Growing Up in Authoritarian 1950s East LA


By the 1950s, the criminal justice system had long combined with other systems, institutions, and individuals to target all the residents of East LA—particularly Mexicans—as criminals. In equating Mexicans with criminality, these networked forces and actors regarded and treated these residents as exceptions—as morally requiring and legally meriting authoritarian rather than accountability practices. These practices did not require invocation of the president’s emergency power and did not occur outside the rule of law. Instead, authoritarian practices targeting exceptions like the residents of 1950s East LA reflect routine choices made from (and always available) within the rule of law, made across eras and regions and colonial outposts of the United States, representing the paradigmatic instances of authoritarianism in a constitutional democracy. Contrary to time-honored wisdom, we cannot eliminate the availability of clashing choices within law. Authoritarian practices—every bit as much as accountability practices at the other end of the same continuum—are and shall remain legally legitimate action. Contrary to pacifying speeches, lectures, and sermons, we cannot eliminate fierce struggles over rival visions of the national community. Every discretionary choice each of us makes within networks of systems, institutions, and individuals expresses a view about how we wish to live in our neighborhoods, this country, and across the globe, including which people we feel justified in targeting as
exceptions, often for racist reasons. Yet we can and should challenge and aim to obliterate widely hailed and deeply delusional orthodoxies about the criminal justice system, about networked authoritarian practices, about the rule of law itself. Those who insist we must remain loyal to these lies offer a horrific but familiar endorsement of life in 1950s East LA and of the current status quo. Living as we still do in the United States routinely degrades, devastates, and destroys certain groups of people. Living as we still do regularly benefits certain others, especially those within the networked systems targeting exceptions and the bipartisan mainstream enablers who rarely,
if ever, put themselves on the line against authoritarian practices. “Enough,” as many people I knew growing up in 1950s East LA would say. “Enough.” Let’s unflinchingly face ourselves—and our networks, institutions, and systems (including the rule of law in a constitutional democracy). Let’s get on with discovering the possibilities and the limits of coexistence.

About the Author

Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law. This Article traces its origins to a keynote speech I gave at the UCLA Law Review & BruinX Symposium: “Latinx Communities, Race, and the Criminal Justice System.”