Ulster Logo
Link to facebook  Link to INCOREinfo on twitter  Link to INCORE rss feed    Linkedin link Linkedin link

The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 1 .

Race, Police and the Making of a Political Identity: Mexican Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department 1900-1945
Edward. J. Escobar

(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999)
372pp. Index. Hb.: $45.00; ISBN 0-5202-1334-3. Pb.: $17.95; ISBN 0-5202-1335-1.

Escobar examines the relationship between the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Mexican-American community as it evolved during the first half of the twentieth century. In this period, the LAPD shifted from a private union-busting force serving LA's industrialists to a 'professional' force concerned with theories of crime and policing. Meanwhile, the Mexican-American community grew in size and political clout as the demographics changed from a community of predominantly first generation immigrants to mixed community with many native-born US citizens.

This study combines the history of the Mexican-American community with the institutional history of the LAPD. The LAPD's role in quashing political radicalism and unionisation efforts by Mexican-Americans combined with racism to make the force view Mexican-Americans as inherently suspect and criminal. Relations between the LAPD and the Mexican-American community deteriorated from the 1930s onward as 'professionalism' made the department less accountable to the public. The LAPD's crime reports and a high arrest rate of Mexican-Americans influenced the wider public: flawed statistical evidence and sensationalist reporting depicted a minority community that threatened 'white' LA. For the Mexican-American community, police brutality and harassment forced a defensive politicisation. Organisations, such as defence funds, formed around particular incidents of police abuse and eventually ensured that the Mexican-American community had direct access to the city's political power structure.

While his analysis and scope are excellent, Escobar could have held the LAPD up for closer inspection. At several points (p.60, 135, 262), Escobar mentions Mexican- and African-Americans working on the police force, but he does not follow up on what could have been an instructive discussion of institutional attitudes towards minorities who were also police. Still, Escobar's work presents an excellent example of the importance of local histories, while his research and theoretical framework can serve as a model for future histories of urban minority communities. The importance of this work goes beyond this one case of a relationship between a police department and a minority community: it is significant because most explanations of the hostility between the two groups have ignored historical processes. Perhaps even more importantly, Escobar's study demonstrates that the Mexican-Americans as a group have not been passive victims of the police but rather political actors who demanded equal treatment before the law and justice.

Patience A. Schell, King's College London

Disclaimer: © INCORE 2010 Last Updated on Monday, 10-Aug-2015 12:20
contact usgoto the search page
go to the top of this page