Fit to Be Citizens?

From The Mason Historiographiki

Jump to: navigation, search

Natalia Molina. Fit to Be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879-1939. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Pp. xi+279. ISBN 0-520-24649-7.



This book has as its central theme the creation by whites of a racial hierarchy among immigrant groups in Los Angeles using public health concerns as a basis for determining fitness for American society. Spanning the late nineteenth and first part of the twentieth centuries, the book covers a broad time span in order to demonstrate the evolution of racial thinking in the public health field starting with the Chinese in the late nineteenth century, following with the Japanese who became more numerous after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1881, and then concluding with the Mexicans who were desired as laborers after state laws limited the number of Japanese through land ownership exclusion acts in 1913 and 1920. The focus of the book is immigrant Mexicans whose status in the racial hierarchy during this period was above both the Japanese and the Chinese. Until the 1930’s, Molina concludes that Mexicans were shielded from the worst of the discrimination because of labor shortages (p. 9). During the depression, the racial image of the Mexicans changed dramatically from immigrants who could be taught American ways to disease-ridden persons who should be deported because they were a danger to the health of American citizens.

Molina’s work is arranged chronologically. The first chapter lays the groundwork for the use of race categories based on public health issues. By focusing on health officials’ reaction to the Chinese remaining in Los Angeles after the Chinese Exclusion Act, Molina shows health concerns centered on two businesses dominated by the Chinese—the door-to-door sale of fresh fruits and vegetables and community laundries. Since the Chinese were seen as a peril to the American economy, targeting these businesses as health menaces established Chinese as dirty and disease-ridden and placed them at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. In chapter 2, Japanese who became successful farmers were targeted as carriers of food-born diseases. After an outbreak of typhus in a Mexican railroad camp, Mexicans too were branded as a threat to public health. However, the reaction of public health officials to the Mexican issues was different. Americans saw Mexicans as unclean but capable of learning. Therefore, American officials directed rehabilitation programs to Mexican immigrants whereas no such programs were offered to the Japanese placing Mexicans higher in the race hierarchy than Japanese.

The remainder of the book focuses on the interaction of Mexicans with public health officials. Chapter 3 discusses the institutionalization of racial attitudes in public health including the segregation of facilities separating whites from Mexicans and focusing on high infant mortality rates among Mexicans effectively branding Mexican mothers as bad and incapable of full socialization in the American system. (p. 97). Chapter 4 studies the changes in public health officials’ attitudes towards Mexicans in the 1930’s. During this era Mexicans became branded as not only culturally inferior but also biologically unfit (p. 117) for American society, and thus they were soon subjected to sterilization or deportation. Chapter 5 focuses on the Mexican reaction to their new status in particular through adequate public housing and access to public health facilities.

From the beginning of the work, Molina stresses her research since she had to search many different sources of the era to find the racially charged discourse of public health. Although she relies heavily on state and local government archives, her list of sources is extensive and reflects a search throughout southern California for relevant material.


Curtis Vaughn, Fall 2007

Although covering the period from 1879-1939, Molina has grounded her work in the ideas of the Progressives. Los Angeles officials used the "scientific objectivity" of public health concerns to bring order to the era(p. 5), and Congress commissioned a study of immigration by a panel of experts to ascertain the effects on society of the changing population (p. 47). Molina’s discussion of sterilization recalls the eugenics movement that a part of the Progressive era (p. 111), and her analysis of bad Mexican mothers relates to the Progressive concept that motherhood “legitimized women’s relationship to the state” (p. 97). Although, this book is a local study, placing its findings in context of the broader nationwide changes legitimizes the conclusions.

Molina’s study is important because it places racial attitudes in the context of emerging public health issues. From this perspective the book is an important work because it adds to the understanding of the emerging racial discourse of the early twentieth century. But, the concepts of racial hierarchy and the struggle for new immigrants to achieve “whiteness” are not unique to this study. For instance, she seems to be in agreement with Matthew Frye Jacobson who asserts in his book, Whiteness of a Different Color (Harvard University Press, 1998), “how profoundly dependent racial inclusion was on the racial exclusion of others, ….and how completely intertwined were the prospects of becoming American and becoming Caucasian” (p. 12). This indicates Molina uses the ideas of her predecessors without challenging their work.

Even though her work focuses on public health issues, the reaction of the Mexican community to issues threatening their right to be Americans re-enforces the findings of Devra Weber in her book, Dark Sweat, White Gold, (University of California Press, 1994). Weber finds that Mexicans were active in establishing the farm labor movement in California in the 1930’s. Both Molina and Weber develop a picture of Mexicans as a group who willingly used the labor movement as a way to work together to address their grievances in a “white” dominated society.

Molina’s work is another important part of the evolving understanding of the American experience from the perspective of the disadvantaged segments of society. The struggle of “non-white” immigrant groups for status in American society is a reminder that the full democratization of the country was a continuing process into the twentieth century.

--Clvaughn 19:02, 22 Aug 2007 (EDT)

Sheri A. Huerta, Fall 2012

Molina’s work demonstrates “how race demarcates the boundaries of social membership” through an examination of the circumstances of Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican groups during the period of institution of progressive programs in Los Angeles County (179). Discussions of membership generated tensions over eligibility for business opportunity, for jobs, for housing, for medical care, for Americanization programs, for sterilization, for repatriation, or for exclusion of citizenship rights. Molina discovered the key to entry into ranked American society depended increasingly on statistical analysis provided by “experts” serving in the growing public health sector, a key component of the Progressive movement. These officials equated scientific studies of sanitation with cultural markers of superiority or inferiority and accorded Chinese, Japanese, and Mexicans with corresponding social rankings. Molina’s ability to interpret results and outcomes of surveys like the Santa Fe Railroad camp survey during the typhus epidemic of 1916 determined that the ensuing regulations focused on “improving personal hygiene” of the specific racial group–Mexicans–rather than addressing the “inferior living conditions” found in the camps (65). Repeated evidence of public health officials manipulating studies of wretched living conditions into a judgment of cultural inferiority reveals the way the public health department could appropriate scientific objectivity to racialize “people’s place in society” (8).

As Molina points out, this process of racialization relies heavily on the context of specific geographical spaces and economic forces. The American west coast provides an environment of racial tensions that includes different groups from the primarily Eastern and Southern European immigrant groups flocking into eastern seaboard ports during this time. As a result, Californians created different ways of applying Social Darwinism and Progressive models to instigate hierarchies and segregation of spaces. Molina’s story is not the “feel good” story of cultural triumph of marginalized groups, but rather an eye-opening view of the history of stereotyping cultures for white economic benefit and gain of prime real estate and business opportunities at the expense of people trying to achieve a portion of the promised land of gold or health that California offered to prospective white emigrants.

Molina raises the important question of how the regional context of populations and economies framed racial attitudes during the Progressive era and how statistics blurred data to pursue racial objectives rather than health initiatives by “generating practices that embedded racial logic in their institutional culture” (179). Her study over time also reveals how a group of workers could be beneficial and protected by business interests when seen as “dependent employees” like the Mexican workers prior to the Depression of the 1930s, but once a group became competitive in the job market, like the Japanese with their perceived high birth rates and industrious family work units, they quickly lost their preferred legal and social status (58). The consistent theme remained that the underlying causes of poor health–unsanitary housing conditions–was never adequately addressed by the public health department, but rather blamed on nonwhite groups for their cultural inferiority, a theme that Molina stresses over and over.

The role of Americanization, as Molina redefines in a regional perspective, takes on new meanings in this racialized context. Public health programs targeted Mexican mothers for services and educational programs as long as Mexican workers were valued by white businessmen. When economic conditions worsened, programs ceased and efforts towards repatriation and sterilization began. Also, the lack of programs for Japanese or Chinese groups indicates the extent of interest in Americanizing only certain groups. Molina opens the discussion for topics of racialized Americanization programs, regional studies of the implementation of Progressive initiatives, and definitions of whiteness and cultural hierarchies beyond simple dichotomies of old world versus new world or class differences. Molina’s work should generate future studies on the expansion of the definition of race, exploration of how public officials identify the racial components of communities, and whether those components would be inclusive or exclusive of social membership.

Sheri A. Huerta 18:10, 3 September 2012 (UTC)

Personal tools