The Age of White Flight: Restructuring White Space in Los Angeles

Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight

In Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles, Eric Avila argues that the suburban character of postwar popular culture in Los Angeles was defined by the centrality of whiteness that helped nurture a distinct ethos of race and ethnicity that aided in the (re)structuring of the spatial spaces of the burgeoning metropolis as an idealized landmark for the “nation’s white spot” (230). As such, a unique set of political, economic, social, and geographic circumstances permeated racial relations between Anglos and people of color in crafting strict spatial boundaries that distinguished between “chocolate cities” and “vanilla suburbs” (11). Avila’s focus is on the use of popular culture that helped shape the development of white consciousness as a means of impacting social change and concretizing Anglo dominant values upon white and minority communities.

Avila centers his study on the use of popular culture to position the Los Angeles city experience within the context of an elaborate interplay between the forces of modernity and antiquity that unfolded during the capitalist urbanization struggle to redefine the boundaries of white consciousness and identity (3,6). By proposing to explore the dynamics of the popular cultural landscape of the suburb through an analysis of Southern California theme parks, freeways, ballparks, and motion pictures, Avila seeks to situate the framework of white identity within the larger setting of race construction and city formation as being exclusively the domain of private capitalist interests.

The sociopolitical conditions that enabled white flight or white agency was fostered by a complete reassessment of spatial spaces. The white flight that took place in Los Angeles, as Avila, explicitly makes clear was not neutral in scope, rather it was determined by sociopolitical forces who were intent on negating the chaos that ordered, for instance, east coast cities like New York, whose cultural landmarks were vanishing in the midst of changing white consciousness and spatial location. Thus, through the formation of the motion picture industry, for instance, and in particular through the devise of the film noir genre, Hollywood was able to skillfully craft visual imagery that expressed Euroamerican values in an effort to delineate between Subject (white) and Other (non-white). Los Angeles, then, was the perfect setting to reestablish social order out of social chaos through the creation of popular cultural motifs.

It is here that Avila’s use of critical race theory to inform his analysis of film noir represents a focal point to better understand the social parameters that gave rise to racial segregation and racial exclusion of people of color from fully participating in Los Angeles’s spatial space during the 1940s. By “killing the slum,” film noir attempted to diminish the potential for subversive behavior by empowering dominant society and marginalizing communities of color by “Americanizing” them to assume the cultural values and practices of white society that were reflected within the imagery represented in motion pictures (70). The use of the science fiction genre in film, likewise, functioned to inform white consciousness of their sociopolitical fragility and the impending invasion of the Other.

At the same time, popular culture was able to reconfigure urban space that had been gradually vanishing as a mediating device to exclude certain elements that were perceived as dislocating uniformity in white dominant society. Suburbanization in the postwar era accelerated Southern California regional diversity as African Americans, Japanese, Mexican, and other minority communities descended on the outskirts of vanilla suburbs.

In Avila’s analysis of what seems on the surface as apolitical popular culture, evolves into a critical microscopic view of the “rage to order” of dominant society that forces upon American society a culture of consumption (106,112). In the same way that film noir aesthetic elements pervaded American society during World War II, the Cold War in the 1950s was ripe for a counterculture that could address the disorder within the white polity. Avila’s analysis of the American amusement park is centered on Walt Disney’s political ideology and perception of conformity and uniformity (127).

The transition away from a culture of production to a culture based on consumption fits perfectly well with Disney’s formulaic strategy that claimed that private not public figures could bring about social order (131). This social order, however, was centered on a distinct white plurality. Although Avila is careful not to write a scathing analysis of Disney’s usage of racist images, he does allude to the fact that the dimensions of Disney’s racial formation surfaced throughout his work (135). It is troubling, however, given Avila’s general proposition that popular culture informs white identity and consciousness that he would not be more critical of Disney’s position, especially as Avila suggests, “Disneyland cradled a racialized conservatism that informed the nascent political struggles of the New Right” (137). Through Avila’s review of Disneyland, one gathers that Disney’s cultural vision was to contain the Other in the war of cultural position that the Cold War represented.

The nascent struggles of the New Right, of which Walt Disney is part and parcel of, gave credence to the urban renewal (people removal) projects of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Dodger Stadium and the freeway construction movement were built in the name of progress, yet Avila’s analysis seems to be passive towards what is clearly an injustice against minority communities. The symbolism and politics of the New Right is clearly steeped in the production of fear and fantasy that emanates within white communities. In his review of the urban and land displacement suffered by Chicanas/os during the tumultuous incidents of Chávez Ravine and the freeway construction, Avila should have expanded his critique of urban social displacement by including elements of oral history from both sides of the suburbanization experience. Although he includes a semblance of family oral history in his study, Avila’s full use of oral history could have situated race relations as a concrete phenomenon not an abstract concept of the past to better understand the present.

Avila’s epilogue is striking for it balances the consequences of white flight with the realities of Chicana/o and Black displacement from the center of dominant society. His review of Proposition 13 was vital for any study of suburban spatial space realities and the inability of ethnic communities to access social services. While clearly providing a critical lens into the dynamics of white flight, Avila’s proposition to chart the establishment of chocolate cities and vanilla suburbs by exploring popular culture never evokes a sense of urgency. Avila’s negation of the contemporary experiences of marginalization and gentrification of the South Central Farmers suggests that urban renewal (people removal) is not a relic of the past. In the overall analysis of white flight, Avila’s work is an important contribution in the area of cultural studies.

- by David Cid

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2 Responses to The Age of White Flight: Restructuring White Space in Los Angeles

  1. Bianca Guzman says:

    Nice job!

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