From Little Tokyo to Bronzeville and Back Again

From Little Tokyo to Bronzeville and Back Again


How the Creation of Social Stratification Between Japanese and Black Americans in Los Angeles After World War II Played a Role in the “Model Minority” Ideology

The label “model minority” evokes a narrative often associated with Asian Americans, one that characterizes them as assimilated, well-educated, moral, and upwardly mobile. While often used to praise those in the Asian diaspora of the United States, inherent in the idea of a model minority is its unspoken comparison to other racial minorities. As Barbara Fields writes in her 1990 article “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America,” “people in the United States do not classify as races peoples of non-European but also non-African appearance or descent, except for purposes of direct or indirect contrast with people of African descent; and even then, the terms used are likely to represent geography or language rather than biology: Asian or Hispanic.”1 While Fields isn’t specifically referring to the model-minority theory, her thoughts on racial comparison are just as applicable to it. 

A large part of Fields’s exploration of race and slavery in the United States is how she defines race as an ideology: “It [Race] came into existence at a discernible historical moment for rationally understandable historical reasons and is subject to change for similar reasons,” wrote Fields.2 This definition of an ideology as historically engendered and mutable can be applied to the model-minority theory. However, unlike Fields’ assessment of the ideology of race, the “model minority” ideology can be attributed to multiple factors. For example, Scott Kurashige writes about the model-minority ideology in the seventh chapter of his book The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles, “Towards a Model Minority.” Kurashige points to state and political machinations aimed to paint the Japanese as assimilable after World War II, partly due to the nation’s embarrassment about internment but also as not to alienate Japan, whose support America needed in its campaign against communism.3 Others have also pointed out how immigration restrictions in the nineteenth and twentieth century permitted only those of Asian descent who the U.S. deemed desirable, like the highly educated, to enter, which allowed for the Asian populations that initially grew in the US to be seen as universally “successful.”4

While there are many causes for the “model minority” ideology, one overlooked factor is the role the Great Migration played. Before World War II, Japanese- and African-Americans were generally regarded the same way by white people in Los Angeles.5 During the war, anti-Japanese sentiments rose, while at the same time, political, economic, and social prospects brought the Great Migration’s full force onto California, specifically Los Angeles. This rapid influx of people of color strained the housing market in Los Angeles, forcing African-American migrants from the south into Japanese communities vacated during Japanese internment. Then, the end of the war made way for the collision of these Japanese communities with those same Black communities. Japanese and Black Americans in Los Angeles had to compete for a finite amount of resources, which heightened hostilities and placed white people into the role of deciding who should have those resources. In turn, a social stratification between the Japanese and Black Americans of Los Angeles came to be, which then became the groundwork for the formation of the model-minority ideology.

Japanese and the “Model Minority”

The Asian American diaspora is vast and varied. Though the term “model minority” is often ascribed to anyone of Asian descent, the amalgamation of incidents and occurrences that has led to the creation of the model-minority myth being applied to many Asian ethnicities varies from group to group. For example, Chinese Americans started to be cast in a more positive and complimentary light during World War II, before the Japanese, because the U.S. was allied with China against Japan.6 The delineation between these two nationalities marked a point at which those of Asian heritage started to be compared in a positive light, a precursor to the model minority stereotype. Yet, the Japanese Americans were the first to have the full qualities of the model-minority bestowed upon them.

The 1966 article written by University of California sociologist William Pettersen for The New York Times, “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” is widely recognized as the first analysis of Japanese Americans in a model-minority narrative. In the article, Pettersen discusses how amazing the Japanese are for lifting themselves into a respectable and successful bracket despite the racism and discrimination they faced before, during, and after World War II and internment. Pettersen’s article begins by exploring America’s “ethnic minorities” and how the racism they have faced has made it hard for them to prove stereotypes of inferiority wrong. The Japanese, he posits, are the exception to that rule. As he goes on to explore why, one of the key observations Peterson makes is that the Japanese were able to pull themselves up and out of terrible slum conditions surrounded by other groups of color with high crime rates. “This is not true (or at best less true) of such ‘nonwhites’ as Negroes, Indians, Mexicans, Chinese and Filipinos,” he writes.7 This comparison of one race to another is one of the two most important components of the model-minority ideology. The other key part of the model-minority narrative is about the stereotypical characteristics of the culture of origin that have caused those in the diaspora to be more successful than other non-whites. To this end, Pettersen notes that the Japanese have values of achievement and respect for one’s family and authority.

Race in Los Angeles Before World War II

The city of Los Angeles really started to grow in the inter-war period, as did the cities’ ethnic minorities. In 1910 both Japanese and Blacks in Los Angeles had similar population sizes, around 8,000 and 7,500 respectively. In the next two decades, both populations tended to grow at similar rates. This rise in population was mostly due to economic opportunities.8 The “open shop” or nonunion labor culture in Los Angeles meant that the barriers people of color faced elsewhere in the States were not as hard to overcome.9

During this time period, the Japanese and Black communities of Los Angeles were generally treated with similar levels and types of racism and vitriol. During this time many depictions of the Japanese mirrored the racist stereotypes or depictions that African Americans have historically faced in the United States. For example, the 1915 film by Cecil B. DeMille, The Cheat, depicts the sexual assault of a white woman at the hands of a Japanese businessman, a narrative often leveled at African Americans and born out in a much more famous film released the same year, The Birth of a Nation.

Los Angeles, like most cities in the early 1900s, was racially segregated. Both Japanese and African Americans faced racist housing restrictions like racial covenants and exclusionary zoning practices that often led them to reside in similar areas. Both groups tended to live in the unrestricted Eastside. In this area lay Little Tokyo, the commercial and social district of the Japanese, and Central Avenue, the Black center for culture and community in Los Angeles. Lying adjacent to each other, the border between these two communities often blurred and cross-cultural relations increased. For example, Black and Japanese adolescents were brought together by youth clubs like sports.10

There were also shared Black and Japanese residential areas in Los Angeles due to certain areas being nonrestrictive, like West Jefferson and Boyle Heights. Kurashige explains that Boyle Heights was a very popular area for people of color as it offered the “best selection of single-family housing untouched by restrictive covenants anywhere in the city.”11 Originally housing a significant Jewish population, soon Mexicans were moving in, followed by the Japanese, and finally African Americans. The community increasingly started to house only Japanese and Blacks, as other communities started to let in Jews and occasionally those of Hispanic ethnicity. West Jefferson was another main housing community populated mainly by Japanese and African Americans.

Despite these gains in housing, racial prejudice was still abundant and any occasion a Japanese or African American person tried to seek residence in a predominantly white neighborhood they were faced with large protests by whites in those areas. For example, a banner reading “Japs Keep Moving—This is a White Man’s Neighborhood” was found hanging across the porch of a house in Tamarind Avenue, west of Little Tokyo.12 Additionally, white residents in Los Angeles often held the Japanese and African Americans equal to each other. Kurashige cites a series of interviews of white residents conducted around West Jefferson in the 1920s:

whites interviewed anonymously were quick to make sweeping racial generalizations. Stereotypes of the two groups were often interchangeable. One white resident stated that she preferred living among Japanese because they were “cleaner and neater” than Blacks… Another white neighbor drew the opposite conclusion. “I like the Negroes better,” she opined, “because they tend to their own business and leave the whites alone. They are neat looking and have nice homes and keep them nice.”13

Little Bronze Tokyo and “The Race War that Flopped”

After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiments surged. Many laborers were fired and businesses were boycotted. By February 1942, when Executive Order 9066 was signed and the process of internment began, many Japanese were forced to sell their property and businesses at abominably low rates. In March 1942, around 1,000 Japanese were evacuated from Little Tokyo.14

The Japanese removal from Los Angeles created space for the expansion of other racial minorities in the city. In 1943, Black people started to buy up property in Little Tokyo and christened it Bronzeville. Leonard Christmas was one of the first to do so, purchasing the Digby Hotel. He was followed by Clara Brown, who transformed a former Japanese retail shop into a Black Department store. Soon businesses of all types were to follow, from restaurants and retail to churches and clubs. Brownsville, née Little Tokyo, soon became a major destination for the African American migrants who came as part of the Great Migration to California during the 1940s, sick of the Jim Crow South. During the forties, more Black people migrated to California than all previous decades put together. Not only did they seek a life free from the racism of the South but also for the defense industry jobs situated on the West Coast.15 As Black Southern migrants arrived in the city they found unrestricted housing scarce and settled into the few areas that were open to people of color, the former residences of the Japanese. About 95% of residential spaces in Los Angeles at this time were racially restricted; Little Tokyo was part of the 5% that wasn’t.16 As migrants arrived at astounding rates, an estimated 5,000 per month in 1943, the reputation of the Little Tokyo–Bronzeville area started to decline. Kurashige writes, “Given such chronic [housing] shortages, the Little Tokyo district, now devoid of its Japanese founders, served as housing of last resort for many migrants and some long-term residents, as well.”17

As internment ended with the end of the war, the return of the Japanese population to Los Angeles loomed imminent across the city. Many disagreed with the impending release on generally racist grounds and fears of security. Others feared the inevitable clash that would occur when the former residents and proprietors of Little Tokyo returned to find Bronzeville and its inhabitants. A survey from 1945 found that 6,000 of the 11,000 Black families lacking permanent residency were currently sheltering in housing that formerly held Japanese Americans. Many people in Los Angeles were expecting a race war. An article in Ebony titled “The Race War that Flopped” reported, “the hate-mongers thumped the race war drums, shrieked for bloodshed and violence. Front page headlines screamed ‘JAPS REINVADE LITTLE TOKYO.’”18 However, as the title reveals, this never happened.

In the fall of 1945, about 23,000 Japanese resettled in Los Angeles, about two-thirds the size of the Japanese population before internment. Thanks to restrictive housing practices that were still prevalent in the city and the unrestricted areas bursting at the seams with recently migrated Black southerners, there were very few places the Japanese could go. Eventually, they would reside in temporary housing like hostels and churches, many in or near the Little Tokyo area.19 

Contrary to what many thought might happen, the Japanese were generally welcomed back without any hostilities. “In the 16 months since the Japanese started their slow return, there has not been a single case of violence,” the Ebony article read. “Out of a marriage of convenience has come a genuine attachment and affection between the two peoples.”20 The article goes on to detail the many instances in which both Japanese and African Americans had created community and positive relations. Many of the rumors that were spread, like the Black residents of Bronzeville holding a meeting to protest the return of the Japanese, were proved false.21 An article in The New York Times, “Negro Home Needs Rise as Coast Issue,” reported that, according to a lawyer and board member of the ACLU, “white real estate firms also tended to exaggerate racial friction, ‘either to carry on the exploitation in the ghetto, or to create an unusual demand for old houses on their hands.’”22

Growing Tensions, Resource Competition, and the White “Decider”

Though for the most part, the two races were continuing on like before the war, not everything was the same. The confines of Little Tokyo placed a strain on its residents. “The Japanese [are] now returning,” reported The Chicago Defender on the situation in Los Angeles in autumn 1945, describing a situation of tentative peace: 

Just a few hundred have been able to find shelter and abode. Their return is marked with humility and tolerance, hoping and wishing the sepia brothers and sisters will ‘move over’ rather than the braggadocio attitude of ‘get out.’ They like their new companions and find they get along all right with the Negro population.23

Another article, this one in The Pittsburgh Courier, reported in 1947 that, “close observation [of Little Tokyo] will reveal that the association of the two groups is merely one of forced mingling.”24 In 1947, tensions rose between the two groups when a couple of Japanese businesses hired two former Japanese GIs to patrol the area because of a heightened distrust in the safety of Little Tokyo. Black residents saw the move as a sign of disrespect and racial profiling, as well as a signal that the Japanese wanted to force out the African Americans. It was found that the increased criminality the Japanese were referencing had indeed occurred but was perpetrated by “outsiders.”25

A 2015 study of the impact of resource competition between minorities showed that resource competition has adverse effects on Black and Asian relations and results in increased “social distancing.” One type of resource competition that increased social stratification was called “insider-based resource competition.” When one group believes they have “proprietary right to land and homeownership … [they] may distance themselves from Asians [or the other group] who may be perceived as a threat to consume land through homeownership.”26

This type of resource competition can clearly be seen by both races within Little Tokyo–Bronzeville. While the Japanese obviously saw Little Tokyo as an area that “belonged” to them as they had occupied it before their forced removal, African American proprietors in Bronzeville were quite protective of the community they had strived to build. Hillary Jenks claims that these ideas of “proprietary right” were present among African Americans in Bronzeville in her 2011 article, “Bronzeville, Little Tokyo, and the Unstable Geography of Race in Post-World War II Los Angeles.” She writes about how Black merchants presented returning Japanese business owners with flowers. “These hospitable gestures express more than a sense of solidarity with Japanese Americans, however; they were also symbolic spatial practices that demonstrated African Americans’ claim to Bronzeville in their appropriation of the right to welcome Japanese Americans back to their old neighborhood.”27

The demographic shift in Little Tokyo—Bronzeville was one of tenancy, not ownership. Much of the land and property in Little Tokyo was owned by white individuals. Once the Japanese were vacated from the area, African Americans were free to sign leases with said white owners.28 At the end of the war, only 6 percent of property in Bronzeville was owned by Black residents.29 However, when the Japanese started to return to the area and reclaim their old businesses, competition for leases rose significantly. This put white owners into the position of deciding which race to rent to, and the majority of the time, they chose the Japanese over African Americans. Additionally, owners structured their leases to encourage Japanese renters and discourage Black ones. For example, according to Jenks, one leaseholder in Little Tokyo recalled that his twenty-five-year lease required that he only sublet to Japanese businesses. Other individuals Jenks quotes describe how property owners had experienced both races and preferred the Japanese or that they biasedly assumed that African Americans were less reliable when it came to paying rent on time.30 By the time urban renewal reached the Little Tokyo area of Los Angeles in the 1950s, white views of the Japanese and African Americans were no longer synonymous. Urban Renewal effectively wiped out Bronzeville while only slightly damaging Little Tokyo. “According to one estimate, three thousand were evicted,” Jenks wrote about the urban renewal project in the area, “90 percent of them black.”31 

The change in view was the key force behind the social stratification that Japanese and African Americans experienced in Los Angeles post-World War II, and is an important factor in the creation of the model-minority ideology. When we think of the “model minority” as a narrative, the rationale calls us to believe that Asian and African Americans were at one point equal and then diverged. This was very clearly born out in Los Angeles before and after World War II and continued on afterward as Japanese Americans were able to further assimilate and gain acceptance into white spaces. Additionally, this stratification favored Japanese individuals in Los Angeles at the expense of Black individuals in Los Angeles. The landowners’ biased treatment of residents is one example of how white people placed the Japanese at an advantage that would lead them to success, while Black Angelenos were left disenfranchised. This stands in stark contrast to Peterson’s claim that each race’s success stories were solely their own doing.

The other type of resource competition studied in 2015 was “merit-based resource competition.” Psychologist John Tawa and his collaborators found that in merit-based settings of resource competition, social stratification increased because “Asian Americans may believe that they have a proprietary right to educational resources based on their presumed inherent intelligence and work ethic, particularly if they have internalized notions of themselves as model minorities.”32 This shows that inter-ethnic coalition formation and diverse communities like those that existed before World War II in Los Angeles might never manifest unless we can remove the model-minority ideology from our culture.

  1. Barbara J Fields, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America,” New Left Review I, no. 181 (1990), 98.
  2. Fields, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America,” 101-110.
  3. Scott Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2008), 186–204.
  4. Vivek Bald, “American Orientalism,” Dissent Magazine, Spring 2015.
  5. Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race, 42-44.
  6. Ellen D Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (Princeton University Press, 2014) 43-71.
  7. William Pettersen, “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” The New York Times, January 9, 1966.
  8. Lawrence B De Graaf, “The City of Black Angels: Emergence of the Los Angeles Ghetto, 1890-1930,” Pacific Historical Review 39, no. 3 (1970): 323-52.
  9. Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race, 13-18.
  10. Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race, 40-42.
  11. Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race, 42.
  12. “LOS ANGELES CITYWIDE HISTORIC CONTEXT STATEMENT Context: Japanese Americans in Los Angeles, 1869-1970,” Los Angeles Historic Resources Survey (City of Los Angeles Department of City Planning Office of Historic Resources, 2018), 34.
  13. Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race, 59.
  14. Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race, 108-131.
  15. Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Penguin Books, 2010) 187.
  16. Hillary Jenks, “Bronzeville, Little Tokyo, and the Unstable Geography of Race in Post-World War II Los Angeles,” Southern California Quarterly 93, no. 2 (2011): 201-35.
  17. Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race, 159-161.
  18. “The Race War that Flopped,” Ebony, July 1946, 3.
  19. Kurashige, The Shifting Grounds of Race, 158-173.
  20. “The Race War that Flopped,” 3.
  21. “The Race War that Flopped,” 3.
  22. George Streator, “Negro Home Needs Rise as Coast Issue,” The New York Times, April 27, 1947.
  23. Floyd G Snelson, “‘Little Tokyo’ Converted To Hodgepodge of Negroes, Japs,” The Chicago Defender, September 22, 1945.
  24. Charles E. Gibson, “Little Tokyo Hums with Activity, but It’s Bad,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 15, 1947.
  25. “Los Angeles Groups Join Hands To Make Brotherhood A Reality,” The Chicago Defender, March 15, 1947.
  26. John Tawa, Rosalyn Negrón, Karen L. Suyemoto, and Alice S. Carter, “The Effect of Resource Competition on Blacks’ and Asians’ Social Distance Using a Virtual World Methodology,” Group Processes & Intergroup Relations 18, no. 6 (2015): 761-77.
  27. Hillary Jenks, Bronzeville, Little Tokyo, and the Unstable Geography of Race in Post-World War II Los Angeles,” Southern California Quarterly  93, No. 2 (Summer 2011), 216.
  28. Jenks, Bronzeville, Little Tokyo, and the Unstable Geography of Race in Post-World War II Los Angeles,” 219.
  29. “The Race War that Flopped,” 3-9.
  30. Jenks, Bronzeville, Little Tokyo, and the Unstable Geography of Race in Post-World War II Los Angeles,” 220-221.
  31. Jenks, Bronzeville, Little Tokyo, and the Unstable Geography of Race in Post-World War II Los Angeles,” 232.
  32. Tawa et al., “The Effect of Resource Competition on Blacks’ and Asians’ Social Distance Using a Virtual World Methodology,” 773.
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