Black-Brown Solidarity has been Elusive in Los AngelesBreaking News
tags: racism, African American history, Los Angeles, urban history, Mexican American history, Latino/a history
Back in 1998, I wrote a story for LA Weekly called “Lost Soul” about how historically Black L.A.—i.e., South Central—was being reconfigured by a new wave of Latino immigration from Mexico and Central America. In the zero-sum game of local elections, the political implications seemed clear: Latinos would soon win more seats on the city council and other government bodies, eventually outnumbering Black representatives. But the question I was most interested in was: What did this mean? Would more Latinos lead to an expansion of the campaign for racial justice that Black people had forged here, or a contraction? And how were Black people in South Central feeling about the demographic shift?
The short answer was that they were feeling uneasy. Black people in America have lived with the threat of dislocation for their whole history—the westward migration to L.A. from their roots in the racially oppressive South is but one example. In 1998, L.A. was still living the aftermath of ’92, when Black grievances exploded into rage over the not-guilty verdicts in the criminal trial of four white cops who beat the Black motorist Rodney King. What followed were years of talk and community forums about race relations and how to finally achieve racial justice, and Black people were at the center of it all. Meanwhile, immigration, along with a Black exodus to suburbs and points farther, was remaking a landscape that, on television at least, was still regarded as chiefly African American.
At the time of my LA Weekly story, many Black Angelenos were cautiously optimistic that Latinos would be reliable partners in racial justice. This was in part because Black and brown people were sharing space, as well as certain social markers that eventually led all of us to adopt Black/brown as a kind of useful ethnic monolith when discussing poverty and police brutality. My father, a consultant for L.A. County’s Human Relations Commission, was in the thick of trying to build meaningful partnerships between Black and brown people—really, between Black people and everybody else—that went beyond the bad statistics and moments of crisis. On the flip side of that, Black and brown people aspired equally to some version of the L.A. good life that both groups had long been denied: house, lawn, reasonable proximity to the ocean.
But along with this spirit of cautious optimism was a sense of foreboding. “Blacks grumble that Mexicans are taking over,” Fernando Guerra, the director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, told me at the time. “Well, in absolute terms, they are,” he added. In 1980, Los Angeles was 17 percent Black and 28 percent Latino. By 1998, the Black population had declined to about 10 percent, while the Latino population had soared to about 44 percent. Guerra pointed out that the civil-rights movement in Los Angeles had stagnated, whereas the Latino political profile had been growing steadily over decades but was now accelerating. The contrast was unflattering, and unsettling. “Black people in many ways are in retreat,” Guerra said. “The political empowerment Latinos are going through now is similar to the black euphoria of the ’60s.”
Nearly 25 years later, the leaked audio of an hour-long private conversation among three Latino city council members and a high-profile Latino labor leader suggests that the euphoria has since settled among some politicos into a mission of concentrating Latino power. The good news is that the reaction to that conversation, in which the four threw around anti-Black and other kinds of insults as they plotted a redistricting plan to favor Latinos, has been swift and furious, and it has come from brown and Black leaders alike.