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Race Work: The Rise of Civil Rights in the Urban West (Race and Ethnicity in the American West) Hardcover – August 30, 2005
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Dr. Whitaker shows how the Ragsdale's livelihood came through the mortuary business, but was not a dead end for the family, in fact it infused them and the African American community in Phoenix with the lifeblood of cultural and economic resistance and eventually the Valley with changes of integration. The Ragsdale's lives read as a textbook example of change and struggle as their stories are so intertwined with the national narrative for racial equality. Both Lincoln and Eleanor grew up with strong notions of "race work" the idea that you have a responsibility not only to succeed, but to help others in your community succeed too. Lincoln was a Tuskegee airmen and later part of an experiment to see about the integration of the Air force before following in the footsteps of his parents and entering the funereal business. Eleanor was a schoolteacher, prior to leaving her paying work to raise children and focus on the family's business interests.
As the Ragsdale's tried to break into the Phoenix economy and community they found closed doors and prohibitive racial barriers at every corner in the form of segregation and institutional racism. Through "education, entrepreneurship, political activism, integrationism, and philosophy of non-violent protest" the Ragsdale's helped to desegregate businesses, schools and social institutions throughout Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun. This was largely achieved through their social activism and leadership in groups like the NAACP, again tying them to the larger US historical narrative.
This work is very important as it dispels the historiographical myth that African Americans were not Westerners. Instead, it shows how African Americans fought the same kinds of racism and segregation as their counterparts in other regions, but with much less national support. The fight for the Ragsdales was carried out through the strong personalities of a few individuals in the Phoenix Valley, using tactics of national organizations within community associations.
This is an outstanding work and should be used in classrooms of the US West and courses dealing with race relations, as well as community histories. This work is both impressive and comprehensive and is a must own for general readers and scholars alike!
However, Whitaker's study does not focus on activist groups or civil rights legislation as one might expect. Instead he looks at the "race work" of the Ragsdales, a wealthy and influential black Phoenician couple who had achieved their career goals against all odds and through their own perseverance. Whitaker chronicles their rise to prominence, but more importantly, examines their contributions to their community and to the civil rights movement, as well as the influence and knowledge they imparted on colleagues and activists.
Their personal experiences along with that of other black Phoenicians provide compelling, but disturbing evidence of racial discrimination in Phoenix from the 1940s through the 1990s in areas such as housing, employment, and public accommodations. Whitaker also includes some discussion of the controversial MLK Holiday issue that earned Arizona the reputation as a racist state during the late '80s and early '90s (as a Californian, I know that Arizona continues to have this reputation in the minds of many people here today).
Dr. Whitaker's book not only helps to fill a gap in the literature on the Western civil rights movements, it also expands the discussion of civil rights from the activists and ministers to other members of the black (and sometimes Hispanic and Jewish) communities who generally do not get recognized for the efforts.
Whitaker cannot discuss every aspect of civil rights and race relations in Arizona during the late twentieth century, but his book is an excellent place to start. Hopefully "Race Work" will encourage more scholars to research this relatively unexplored area of inquiry and expand on the issues Whitaker brings up. Perhaps even more significantly, "Race Work," if read widely, also has the potential to cause many Arizonans, and Americans in general, to re-examine their own attitudes and feelings about race, if they have even examined them at all.