Skip to main content

Essay: 1921-present: Modern California - Migration, Technology, Cities

Over the course of the 20th century, California grew at a rate surpassing even state boosters' most breathless predictions. In the 1920s and 1930s, the oil, agriculture, and entertainment industries attracted millions of people to southern California, which overtook northern California as the economic engine of the thriving state.

World War II further transformed California as emerging aerospace and shipping industries brought millions more workers of varied geographical and cultural backgrounds into the state. Migration actually sped up after the war's end. In 1962, California passed New York as the nation's most populous state. By the turn of the 21st century, California laid claim to the world’s fifth largest economy and a population of nearly 34 million.

As the state's housing, transportation, health care, and social service infrastructures struggled to keep pace with this phenomenal growth, many California cities had begun to suffer from poverty, pollution, and racial strife. The state's tremendous ethnic diversity created tensions as well as opportunities for cross-cultural collaboration. Throughout the 20th century, California's millions of Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans strove for economic security, political equality, and social change.

Native Americans

The number of Native Americans living in California rose steadily after 1900, reversing the appalling decline of the previous century. Much of this increase was a result of federal job training and relocation programs that encouraged Indians from other states to move to California.

In 1965, fewer than 10 percent of the state’s 75,000 Native Americans lived on rural reservations. Those who did comprised California’s most disadvantaged group, with higher unemployment rates than any other minority. Urban Indians fared better but still experienced limited educational and employment opportunities.

Beginning in the 1960s, Native Americans in California formed pan-Indian organizations such as the American Indian Historical Society, California Rural Indian Health Board, and California Indian Education Association to advocate for native rights. A group of activists called Indians of All Tribes occupied Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay from 1969 to 1971, part of a nationwide Native American social justice movement that continues today.

In the early 1980s, the Cabazon and Morongo Bands of Mission Indians began offering card games and bingo on their reservations, setting off a controversy over gaming that would culminate in a 1987 US Supreme Court decision affirming Native Americans' right to build casinos on reservation lands. By 2005, there were 55 Native American casinos in California bringing in a total annual income of more than $3.5 billion.

These revenues have dramatically changed the economic, political, and social landscapes of California's native peoples. Because only groups that have been federally recognized as official tribes can build casinos, an enormous financial gulf now separates recognized and unrecognized native groups. Those groups with federal recognition enjoy considerable political clout, while members of unrecognized groups continue to suffer from joblessness, under-education, and poor living conditions. Money from gaming has also generated controversies over Indian identity as federally recognized groups have been forced to reconsider who can and cannot claim membership. Gaming has brought new wealth to some of California's Native Americans, but it has also brought new divisions, contentions, and self-definitions.

African Americans

African Americans first moved to California in large numbers during World War II to work in shipping and other war industries. Chester Himes's 1945 novel If He Hollers Let Him Go, set in wartime Los Angeles, exposed the racial discrimination many black migrants faced in their new home. Racist real estate policies limited African Americans' ability to move out of segregated urban neighborhoods, and discrimination restricted their access to skilled and professional jobs as well as higher education.

In 1965, anger and desperation turned into violence in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, triggered by rumors of police brutality. The violence in Watts — the most destructive urban uprising in US history at that time — lasted a week, involved more than 10,000 Los Angelinos, and left at least 34 people dead.

The underlying causes of the Watts uprising — including underemployment, poverty, segregation, and police harassment — persisted almost 30 years later. In 1992, violence erupted again in south central Los Angeles after the acquittal of several white police officers for the beating of motorist Rodney King. This reoccurrence of urban violence surprised many who believed the Civil Rights movement had improved conditions for California's African Americans.

In fact, the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s did see the emergence of a sizeable black middle class in the state, a result of activism, entrepreneurship, and government programs. A number of African American politicians won important offices, including Thomas Bradley (five-term mayor of Los Angeles), Willie L. Brown, Jr. (two-term mayor of San Francisco), and US representatives Augustus Hawkins, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Ronald Dellums, Julian Carey Dixon, Mervyn Dymally, Barbara Lee, Juanita Millender-McDonald, and Maxine Waters. Ironically, as upwardly mobile African Americans have moved from the urban centers of Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco into suburbs and the Central Valley, their ability to elect black politicians has actually weakened. Their voting bloc has scattered, while Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans have grown in numbers.

Asian Americans

California's Asian American population remained small until 1965, when federal officials changed immigration policy to allow migration from Asia after 40 years of exclusion. In the decades before 1965, those Asian immigrants in California were considered "aliens" and barred from citizenship due to their race. Furthermore, a 1913 state law forbade Japanese Americans from owning land or leasing it for more than three years.

After the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the federal government rounded up and relocated 93,000 Californians of Japanese descent in the name of national security. Most were confined to relocation camps for more than two years despite never being convicted — or even formally accused — of a crime. Once released, many Japanese Americans found themselves destitute, stripped of their houses and possessions. Recognizing the injustice of the relocation campaigns, the US Congress made partial reparations to Japanese Americans in 1948 and again in 1988. But the stigma of being labeled national enemies simply because of their race lingered.

After 1965, immigration to the United States from Asia and the Pacific skyrocketed, with California as the prime destination. By 1990, 40 percent of all Asian Americans in the country lived in California, numbering about 3 million. California became home to thriving immigrant communities from China, Japan, the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Pacific islands. Asian Americans most heavily concentrated in the San Francisco Bay Area, with large numbers also living in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Fresno, Sutter, Yuba, and Sacramento counties.

According to 2000 census data, a higher percentage of Asian Americans went to college than any other California group; but their per capita income still lagged significantly behind that of whites ($22,000 versus $31,700), revealing the persistence of anti-Asian prejudice in hiring. The growing political strength of Asian Americans has only begun to be exercised, thus far manifested in the elections of S. I. Hayakawa, Robert Matsui, and Norman Mineta to the US Congress, and Matt Fong as California State Treasurer.

Hispanic Americans

The largest minority group in California during the 20th century was Hispanic Americans, most prominently Mexican Americans. One-half million Mexicans migrated to the United States during the 1920s, with more than 30 percent settling in California. Mexican Americans soon made up the bulk of the labor force in many unskilled and semi-skilled industries, including agriculture, railroads, manufacturing, and domestic service. Many immigrants lived in segregated urban barrios, such as east Los Angeles, where they forged new identities as Mexican Americans.

Two incidents in Los Angeles during World War II revealed the city’s rampant anti-Mexican prejudice. In January 1943, 17 Mexican American youths were convicted of murdering a boy whose body had been found in a reservoir known as Sleepy Lagoon. The racist bias of the judge and prosecution was so blatant that the Sleepy Lagoon case attracted the sympathy of people around the country before being overturned by an appellate court. Meanwhile, long-simmering tensions between white servicemen and Mexican American "zoot suiters" (so named for their jaunty clothes) turned into a week-long race riot in June 1943. Mobs of white sailors, soldiers, and marines assaulted Mexican-American teenagers and tore off their clothes, but local newspapers portrayed the boys as the aggressors. Even the name of the incident — the Zoot Suit Riots — placed the blame on Mexican Americans.

In the decades after World War II, Latinos in California grew in numbers and political strength. In 1966, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta helped found the United Farm Workers, a labor union aimed at organizing migrant farm workers — mostly Mexican Americans — who had for decades endured perilous working conditions, low pay, and no job security. The labor activism of Chávez and Huerta comprised one arm of the La Raza movement, which endeavored to expose and overturn the discrimination in employment, housing, and education that Hispanic Americans faced in California. The La Raza movement included muralists, poets, entrepreneurs, politicians, and labor organizers within its ranks, and descendants of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other parts of Latin America in addition to Mexico.

Despite this tradition of activism, Hispanic Californians have had trouble winning public office. But the recent elections of Cruz Bustamante (Lieutenant Governor) and Antonio Villaraigosa (Los Angeles mayor) suggest the arrival of a powerful political presence. Ongoing controversies over illegal immigration and bilingual education have mobilized California's Hispanic population even as they exposed internal class and cultural divisions.

Multicultural California

The 2000 census produced a snapshot of California today. The state is more multicultural than ever before, with 32 percent Hispanic Americans, 11 percent Asian Americans, 6.7 percent African Americans, and 1 percent Native Americans (330,657, more than any other state). A full 26 percent of Californians were born outside the United States, and 39.5 percent of adults reported that they spoke a language other than English at home.

For the first time, census respondents were allowed to mark more than one race to identify themselves, and more than 1.5 million Californians did so, a small sign of the blending of cultures that has marked California for centuries. Though riven by fault lines and marred by continuing inequality, California continues to symbolize opportunity and hope for millions. It is a product of the interwoven histories and cultures of its diverse peoples.

Go further


California African American Museum

The Bancroft Library. Chinese in California virtual collection

Oakland Museum of California. Latino History Project

In the Library

de Graaf, Lawrence B., Kevin Mulroy, and Quintard Taylor, eds. Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California. Los Angeles: Autry Museum of Western Heritage, 2001

Phillips, George Harwood. The Enduring Struggle: Indians in California History. San Francisco: Boyd & Fraser, 1981.

Sánchez, George J. Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Yoo, David K. Growing Up Nisei: Race, Generation, and Culture among Japanese Americans of California, 1924-49. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Yung, Judy. Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco. Berkeley: University of California, 1995.

About this essay:

"1921-present: Modern California - Migration, Technology, Cities" was written by Joshua Paddison and the University of California in 2005 as part of the California Cultures project.

Using this essay:

The text of this essay is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. You are free to share and adapt it however you like, provided you provide attribution as follows:

1921-present: Modern California - Migration, Technology, Cities curated by University of California, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2011, Regents of the University of California.

Please note that this license applies only to the descriptive copy and does not apply to any and all digital items that may appear.