This book surveys the historical experience of three sizable minority groups in Phoenix, currently the ninth-largest city in the United States. Bradford Luckingham argues that Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, and African Americans have been systematically discriminated against and denied equal access to jobs, housing, services, and educational facilities. The impression is that America’s Sun Belt, rather than representing new opportunities for minorities, largely has replicated the Jim Crowism of the Deep South.
Mexican Americans here represent the largest minority group with the longest historical record. As with African Americans in the South, they were systematically marginalized and exploited as a source of cheap labor. Latinos were crowded into substandard housing without running water, heat, or electricity; forced to attend inferior schools; denied access to public swimming pools and parks; referred to as “greasers” in the major newspapers; and subjected to Americanization campaigns.
After World War II, Mexican Americans benefited from the G. I. Bill and from community organizations, such as Chicanos por La Causa. Nevertheless, public policy and public opinion militated against significant progress. For example, city officials chose to construct sewage treatment plants and landfills in the Mexican neighborhood, and a 1987 referendum declared English the official language of Arizona (an outrage overturned by the federal court).
Luckingham’s discussion of the Chinese American experience is comparatively sketchy. He notes that the Chinese first came to Arizona to work on the railroad, and later were segregated into urban enclaves, where a prosperous merchant class emerged. The author repeats cultural stereotypes about Chinese Americans, such as the prevalence of opium dens, and provides brief sketches of individual success stories.
African Americans moving to Phoenix struggled to achieve equality, Luckingham says. They lived in a segregated world and were terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan, whose membership in the 1920s included the mayor, members of the city commission, and the publisher of the Arizona Gazette. Equality before the law was resisted by public officials and others, including future chief justice William Rehnquist, who, as a private citizen in the 1960s, stood outside polling booths and demanded that blacks read to him from the Constitution. “If they were unable or unwilling to do so, Rehnquist insisted they not be allowed to vote” (p. 168). The recent reluctance of Rehnquist’s home state to observe Martin Luther King’s birthday as a paid holiday drew national attention.
Arizona’s poor civil rights record is not well known to those who have not endured it, and Luckingham should be congratulated for providing a useful introduction to the topic. Nevertheless, he gives only occasional glimpses of the rich social and cultural history of Phoenix’s minority communities, and his narrative approach conveys fewer insights than the social science methods of Alberto Camarillo, David Montejano, George Sánchez, and other students of the minority experience in the Southwest.