required additional labor, and capitalists eagerly sought immigrant workers, sometimes, as during the Bracero Program, directly contracting for them to fill domestic labor shortages. The problem, put succinctly by UC Davis agricultural economist Philip Martin was that we wanted workers but we got people.

Schrag’s most trenchant observations –eerily prescient given the current crop of challenges to the Fourteenth Amendment’s provision of citizenship to all who are born within U.S. borders – are devoted to the debates over who is fit for citizenship, debates historically dominated by eugenicists and racial purists.

He meticulously dissects of the eugenics movement, led by some of the leading intellectuals of their day – like David Starr Jordan, first president of Stanford University, botanist Luther Burbank, and            Alexander Graham Bell, who was named president of the Second International Congress of Eugenics in 1921.  Opening that meeting, Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History, stated, “As science has enlightened government in the prevention of disease, it must also enlighten government in the prevention of the spread and multiplication of worthless members of society.”

Delving deep into historical record, Schrag shows how this dangerous false science laid the groundwork for race- and ethnic-based immigration laws. As early as 1910, the Dillingham Commission, was established by Congress to gather information on which future immigration policy should be based.  After three years, the Commission concluded 63% of southern Italian schoolchildren were “retarded,” as well as nearly 67% of Polish Jews.

Anthropologist Franz Boas, responded full bore to the eugenicists that race is a social construct, not a scientific one, but the racial purists had already ignited the popular imagination and the gained the ear of lawmakers.

One thing both authors agree on is that spending billions on border enforcement has failed.

Since President Clinton launched Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, border crossings have not decreased; they have only become more deadly.  As the high-tech fence (built partly by undocumented workers employed by the Golden State Fence Company) and beefed-up Border Patrol push migrants deeper into hostile regions, deaths have climbed to disastrous levels.  In 1994, 23 migrants died along the border; since 2000, there have been 300-400 a year, as the new routes have literally become death traps. In 2009, 450 bodies were found in the desolate mountains and sweltering deserts that line the border.

Immigration officials know that a higher wall is not the answer.  As Janet Napolitano said before Obama appointed her Secretary of Homeland Security, “ Show me a 50-foot wall and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder.”

Both authors know that comprehensive immigration reform is fraught with knotty questions, and neither proposes to have all the answers. But, as Hing notes, “Failure of current militarized and racialized enforcement strategies to stem the flow further challenges us to address the issue more thoughtfully.”

These two volumes give lawmakers the tools to do so, if they will only pick them up and read them.

CSA Steering Committee member Elaine Elinson is the coauthor of the prize-winning Wherever There’s a Fight:  How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California.

An earlier version of this review appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal.


For the Day of Remembrance commemorating the forced removal during World War II of 110,000 Japanese Americans from their West Coast homes to detention centers, Elaine Elinson and Stan Yogi, authors of Wherever There’s a Fight; How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California, will give four presentations this weekend, Feb. 19 and 20, 2011, at the site of the Manzanar internment camp.

For more details, here is the press release from the National Park Service:





Elaine Elinson and Stan Yogi’s book, Wherever There’s a Fight; How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California, won a Gold Medal in the 2010 California Book Awards. The authors give special focus to the World War II internment of Japanese Americans, foreshadowed by a century of civil liberties violations. They also explore contemporary issues including: dissent, racism, immigration, and the role of national security.

The annual Day of Remembrance observance commemorates the impact of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which on February 19, 1942 authorized the forced removal of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast.

Elinson and Yogi will take the audience on a 40-minute illustrated virtual tour of civil liberties battles in California, from the Gold Rush to the present day, highlighting courageous individuals such as Fred Korematsu, who stood up for their rights and changed history.

Elaine Elinson was the communications director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and editor of the ACLU News for more than twenty years. Stan Yogi has managed development programs for the ACLU of Northern California since 1997. Stan’s mother, Tokiko Kuniyoshi, was in the Manzanar High School Class of 1944.

The presentations, at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday, will include ample time for audience questions and book signing. The Manzanar National Historic Site Interpretive Center also features extensive exhibits, audio-visual programs, and a bookstore. Winter hours of operation are 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Manzanar is located at 5001 Hwy. 395, six miles south of Independence, California. Programs are free and open to the public. For further information, please call (760) 878-2194 or visit our website at

This event is made possible through cooperation with the Manzanar History Association (MHA). Elinson and Yogi’s book, Wherever There’s a Fight, as well as numerous other titles relevant to Manzanar’s history, are available for purchase from the MHA online store: .