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George Baliey, It's a Wonderful Segregated Life

by nobody Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014 at 3:31 AM

Just thinking about residential segregation in South Gate circa 1920, and the ideology of It's a Wonderful Life.

George Baliey, It's ...
george-baileys-restrictive-covenants.jpg, image/jpeg, 400x308

I've been reading Nicolaides' My Blue Heaven, about the community of South Gate California, a gateway city located down the 710 freeway (or up, depending on where you are). Today, it's mostly a Latino suburb, mostly boring and unremarkable, but it has roots as a white working class suburb. Specifically, it was a segregated "whites only" city with a number of tracts that had contracts that enforced the whites only rules.

Prior to these developments, there were several African Americans, an unknown number of Mexican Americans, and around 50 Japanese Americans living there, probably as rural residents. As development increased, segregation was imposed, and eventually almost all the people of color were displaced.

One of the startling things about the book is that it forces me to reconsider a lot of images I have about the past. It's not that I didn't know about residential segregation -- I'm old enough to have heard the stories, and enough of a reader that I've read about it plenty -- it's that Nicolaides goes into so much detail that you cannot help but reconsider the mythologies of the past, because, like the residential segregation, they exclude people of color.

It's a Wonderful Life (which I like, by the way) is a great example. In it, the only person of color is Annie the maid. She's humanized somewhat, fortunately, but little is known about her. As fair as the Baileys may be to her, there's an unspoken fact of segregation, or implied segregation in the life of the people of Bedford Falls.

Racism within the film is centered on one argument between Potter and George, when Potter refers to immigrants as "garlic eaters", obviously a reference to Italian Americans who were considered immigrants at the time, and to whom the Bailey Buliding and Loan lent money to buy homes.

Though viewers today may not notice it, residential desegregation for Italian Americans was presented in the filme as anti-racism, but it was really a reconfiguration of "whiteness" in American life. The Americanization and assimilation programs of the 1920s and 1930s sought to unify the country through assimilation, but these projects only included whites.

Blacks were not included, but also not considered un-assimilated since they were here from the beginning. Native Americans were being assimilated through much harsher projects that involved taking children from their families to be re-educated in boarding schools, so their culture was eradicated. Asians were considered unassimilable, and also denied the right to become naturalized citizens.

One of the ways in which whiteness was reconfigured was via residential segregation. In areas outside of the South, where Jim Crow laws predominated, segregation was often informal. However, in some areas, like California, racist segregation was enforced through contracts called Contracts, Covenants and Restrictions (CCRs).

So, in watching any old movie from the 1950s or before, or portraying the 1950s or before, the fact of racist segregation is rarely ever confronted. Indeed, the existence of people of color is rarely even presented, so the conflict between the generally democratic ideology of most films, and the concrete fact of legal segregation, is entirely absent. This is a great lie of the golden age of American cinema.

It's something to think about next time you watch It's a Wonderful Life.

Now, have a nice fucking day.

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