David M. Struthers


On his book The World in a City: Multiethnic Radicalism in Early Twentieth-Century Los Angeles

Cover Interview of December 11, 2019


The book has distinct lessons for different audiences. For historians and other scholars, I think that affinity is a useful tool applicable to other periods and locations. There are many instances of racial divisions being altered by distinct local power relationships. Two quick examples: A “sawbuck equality” developed between enslaved and owners in South Carolina in the late 1700s, and the cosmopolitan lower decks of ships in the Atlantic during the Age of Revolution provided space for whites, blacks, and many others to find common ground. Affinity can help us understand flexible forms of association in relation to race, power, and states.

For most readers, the implication is that the broadest moments of interracial organizing were brief and came outside of hierarchical organizations. Stronger power structures focused institutional power to enforce racism in these organizations and parties. Interracial affinities developed their broadest form in places that lacked the organizational structures to enforce racist exclusion. When whites in these spaces held deeply racist beliefs, they had less power to act upon these beliefs; all the while, the structural manifestations of race still organized society and the economy.

In our era of increasingly vocal racism and nationalism, the book has a powerful story to tell about people that fought to create a world counter to these noxious beliefs. One place for us to start is learning that the mix of organizers, workers, and migrants in the book didn’t have superpowers. They didn’t have it all figured out, but what they knew was that to make a better world was to struggle. In the end, we can all work to continue their rich cultural tradition of mutual solidarity. Anarchists, syndicalists, and socialists brought interracial, multilingual, and international organizing to the center of regional working-class culture through their struggle to bring their visions of a new social and economic order into reality. It’s up to us to retranslate these practices and invent our own today. This book illustrates that the pull of cooperation could be stronger than the will for division for many residents of Los Angeles. Only through struggle can we make a culture of affinity as much their legacy as our own.