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Color-Full before Color Blind: The Emergence of Multiracial Neighborhood Politics in Queens,

New York City


Author(s): Roger Sanjek
Source: American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 102, No. 4 (Dec., 2000), pp. 762-772
Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/684198
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ROGERSANJEK1

Departmentof Anthropology
Queens College CUNY
Flushing, NY

Color-Full before Color Blind: The Emergence of Multiracial


Neighborhood Politics in Queens, New York City
The UnitedStatesis undergoinga "majorityminority"transition,with the historicEuropean-ancestry
whitemajorityproto
fall
beneath
of
the
in
the
second
50%
half
of
the
current
a neighborhoodin
jected
population
century.Elmhurst-Corona,
Queens,New YorkCity, was 98%white in 1960 butby 1990 hadbecomeintenselymultiracial,multiethnic,andmultilingual, with neitherAfricanAmericans,Asians,LatinAmericans,northe remainingwhitesconstitutinga majorityof the local population.Based on ethnographicfieldworkbetween 1983 and 1996, in this articleI tracethe growthof cross-racial
politicalinteractionin Elmhurst-Corona,
highlightinginitialresistanceby white residents,entryof newcomersinto civic
innovation
female
civic
at
activists,and acceptanceof sharedlocal "qualityof life" concernsas representation
politics,
by
the centralpoliticalarena,the neighborhood'sappointedcommunityboard,becamemore inclusive.[political anthropology, race, immigration, New York City, United States]

I
The United States is in the midst of a great transition. In
less than one hundred years, Americans of African, Asian,
and Latin American ancestry will outnumber those of
European origin. According to one demographic projection, by 2080 the proportion of whites will fall from its
present 74% to 50%, and the rest of the U.S. population
will be 23% Latin American, 15% black, and 12% Asian
(Bouvier and Gardner 1986:27).2 The great transition
among America's children will arrive even sooner. By the
year 2035, only 49% of children under age 18 will be white
(O'Hare 1992:18).
The pace of multiracial change is faster on the nation's
coasts and in its cities than in its heartland and suburbs
(Frey 1995). New York City crossed the "majority minority" threshold in the early 1980s (Falc6n 1985), and by
1990 the city's white population stood at 43%, down from
52% in 1980. It is in New York's diverse, changing neighborhoods like Elmhurst-Corona in northwest Queens, the
subject of this paper, that clues about the future of us all
may first be glimpsed.
Elmhurst-Corona underwent its "majority minority"
transition in the 1970s. The neighborhood's white population fell from 98% in 1960 to 67% in 1970, 34% in 1980,
and 18% in 1990. Over these same decades, immigrant and
African American newcomers arrived in substantial
number, and by 1990 Elmhurst-Corona was 45% Latin
American, 26% Asian, and 10% black. Established residents of German, Irish, Polish, Italian, Jewish, and other

European ancestries now lived among Africans, African


Americans, Chinese, Colombians, Cubans, Dominicans,
Ecuadorians, Filipinos, Haitians, Indians, Koreans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and other new neighbors. In 1992,
New York's Department of City Planning called ElmhurstCorona "perhapsthe most ethnically mixed community in
the world" (Salvo et al. 1992:4).
My fieldwork in this neighborhood began in 1983, and I
followed its changing political life over more than a dozen
years. I worked with a team of researchers who mirrored
the cultural and linguistic complexity of the ElmhurstCorona population. Their work focused on Chinese, Korean, African American, Indian, and the diverse Latin
American residents (Chen 1992; Danta 1989; Gregory
1998; Khandelwal 1991; Park 1997; Ricourt 1994). My assignment was the white residents (Sanjek 1998).
Our team's overall charge was to assess how far Elmhurst-Corona's diverse population had come in forming
what Guinier terms "an integrated body politic in which all
perspectives are represented, and in which all people work
together to find common ground" (1994:6). I took primary
responsibility for this by focusing on what Jacobs defines
as the "district-level" political field.3 In her classic Death

and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs distinguished

three levels of urban existence: "the city as a whole," in


which people find jobs, visit museums, support baseball
teams, and vote for mayor; "the street neighborhood" of
immediate daily interaction; and "the district,"which "mediate[s] between the ... politically powerless street neighborhoods, and the inherently powerful city as a whole"

AmericanAnthropologist102(4):762-772. Copyright? 2001, AmericanAnthropologicalAssociation

SANJEK

(1961:117-121). In contemporaryNew York City, she


noted, districtsrangefrom 80,000 to 200,000 residentsin
size.

Jacobsenvisageddistrict-levelpoliticalpoweremerging
from "churches,PTA's, business associations,political
clubs, civic groups, [and] block ... associations." For a

district"tobe big andpowerfulenoughto fightCity Hall,"


of its groupsandassociationswas
political"interweaving"
required.In a "successful"district,"workingrelationships
[exist]amongpeople,usuallyleaders,who enlargetheirlocal public life beyond the neighborhoodsof streets and
specific organizationsor institutions,and [who] formrelationshipswith people whose rootsandbackgroundsare in
entirely differentconstituencies.... It takes surprisingly
few people to weld a districtinto a real Thing.A hundred
or so ... do it in a populationa thousandtimes theirsize"
(Jacobs1961:122-134).
disThe compositionand scale of Elmhurst-Corona's
field
matched
Jacobs's
trict-level political
description.
does:obWithinit I couldreadilydo whatan ethnographer
serveongoingeventsandlistento speech-in-action(Sanjek
1990:210-213, 243-247; 1996). Its participantsincluded
black and immigrantnewcomers,but the majoritycontinued to be long-establishedwhite residents.Some local
whites were antagonisticor indifferentto theirnew neighbors.Otherssoughtaccommodationandeven formednew
friendships.All were intenselyawareof change going on
aroundthem.It was impossibleto do otherwise.
II
Alreadyby 1970, salsa starsTito Puenteand Orquesta
Broadwaywere appearingon RooseveltAvenue,andDominicansand Colombiansreferredto sections of Corona
and Elmhurstas "SabanaIglesias" and "Chapinerito,"
namedafterlocales in theirhomelands.KoreanChristian
churches sprouted up everywhere, joined by SpanishlanguageProtestantcongregations,a Pakistanimosque,a
Hindutemple,and a ChineseZen Buddhistchurch.Enormous crowds came for Colombian,Ecuadorian,and Korean festivals in FlushingMeadows-CoronaPark,where
LatinAmericanleaguesalso playedsoccereveryweekend.
New Asian andLatinAmericanstoresappearedon the district's commercialstrips,and unfamiliarlanguagescould
be heardon subwayplatforms,in ElmhurstHospital,at local libraries,in coin laundries,and on every block and
apartmentbuildingfloor.
LatinAmericanandAsian immigrantssettledgradually
throughoutthe area,in all of its 35 censustracts.The white
populationhad alreadybegun leaving in the 1950s, and
theirmoves to suburbsandotherpartsof the UnitedStates
continued, leaving vacant apartmentsand homes. The
numberof white householdsshrankless than the overall
white population,however,with one or two olderpersons

COLOR-FULL BEFORE COLOR BLIND

763

remainingby the 1990s from whathad been larger,growing householdsin earlierdecades.


AfricanAmericansarrivedunderverydifferentcircumstancesthan the diverse immigrants.Following a federal
housing discriminationsuit at the 4,600-unitLefrakCity
apartmentcomplexin 1970, white flight occurred,and by
1980 LefrakCity was 65% black.Most blacknewcomers
settledhereor nearbyso thateven in 1990 only 3 of the 35
census tractscontained86% of Elmhurst-Corona's
black
The
white
local
real
estate
sector,
population.
historically
now includinglarge numbersof immigrant-ownedfirms,
hadopenedup to LatinAmerican,Asian,andeven Haitian
rentersandhomebuyers,butnot to AfricanAmericans.4
I traced the emerging relations among Elmhurst-Corona's whites,blacks,and immigrantsfrom 1983 to 1996
and also back to a 1960
throughparticipant-observation,
baselinewith archivalsources.My fieldworkcenteredon
CommunityBoard4 (CB4). The most immediatelayerof
governmentin New York City, the 59 local community
boardsof up to fifty appointedmemberseach werecreated
as partof "thenation'smost ambitiousattemptaturbandecentralization"(Pecorella1994:3) in the late 1960s; their
purviewincludesland-usereview, city budgetrecommendations,andthe monitoringof municipalservicedelivery.
Theirmaturationas arenasfor local politicscoincidedwith
Elmhurst-Corona's
growingethnicandracialdiversity.
I attended123 meetingsandpublichearingsof CB4 and
its districtservicescabinet.From thereI workedoutward
to 50 meetingsof civic associations,smallbusinessgroups,
redistrictingbodies, and mayoralcommissionsand local
"townhall" events. I also observed83 public ritualsthat
rangedfromChristmastreelightings,ethnicfestivals,protest rallies,andblock cleanupsto awardceremonies,park
openings,anti-drugmarches,and InternationalDay programsin schools. I attended75 servicesand social events
at threehistoricallywhite Protestantchurchesand visited
several other white, AfricanAmerican,Asian, and Latin
Americanhousesof worship.Moreover,I spentnumerous
hoursin walks throughoutthe areaandin parks,an indoor
shoppingmall,ElmhurstHospital,the local policeprecinct
I used forhouse, libraries,seniorcenters,andrestaurants.
mal interviewing strategically and sparingly (Sanjek
1996),andin my 1,230pagesof field notes,participant-observationoutnumbersinterviewsby 10 to 1.
III
In 1970just 9% of LefrakCity's tenantpopulationwas
black, and this included many Africans workingfor the
UnitedNationsandotherinternationalorganizations.Following landlordSamuel Lefrak's agreementto end discriminatoryrental practices, African American lowermiddle-classcity employees, teachers, and white collar
workerswho could affordthe prevailingrentsfoundthey
were now treatedon a first-come,first-servedbasis and

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* DECEMBER2000

soughtout Lefrak'sroomyapartments.By 1975, the complex was two-thirdsblack, and Elmhurst-Corona'ssurroundingwhiteresidentshadnotedthe change.
When some whites saw black faces, however, they
made uninformedassumptions.In January1975, a rumor
thatLefrakCity "is being loaded with welfarecases"was
reportedat CommunityBoard4 whereno LefrakCity tenant, white or black, had yet been appointed.One CB4
leaderaverred,"Peoplehave moved out [of LefrakCity]
becauseof the badconditionsthere,due to welfaretenants.
As soon as landlordsbegin to rent to them, the buildings
deteriorateandwe will have anotherSouthBronx."
Representativesfrom the still mainlywhite LefrakCity
TenantsAssociationwere invited to CB4, wherethey insisted the problemwas not "welfarecases" (it turnedout
thatthe tinypercentageof these was smallerthanthefigure
for Queensoverall)but rathercuts in maintenanceandsecurity by Lefrak Management.The complex had been
overbuiltin relationto the rentalmarket,and Lefrakhad
hundredsof vacantapartments,a situationthathadpersisted ever sincethe complexopenedin 1962.
whitesbeganto meetblack
Slowly, as Elmhurst-Corona
Lefrak leaders, they also began to understandthat their
own neighborhood'sfate was inextricablylinkedto thatof
Lefrak City. By 1979, white Corona civic groups were
supportingthe now black-ledLefrakCity TenantAssociation in a rent strike, and CommunityBoard 4 and the
LCTAjoined forces againstQueenspoliticiansmaneuvering to move 2,600 Social Security Administrationjobs
fromLefrakCityto anotherQueensneighborhood.
In economic terms, Lefrak City's black populationin
1979 had a highermeanfamily income thanits whiteCorona neighbors.This would continue.In 1990, ElmhurstCorona'saveragehouseholdincomes by race were closer
to each otherthananywhereelse in Queens.Blacks stood
at slightlyover $35,000 and whites slightlyunderthatfigure; Asian incomes were $36,000 and Latin American
ones $33,000.
IV

Muchas whiteElmhurst-Corona
leadershadmisdefined
LefrakCity's growingblackpopulationas "welfarecases,"
they also misdefinedElmhurst-Corona's
immigrantnewcomersas "illegalaliens."Both misdefinitionsmaskedreal
issues-Lefrak' s overbuildingandmaintenancereductions
in the first instance,and a populationimplosionandovercrowdedschools andhousingin the second.In bothcases,
progressin facing these issues was made only aftermisdefinitions were revised, hysteria over newcomers subsided, and leadersbeganto redefineproblemsas ones affecting the "quality of life" of all Elmhurst-Corona
residents,whiteandblack,Americanandimmigrant,alike.
The phrase"illegalaliens"firstappearedin Community
Board4's minutesin 1971in connectionwiththe emerging

problemof school crowding.Young immigrantfamilies


with childrenwerereplacingagingwhitesin Elmhurst-Corona,andSchool Board24, whichwas controlledby members elected from still overwhelminglywhite neighborhoods in southwest Queens, was responding with
makeshiftmeasures,mainlyprefabricated"mini-schools"
that occupied former school playgrounds.In addition,
white and immigrantrealtors,landlords,andhomeowners
were satisfyingthe growingdemandfor housing in Elmhurst-Corona
by addingillegal roomrentalsandbasement
and garageunits to the local housing supply.And worse,
overzoningunderthe city's 1961 ordinancepermitteddevelopersto buy anddemolishexistingone- andtwo-family
homes and replace them with brick-box "infills" that
housedsix or moreunits.
One white Elmhurstcivic leaderinsisted,"thisis a job
for the INS."As faras he was concerned,if "illegalaliens"
were dealtwith properlyby the ImmigrationandNaturalization Service, "thehousingand neighborhooddeterioration problem would solve itself." In 1974, Community
Board4 held its firstpublichearingon the "illegalaliens"
issue, andpanicthenset in. An August25 New YorkDaily
News storyheadlined"IllegalAliens, a Flood Tide in Elmhurst"quotedCommunityBoard4's whitechairmanreferring to immigrantnewcomersas "peoplepollution.""My
he continued,"andthis country
parentswere immigrants,"
was built by immigrants.But... our communityis being
overrun.Our schools, housing, and many jobs are being
takenby people who have no legal rightto be here."More
public forumswere held in 1974 and 1975, and INS and
elected officials inflamedthe situationwith inflatedestimatesof New York'sundocumentedpopulation.5
Coolerheads eventuallyprevailed.The white CommunityBoard4 districtmanagerpressedfor city housingcode
enforcement,anda femaleblackDemocraticdistrictleader
who representedCoronaremindedthe districtcabinetof
"thelegal residentsof Hispanicoriginwho are good hardworking people."A careful numericalanalysis after the
1980 census would have shown that the vast majorityof
Elmhurst-Corona'
s immigrantpopulationconsistedof visa
and greencardholders,naturalizedcitizens, and theirchildren,but by the end of the 1970s the "illegalaliens"question had in effect been redefinedas a housingand schoolcrowdingissue.

V
The prospectfor solutionsto housing and school problems, however,worsenedafterthe city's 1975 fiscal crisis,
which now eclipsed the Elmhurst-Corona
flare-upsover
new black andimmigrantneighbors.In 1975 Manhattan's
majorbankscut off creditto the city, andultimatebudgetaryandpolicy controlpassedfrompublicto privatehands.
Massivecuts in municipalservicesquicklyfollowed.

SANJEK

Overall,the city budgetshrank22% between 1975 and


1983, and service cuts affected every aspect of life in
neighborhoodNew York. The transitfare was raised;129
years of free college educationended with the imposition
of tuition;public school layoffs resultedin fewer teachers
andparaprofessionals
anda 25%increasein class size. Libraryhourswere curtailed.Summeryouthjobs and senior
citizen, recreational,and culturalprogramswere scaled
back.Five city hospitalsclosed. FireDepartmentresponse
time increased.Building inspectorsfell from 625 in 1975
to 382 by 1980 (andto only 7 for all of Queensby 1994).
Sanitationdepartmentstaff declined 48% by 1984. Park
and playgroundworkerswere cut 25% during1975, 29%
moreby 1984, and shiftedfrom fixed assignmentsto mobile teamsservicingseverallocations.
In Elmhurst-Corona,
the NewtownCrier, a local civic
associationpublication,reportedin March 1976, "Home
burglaries and muggings have been on the rise....

Our po-

lice aretryingto do theirjob, butdo not have enoughmanpower.... The sanitationpickupshave dwindledto one a
week in some sectionsandoverallourstreetsarefilthy.We
areinformedsome of the classes in ourschoolsareso large
thatteachersarehavingproblemsmaintainingcontrol."
The after-effectsof the 1975 fiscal crisis have defined
the content of neighborhoodpolitics for more than two
decades. These assaults on what Elmhurst-Coronaresidents call "qualityof life" have troubledwhites, blacks,
andimmigrantsalike.
Thephrase"qualityof life"resoundedin the community
board,civic association,and mayoraltown hall meetingsI
attendedduringthe 1980s and 1990s. The most succinct
definition I heard was offered at a 1993 CB4 meeting
wherea memberexplained:"Qualityof life-the problems
thatareimportantto us."Theseproblemsincludedcrowding on Elmhurst-Corona'ssubway lines, competitionfor
streetparkingas populationgrew andcommercialvehicles
were parked illegally, abandonmentof stolen cars on
neighborhoodstreets, increasingnumbersof illegal garment factories, streetside dumping of commercial and
householdgarbage,a noticeablerise in prostitution,and
placement of homeless families in local motels. But the
five "qualityof life" issues that matteredmost and provoked sustained civic action among Elmhurst-Corona
residentswere school crowding, lack of youthrecreation
facilities, housing code violations,drugsales, and dissatisfaction with police response.
VI
A sense of estrangementfrom "the city" and mayoral
civic activpower existed among white Elmhurst-Corona
ists by the 1980s. "We are stepchildren;Manhattanis the
favoredson.""MayorKoch andhis goddamhoodlumsare
againstCorona."These commentsat CommunityBoard4
meetingsreflectednot only continuingassaultson quality

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765

of life but a weakened power of numbers.Elmhurst's


Democraticclubfoldedin the 1970s;Corona'sDemocratic
club survived,but with less political muscle. And with
fewer whites and more immigrants,the total numberof
votescastby CD4 residentsfell off, andthe responsiveness
of elected officials and city agencies diminished."We
don't have no politicalpush,"one white civic activistlamented."We'rejust beingploppedon,"saidanother.
As electoral politics proved less effective, ElmhurstCorona'sparapoliticalcivic activismbecamemoreimportant.6Thisbeganwith individualsI call "wardens,"
persons
who on theirown attemptedto do somethingabout"problems that are importantto us." Often it was garbagemisplaced,mispackaged,sitting out too long-that provokedthe firststep.Two whiteelderlysistersspoketo their
new neighborsaboutgarbageanddog litter.A retiredhotel
workervisitedeachnew householdin his co-op buildingto
explainrules for placing garbagein the incineratorroom.
With more serious problems,or where personalrequests
provedinsufficient,wardensnotifiedthe sanitationdepartment,the local police precinct,or the CommunityBoard4
office. LefrakCity wardenssurveyedtheavenuein frontof
their complex and recordeddrug-sellerdescriptionsand
buyerlicense-platenumbersto reportto the police. Residents throughoutElmhurst-Coronaphoned in illegally
parkedvehicleandprostitutionlocations.
Wardensformedthe leadershipof the thirty-fiveblock,
tenant,co-op, and civic associationsthat existed in Elmhurst-Coronaby 1985. Tenantand co-op groupshad the
most diversemembershipsas they soughtto mobilize all
buildingresidents,buttheireffortswere directedprimarily
at internalmatters,and landlordsand management.And
the neighborhood'spatternof housing segregationwas
also evidentin these organizations:most Elmhurstgroups
were white, Latin America,and Asian, while the Lefrak
black.
CityTenantsAssociationwas predominantly
Four larger-scale,and politically active, Elmhurstand
Coronahomeownercivic associationswerepredominantly
white, with only a handfulof Latin Americanor Asian
members.It was in the smaller block associations,on
streetsof one- andtwo-familyhomes,thatthe mostsignificantmultiracialorganizingtook place.
VII
The leading civic warden in Elmhurst-Corona
today,
Lucy Schilero,attendedthe firstmeetingof herblockassociation,formedto deal withparkingcongestion,in 1984.A
freelancebeauticianwhose Italianimmigrantparentslived
on the same street,she sat in the backrow. Meetingattendancefell off until 1986, when a rumorcirculatedthatthe
policeprecincthouselocatedon this blockmightbe moved
elsewhere.
"We bought our homes with a police station here,"
Schilero explainedas she began circulatinga petitionto

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ANTHROPOLOGIST
* VOL. 102, NO. 4 * DECEMBER
2000

whereit was. She firstwent


keep the precinctheadquarters
door-to-dooron her block and then to churches,stores,
subwaystations,andstreetsandapartmentbuildingsin the
surroundingarea."All the people on our block helped,50
people.We hadeverythingin Spanish,Greek,Italian,Chinese, Korean,[and]French.I met Iranians[and]Turkish
[people],to help translate."Schileroalso met tenantleaders from severalElmhurstapartmentbuildingswho were
fighting illegal rent increases and evictions and battling
with absenteeinvestorswho had purchasedoccupiedunits
in buildingsconvertedto co-ops.
As a resultof herpetitionwork,Schilero'spersonalnetwork began to change. "Now, I have new ethnic friends:
Hindu, Spanish-a lot-Chinese. My Ecuadorianneighbor ... is a good friend, and in touch with Spanish resi-

dents.... [White]friendsin Maspethand MiddleVillage


[in southwestQueens]say to me, 'How can you live here?
It's like Manhattan.'I tell them we have to live with one
anotheror we won't survive.... The Hindusand Shiites
arethe hardestto relatewith;the manat the GeetaTemple,
he's been great,but he won't come to meetings.I wantto
get Haitians,I wantto bringone with me on my rounds....
The newcomersarepeoplewe wantto keep here.They are
hardworkingpeople,like the old immigrants."
In 1986 Schileroformedthe Coalitionof UnitedResidents for a SaferCommunity,comprisingher block association and the tenantgroupsshe met throughpetitioning.
She sharedinformationwith leaders of these groups on
quality-of-lifeissues suchas drugselling,sanitation,police
response, and illegal occupancy.Throughher coalitionnetworkshe was able to circulatepetitionsrapidly,including one to keep open the ElmhurstHospitalclinics facing
proposedbudgetcutsin 1991.At coalitionmeetings,Schilero also reportedon whatshe learnedat CommunityBoard
4, which shejoinedin 1990,andon hercontactswithother
civic groupsandelected officials.Two weeks beforeeach
meeting, Schilero called leaders of the coalition groups;
othermembersexpandedhertelephonetreealongChinese,
Spanish,and Greekbranches.Duringmeetings,people at
the back of the room translatedfor non-Englishspeakers,
andby 1990 Korean,Bengali,Urdu,andVietnamesewere
also in use withinthe coalitionnetwork.
In 1996 Lucy Schilero's coalition numbered 2,000
membersof 40 block,tenant,co-op, andbusinessassociations in the northernhalf of Elmhurst-Corona.
Her meetings drewup to 400 peopleandnow includedMexicanand
Russianimmigrants,AfricanAmericansfromLefrakCity,
andwhitesfromneighboringJacksonHeights.
VIII
LatinAmericansandAsians togetherconstituteda majority of Elmhurst-Corona's
populationby 1980, but their
involvementin civic politicsdid not reflecttheirnumbers.
Enormous organizationalenergy, however, went into a

vast world of immigrantassociationsand houses of worship. Therewere scoresof Colombian,Dominican,Ecuadorian,and otherLatinAmericannationality-basedassociations in Queens, focused largely on home country
politics, sports, and culturalactivities. QueenswideChinese organizationsdrew Elmhurst-Corona
members,but
most of their activitiesoccurredelsewhere.Associational
lines dividedSouthAsian immigrantsby country,region,
language,andreligion,mirroringthe complexitiesof their
homelands;some of thesegroupsmet in Elmhurst-Corona,
but they drew upon a Queensor New York metropolitanarea membershipbase. Immigrantchurches,temples,and
mosqueswere well represented,but only the KoreanCentralPresbyterianChurchmadean impacton Elmhurst-Corona civic life when it began a Sunday afternoonstreet
cleanupin 1991. Echoingviews of many white residents,
one wardensaid of the new houses of worship,"Theyare
in Elmhurst, but not of it."

A few LatinAmericansandAsians didjoin civic associationsheadedby whites, but only in the mid-1980s did
two new organizationsthataddressedissues thatmattered
to immigrantresidentsbeginto stakeout places in the district-levelpoliticalfield.
In 1978 PuertoRico-bor HaydeeZambranamoved to
Elmhurstandsoon met otherLatinAmericanswho shared
her concernsaboutthe lack of social servicesfor Spanishspeakersand the need for a Latin Americanpresencein
Queens politics. In 1980 she formed CiudadanosConscientes de Queens (ConcernedCitizens of Queens), or
CCQ.Froma smallElmhurstoffice, she referredpeopleto
appropriategovernmentagencies, sometimes providing
advocacy and English translationherself. She also processed citizenshipapplicationswhichby 1984 totaled1,000
a year. By 1986 CCQ's volunteerand paid staff provided
counselingon entitlementeligibilityand vocationaltraining programs,held Englishclasses and seminarsfor business proprietors,andrana New YorkState-fundedhotline
to inform undocumentedimmigrantsof their rights. The
following yearCCQreceiveda federalgrantto processlegalizationapplications,and in 1989 it was fundedto run
citizenshipand Englishclasses for newly legalizedimmigrantsnow eligiblefor naturalization.
Zambranawas impatientwith the many nationalitybasedLatinAmericanorganizationsin Queensandfelt little of theirenergieswent to local issues. In 1986 she told
the Mayor'sCommissionon HispanicConcerns,"Mypriorityis to help the Hispaniccommunitybecomepartof the
Americanpoliticalprocess."She went aboutthis by registeringvoters,backingLatinAmericancandidatesfor Elmhurst-Corona'sdistrictschoolboard,andlobbyingthe boroughpresidentto appointmoreLatinAmericansto Queens
communityboards.In 1985 she joined CB4, and its Latin
Americanmembershipthatyeardoubledfromthreeto six.

SANJEK

IX
That same year the Korean AmericanAssociation of
Mid-Queenswas foundedby SungJinChunandSeungHa
Hong.Chun,a chemistandteacherin Korea,hadarrivedin
Elmhurstin 1970 and establisheda real estate business.
Hong immigratedin 1971, workedfor an Americanbaker,
and in 1984 boughta bakeryin Elmhurst.On the day his
bakeryopened,he receiveda $50 sanitationfine. Although
the law only requiredmerchantsto sweep their sidewalk
within one hourof opening,which he did, when he complainedaboutthe fine to a sanitationdepartmentsupervisor
he was told, "Youwantanother?"Hong decidedhe had to
createpersonalrelationshipswith local officials.
The two men beganby visitingKoreanbusinessowners
throughoutElmhurstandlisteningto theirproblems.Many
were alreadymembersof citywide associationsof Korean
greengrocers,dry cleaners,or othertypes of business,but
they understoodthe need for a new local Koreanorganization as well. Chunalso met with Elmhurst-Corona's
police
precinctcommanderafteran incidentof allegedpolicebrutality involving a Koreantaxi driver.This opened a dialogue thatcontinued;when Koreantranslationwas needed
by the police or problemsinvolving Koreansarose, the
commandingofficerwouldcall SeungHa Hong.
Chun and Hong also established personal ties with
whites active in Elmhurstcivic politics,becameElmhurst
Lions, andparticipatedin ChristmastreelightingandMemorialDay rituals.One of their Mid-Queensassociation
members,a Koreanwomanwhose long-practicedEnglish
was betterthanthat of most Koreanimmigrants,was appointedto CommunityBoard 4. Linkageswere also createdwith AfricanAmericanwardensat LefrakCity. Chun
and Hong continued to provide leadershipto the MidQueens Association,which during 1996 registered2,000
Koreanvoters.
X
The arrivalof new LatinAmericanandAsian members
on CommunityBoard4 in the mid-1980scoincidedwith a
shift frommale to female leadership.In 1985 Rose Renda
Rothschild,an Italian American woman long active in
PTA work and a CB4 member since 1977, was elected
chairperson;the following year she became districtmanager. Previouslyshe had headedthe healthcommitteeon
which nearlyall the board'sfemale membersserved.This
position had also introducedher to city agency staff and
programs throughout Elmhurst-Corona,and to many
blacks,LatinAmericans,and Asians who lived or worked
in the neighborhood.
Underthe male chairpersonwho precededRothschild,
relations between CB4 and the community's African
Americanresidentswere minimal.The several thousand
blackvotersin the Lefrakarea,however,wereapproaching

COLOR-FULL BEFORE COLOR BLIND

767

Elmhurst-Corona's
declining white electoratein size and
had already formed an importantconstituencyfor Corona's African American state assembly memberHelen
Marshall.In 1987, Marshallput Rothschildon the agenda
of herown LefrakCitytownhall meeting,providingRothschildher firstlargeblackaudience.The two womencontinued to work closely, and when Rothschildreceived a
Democraticclub awardin 1995, it was Marshall,now a
city council member,who introducedher to the several
hundredQueenspartyfaithfulattendingthe event.
In 1985 EdnaBaskin,an AfricanAmericanLefrakCity
residentanda tenantassociationmember,beganattending
CB4 meetings.She was frustratedthatno LCTA channel
to the communityboard existed and reportedwhat she
learnedat CB4 to residentsof her building,includingparents of childrenshe babysatin her home-baseddaycare
business.
Then,in fall 1986,a crisisbeganmountingat the Lefrak
Citybranchlibrary.Manychildrencamethereafterschool,
and as the weathergrew colder their numbersincreased.
The librarianswereunableto providesupervision,anda librarysecurityguardwas dispatchedto assistthem.Earlyin
1987 the libraryannouncedthat the guardwould be discontinued.HelmaGoldmark,a white Lefrakarearesident
and CB4 member,was concernedaboutboth young and
elderlyusersof the libraryandrequestedthatthe guardremain.

In February1987 a libraryofficial came to a CB4 meeting attendedby Goldmark,Rothschild,Baskin,the branch


librarians,and a dozen Lefrak area residents,half white
andhalfblack.Rothschildbeganthe meeting."It'squieted
down with a guard.Kids today are 10 going on 40, but if
they see a securityguardtherewill be less playingaround."
The libraryofficial defendedthe withdrawalof the guard
andblamed"theselatchkeykids"and"theparents"for difficulties.
Rothschildobjected. "You are taking a negative approach.So far [you are saying] the kids are from Murder
I'm heredoingmyjob, whichis to getyou to
Incorporated.
do yourjob."Baskinfollowed:"I speakas a parent[of two
grown-upsons]. I pass everyday.I've seen the librarian
physicallyandverballyassaultedby a 175-pound,six-foot,
14 yearold."RothschildbackedBaskinup. "Kidsaretired
afterbeingclosed in all day.My son is 6'3", 17 yearsold.
As Edna said, you shouldtry a securityguard."Rovenia
McGowan, a black Lefrak area resident and a school
teacher,andKen Daniels,a whiteLefrakresidentandCB4
member,addedthat schools, departmentstores,and their
own buildings had security guards. "If we don't get a
guard,we may lose the library,"McGowanpleaded.
The libraryofficialhad attemptedto split the white and
blackresidents,blamingblackchildrenandparentsfor the
problem. Instead, he encounteredlocal solidarity,with
blackandwhite adultsrequestinghelp to deal with trouble

768

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ANTHROPOLOGIST
* VOL. 102, NO. 4

DECEMBER2000
D

makers and to allow black neighborhoodchildren and


white seniorcitizensto use the libraryin peace. The guard
remained.

the school boardbut as a resultof lobbyingby ElmhurstCoronawardens.


XII

XI
Throughout Elmhurst-Corona,whites were forming
personalrelationshipswiththeirnew neighbors.In mostof
the areathese neighborswereLatinAmericanor Asian.A
not untypicalexample of these new ties was one retired
white woman who tutored two Korean and two Argentinian-PuertoRican childrenwho lived on her apartmentbuildingfloor, andtook themto the library,bowling,
and movies. In exchange,her female PuertoRican neighbor often cooked for her, andher Koreanfemale neighbor
did hernails.
Whites also encounteredneighborhoodnewcomers at
seniorcentersandin theirchurches.Two historicallywhite
Protestant churches disbanded as their congregations
shrank,but a dozen otherssurvivedby welcoming Latin
Americans,Asians,andblacks.A Presbyterianchurchpastored by a conservativeGermanAmericanministerwas
the most raciallydiversesettingI encounteredin ElmhurstCorona,with active white American,Indonesian,Filipino,
Cuban,Mexican,African,black American,and Indo- and
members.RomanCatholicchurcheshada
Afro-Caribbean
large infusion of Latin American parishioners,but the
creationof Spanish-languagemasses and other activities
frequentlyprovokedconflict.To overcomethisat St. Leo's
Churchin Corona,a pre-EasterStationsof the Crossprocession throughthe neighborhood,long dormant,was revived in 1986, with readingsand choralresponsealternatively in English,Italian,andSpanish.
Black-whiteinteraction,or black-immigrant
interaction
for that matter,was constrainedby the patternof residential segregation.Many whites, however, did have cordial
workplacerelationshipswith African Americans.Moreover, both the CoronaDemocraticpartyand the growing
numberof black communityboard membersreinforced
ties amongwhite andblackElmhurst-Corona
wardens.By
1993 eight black members comprisednearly a fifth of
CB4's membership,and several of them served on the
board'sexecutivecommittee.
Elmhurst-Corona
whites also foundthatmany of those
their
thwarting
qualityof life were white. These included
Manhattan"permanent
government"realestateandcorporate interests(Newfield and DuBrul 1977) who received
tax abatementsand exemptions,white police who lived
outside the city and expressed contempt for ElmhurstCorona,white businessmenwho ceaselessly encroached
on residentially zoned property, and white southwest
Queensschool boardmembersmoreinterestedin controlling districtoffice jobs and opposing curriculumreform
than in school crowding in Elmhurst-Corona.
The three
schools finally builtin the 1990s came not with help from

At no one's requestand by no one's design, ElmhurstCoronawas transformedfrom a solidly white neighborhood in 1960 to "perhapsthe most ethnicallymixed communityin the world"by the 1990s. The United States is
still at the early stages of a similar "majorityminority"
transition.Its arrivalon a nationalscale in the next century
will not repeat the story I have recounted,nor will the
manylocal transitionsfromnow to thenfollow any single
script.Still, if ourgoal as citizensandneighborsis "anintegratedbody politic in which all perspectivesare represented,andin which all peopleworktogetherto find common ground"(Guinier1994:6),we may ask what lessons
can be drawnfromthe Elmhurst-Corona
experience.Here
I wish to stressthree:listen to women (they listen to each
other),governmentmatters,andbe color-fullbeforecolor
blind.
Earlyin my fieldwork,a white wardencomparedElmhurstduringthe 1930s with his contemporaryneighborhood.
In those days ... only the rich had telephones.We had no
telephone,andyet I couldn'tdo anythingandget home before
my motherknew aboutit, andmet me on the way in the door
with a smack. So my father called it the "mothers' union"-all the motherswere plugged into the clothesline,he
said. Well, the world hasn'tchanged.The school bus for the
primaryschool stops in front of my house. One morning a
yearago, the kids were all lined up, anda motherwas coming
down the block, a new Americanfrom Korea,with a kid late
for the bus.... And a little [Indian]boy on the end of the
line-you could see this little lawyer's mind at work-he
peels off and heads for home becausehe's got a good idea.
His motherwasn't there,she didn't come with him; he's going home. So the Koreanmotherpacksherkid on the bus, and
then she steps over and says to this little boy who's going up
the road,"Whereyou go?"He says, "Home,I'm sick, I've got
a cold."She openshis mouth,looks in, andsays, "No sick. On
bus." He goes on the bus, and I said to myself the mothers'
unionis alive andworking.... The fatherscan bitchandbelly
all they want,butthe mothersaregoing to makesurethatit all
worksout.

In the 1980s women began moving into ElmhurstCorona's district-levelpolitical field and unblockingthe
channelsbetweenwhites,immigrants,andblacks.As Gans
observes, "In communities where similarity of backgrounds ... is scarce, collective action requires a sizeable

amount of interpersonalnegotiationand compromiseand [also] leaderswho can applypersonalskills thatpersuade people to ignore their differences"(1988:111). It
was women more thanmen who suppliedthis leadership,
and we should be preparedfor more female leadership

SANJEK

transitionuneverywhereas America'smajority-minority
folds.
Why was it women more than men who formeda network of cross-racialties in Elmhurst-Corona?
Chodorow
would
trace
these
to
socialization
thatin(1974)
patterns
into
a
of
world
women
characterized
corporatesdaughters
identificationand"connectionto otherpeoby "relational"
ple," while sons exit this worldto adoptmale rolesemphasizing "positional"identificationand individualachievement. Consequently,as Tannenobserves,women's ways
of talkingare more likely to stress "a communityof connection,"while men's talkoperates"topreservetheirindependencein a hierarchicalworld"(1990:227). Further,as
Kaplan posits, "the gender system of their society ... as-

signs womenthe responsibilityof... guardingtheirneighbors,children,andmatesagainstdanger";underconditions


of change, "a sense of community that emerges from
sharedroutinesbinds women to one another"and "politicizes the networksof daily life" (1982:545-547). HardyFantaconcludesthatwomen morethanmen "focuson ...
connectingpeople to otherpeople to achieve change,but
thatsuch"participatory
qualitiesare [not]the uniquerealm
of women [and]theseskills andvaluesarewithinthe abilities of men"(1993:13, 191).
In Elmhurst-Corona
women certainlyacted to "guard
their children."When one districtcabinetmeetingturned
to parkprojects,Rose Rothschildremarked,"Ialwayssuggest preschool buildings [in park plans] because I'm a
mother.Men never look at that."Nonetheless,some men
did champion library,after-school,and recreationprogramsfor youth.In termsof race,however,womenmoved
sooner from categorical to personal ties (Mitchell
1966:51-56), relatingmore readilyto women of another
race as women than men did with othermen. The "positional"and"hierarchical"
valuesthatcontinueto markrace
relationsin the United States are not only more characteristicof male socializationandgenderroles,butthey are
reinforcedby the structuralrelationshipsof workplaces.
women leaderswere houseMany of Elmhurst-Corona's
wives or workedfromtheirhomes, while men were more
likely to be employed in formal organizations.Women
who enteredcivic politics,moreover,frequentlyhadexperience in school, religious, or block association groups
where improvisationand abilities to involve others were
more importantthantablesof organizationandtitledpositions (compareGilkes 1980, 1988; Sacks 1988:121-122,
132-133).
XIII
In contemporaryAmerica, governmentis involved at
every step in the movementtowardcommonground.The
reasons why people of so many diverse origins live toare not simply the resultof ingetherin Elmhurst-Corona
dividualchoices disconnectedfrom governmentpolicies.

COLOR-FULL BEFORE COLOR BLIND

769

Individualwhites,blacks,andimmigrantsindeedchose to
buttheydid so
stayin, move to, or leaveElmhurst-Corona,
in responseto shiftingjob opportunities,federalhighway
and housing programs,suburbanzoning restrictions,inconsistentfair-housinglaw enforcement,andchangingimmigrationpolicies-all theresultof governmentactions.
As neighborhoodNew Yorkers,they enduredassaults
on qualityof life resultingfromthe 1975 fiscal crisis and
zoncontinuingmayoralbudgetcuts.In Elmhurst-Corona,
and
diminished
enforcement
ing regulations
housing-code
definedneighborhoodrealitiesfor all residentsand set the
stage for strugglesto changethem. Individualsinnovated
new alliances and forms of organization,but this took
place within "citytrenches"(Katznelson1981) shapedby
communityboards,districtcabinets,andschoolboards.
conservativesmaintain
Contemporaryanti-government
thatdecliningqualityof life in neighborhoodNew Yorkis
inevitable.They expectthosewho can to practice"choice"
and move away, and those who cannotto "trustthe market" and "displaya healthy respect for the naturaleconomic developmentof the city" (Salins 1993:168, 171).
Elmhurst-Corona
civic activistshad theirown ideas about
whatwas "natural."
Theydid not acceptthis faithin "market" solutions to inappropriatezoning, unsafe housing,
overcrowdedschools,andunresponsivepolice. Theirlocal
efforts resultedin new schools, downzoning,a returnof
"copson the beat"in the mid-1980s,andrestorationof police numbersto 1975 levels after1990.
Withouta communityboardtherewould have been no
public forumat which white, black,LatinAmerican,and
Asian leadershada placeto interact.Eachracialandethnic
wouldhaveconfrontedmayoral
groupin Elmhurst-Corona
and permanentgovernmentpower directly, without the
power of numbersand lubricatoryexpertise(Leeds 1994;
Sanjek 1998:12-13) that CB4 made possible. The board
was pivotal to the still-ongoingcreationin this diverse
neighborhoodof what Bailey calls a political "community."He explainsthatmembersof a politicalcommunity
create"acommonculture[and]conceive of themselvesas
an entity... rangedagainsta... worldoutside."Thosebeyond the community"arelikely to be judged in an instrumentalfashion,not 'in the round.'They arenot [interacted
withas] humanbeingsto the sameextentas thoseof us who
belongwithinthe community"(Bailey 1971:7, 13-15, 24).
in the 1980s and 1990s was not a poElmhurst-Corona
litical communityin any completesense, but probablyno
urbandistrictever is. For many of its wardens,however,
lines of race and ethnicity had become crossable. CB4
membersknew each otherby name,embracedat meetings,
and were in a position to see beyond stereotypes of
and"outer-borough
whiteethnics."
"blacks,"
"immigrants,"
In Elmhurst-Coronathe intoleranttendencies of the
1970s were reversedas civic politicsacquirednew leaders
and more diverseparticipants.This occurredwithin what

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West calls "a public sphere in which critical exchange and


engagement takes place.... Principled alliances-tension
ridden, yes, but principled alliances and coalitions. That's
the new kind of public sphere that we are talking about.
There will be no fundamental social change in America
unless we come together [within it]" (1993:6). Indeed,
government matters.
XIV
Finally, suppose the worst. In the year 2080 the all-white
upper fifth of Americans lives in gated suburbs and edge
cities. Its schools, police, health care, recreation facilities,
transportation, and communication links are all private.
Taxes everywhere are a pittance. For the rest of the population-now 37% white, 29% Latin American, 19% black,
and 15% Asian-public schools, hospitals, parks, sanitation services, and mass transit function poorly. Most wages
permit only minimal subsistence. Crime and the underground economy sustain enormous numbers, and the few
police officers and government inspectors do not interfere.
Government statistics on income, poverty, and race are
neither published nor collected. The era of big government
is over. "Individualchoice" and "the market"reign. People
live in a "color blind" society.
The more divided the power of numbers, the more likely
the worst will prevail. No racial or ethnic group will be
able to counter this on its own, and only the upper fifth can
afford to be "color blind." To the extent that the rest of us
find ourselves only in settings filled with people who look
like us, we will be doomed to political ineffectiveness.
People will need to ensure that block and civic associations, local government bodies, civic ritual audiences,
workplaces, and leadership slates are color-full. In Elmhurst-Corona, people have been moving in this direction,
some more consciously than others, and learning from both
successes and failures. An exchange at Community Board
4 following a zoning defeat in 1988 highlighted the need to
strengthenthe power of numbers.
Judy D'Andrea: The high-powerdevelopersin this city are
tryingto eliminatethe communityreviewprocessbecausewe
stand in their way and they make political contributionsto
high-powerpoliticians.
Ron Laney: We have no power.The Mayoropposedus.
Judy D'Andrea: It goes backto the community.[InBayside]
theyget busesandgo. We arenot like that.We hadsevenpeople at thepublichearing.If we had7,000 it wouldbe different.
The point is not to be "color blind"-racial categories,
after all, are something we lear to see from childhood, and
they are in constant use around us (Sanjek 1994). Our
goals, rather,should be to see racial identity as one among
the many aspects of every person and to appreciate the full
range of human cultural and physical diversity in what
always has been, and is now an increasingly interconnected, color-full world.

Early in my fieldwork Elmhurst warden Bill Donnelly


told me, "All of life, everyplace, is the same thing-trying
to get people to see that we're all in the same damn thing
together. I've been standing on the street corers and hollering for fifty years, and it doesn't amount to nothing.
[But] let one [other] person [say], 'Yeah, we're in the same
boat together,' then everyone says, 'Hot damn, we're in
this same boat together. Let's get together and paddle this
boat.'"

Notes
Acknowledgments. This paper distills argumentsand ethnographic materialspresented more fully in Sanjek (1998).
Earlierversions were presented at the Russell Sage Foundation; the EasternSociological Society; the University of Arizona; the University of Colorado, Boulder; Queens College,
City University of New York; the State University of New
York, Albany; National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan; the
University of Hawaii, Manoa; the University of California,
Los Angeles; the University of California, San Diego; Bryn
Mawr College; and the University of Massachusetts,Boston.
For comments and discussion I thank,among others,Richard
Alba, Ellen Basso, Charles Briggs, KarenBrodkin,Alessandra Casella, Chen Hsiang-shui, Paule Cruz Takash, Richard
Davis, Nancy Denton, Mimi Doi, Reynolds Farley, Geoffrey
Fox, MarilynFrankenstein,Josh Freeman,Fred Gamst,Alan
Harwood,VictoriaHattam,Helen Henderson,JaneHill, Lane
Hirabayashi,Evelyn Hu-DeHart, Tarri Hum, Yuji Ichioka,
Aurora Jackson, Robert Jarvenpa,Orna and Allen Johnson,
MadhulikaKhandelwal,Peter Kiang, Bill Kornblum,David
Karen,CarolKramer,Paul Kroskrity,SherryLin, JohnLogan,
Nancy Lopez, Peter Manicas, Len Markowitz, Gregory
Maskarinec,Dennis McGilvray, Robert Merton, Ruth Messenger,Eileen Moran,StephenMrozowski,PremillaNadasen,
Don Nakanishi,LisandroPerez, Gene Ogan, Ana Ortiz,Mary
Osirim, George Pahomov, Kyeyoung Park, Jane Rhodes,
RubenRumbaut,Leland Saito, Dean Savage, Don Scott, Paul
Shankman,Tim Sieber, Joan Silk, Charles Smith, Rajini Srikanth, Steven Steinberg, Mariko Tamanoi, Jyotsna Uppal,
Eric Wanner,EdwinaWelch, James Wilkerson,Kit Woolard,
Wu Hong, JudithZeitlin,WalterZenner,and many studentsat
the aforementionedinstitutions.
1. Please address correspondenceto: Roger Sanjek, 320
RiversideDrive#3G, New York,NY 10025-4115,or rsanjek@
earthlink.net.
2. A 1996 Census Bureau study projects that whites will
constitutejust 53% of the U.S. populationin 2050 (New York
TimesMarch 14, 1996). "LatinAmerican,"my translationof
latinoamericano,commonly used in New York's Spanish-language press and othercontexts as an umbrellatermfor all immigrantsor U.S. citizens tracingorigins to Spanish-speaking
Caribbeanand South and CentralAmericancountries,including PuertoRico, is used in this paperas a more neutral,inclusive label than Hispanic or Latino, each of which carriespolitically meaningful connotations I have no need here to
embrace.
3. Anthropologistsenvision any political "field"they study
as a set of linked "arenas"in which ongoing political events

SANJEK /

may be observed;the field also extends beyond these immediate "enclaves of action"to include "encapsulating"structures
of power at larger-scalelevels; see Swartz (1968). As Turner
phrasesit, 'The arenais a scene for the makingof a decision....
The field [is] the totalityof coexisting entities,... channelsof
communication,[and]ideological views aboutthe desirability
or undesirabilityof the extant stratification[of power. Anthropologists] are interested in ... concatenationsof... events,
relationships,[and]groups ... which bringactorsinto field relationships with one another and form nodes of intersection
between [arenasand] fields" (1974:102, 126-41).
4. For overviews of housing discriminationsee Massey and
Denton (1993); Yinger (1995).
5. Some 2.1 million undocumented immigrants nationwide, and 188,000 in New York City, were in fact counted in
the 1980 U.S. Census;careful subsequentestimatesplaced the
total numbersat no greater that 3.5 million and 375,000. In
1974 the INS commissioner pronouncedthat there were 4 to
12 million "illegal immigrants"in the United States, and two
years later PresidentGeraldFord put the figure at 6 to 8 million; moreover, in 1975 New York City Congressmember
Mario Biaggi told CommunityBoard 4 that the INS commissioner's "privateestimate"was 40 million. In 1974 the New
York INS estimated"morethan a million" in the city, and in
1979 the Koch administrationoffered its "conservativeestimate"of 750,000 to a million (Sanjek 1998:74).
6. Bailey locates "parapolitical"activity in the "lesserarenas ... those which are partly regulatedby, and partly independentof, large encapsulatingpolitical structures;and which
... fight battleswith these largerstructuresin a way which ...
seldom ends in victory, rarely in dramaticdefeat, but usually
in a long drawnstalemateand defeat by attrition"(1968:281).

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