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Jewish Journal

JewishJournal.com

April 19, 2012

20 years after the L.A. Riots

Where are we now?

http://www.jewishjournal.com/cover_story/article/20_years_after_the_la_riots_where_are_we_now_20120419

The remains of a commercial building smolder as another building burns out of control behind the smoke in Los Angeles early Thursday morning, April 30, 1992. Numerous fires were set and stores were looted following the verdict in the Rodney King beating trial. Photo by AP/Douglas C. Pizac

The remains of a commercial building smolder as another building burns out of control behind the smoke in Los Angeles early Thursday morning, April 30, 1992. Numerous fires were set and stores were looted following the verdict in the Rodney King beating trial. Photo by AP/Douglas C. Pizac

On April 29, 1992, the acquittal of four white Los Angeles police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King, an African-American man, triggered riots in Los Angeles that resulted in more than 50 dead, thousands injured and some $1 billion in property damage.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots, The Jewish Journal invited to our offices nine prominent L.A.-based civil rights activists. We asked them to reflect as a group on two questions: Are we better off than we were 20 years ago? Could what happened in 1992 happen again here?

The result was an often-heated 90-minute conversation that vividly demonstrated the passions that the riots and the issues they raised still evoke in this city.

The panel:

Samuel M. Chu, Director of national advocacy and organizing for MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and research associate at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at University of Southern California
Joe R. Hicks, Vice President of Community Advocates Inc. and the former Executive Director of the L.A. City Human Relations Commission
Hyepin Im, Founder and President of Korean Churches for Community Development (KCCD)
David A. Lehrer, President of Community Advocates Inc.
Abby J. Leibman, President and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger
David Levinson, Founder and Executive Director of Big Sunday
Connie Rice, Co-founder and Co-director of the Advancement Project
Michele Siqueiros, Executive Director of the Campaign for College Opportunity
Raphael J. Sonenshein, Executive Director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles

Click here for more information on the panelists.

 

[RELATED: Los Angeles riots commemoration events]

The edited transcript:

Susan Freudenheim: When we talked about how to cover the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots, our writers discussed the fact that there are two grocery stores near the Jewish neighborhood of Pico-Robertson: One is patronized by Jews, the other, just a few blocks away, by African-Americans, and the two do not mix. This one small illustration made us wonder whether we’ve made progress in race relations over the past two decades or not.

Raphael J. Sonenshein: While so much has changed in L.A., there is still a white-black gulf in the perception of what happens on the streets, and that seems not to have changed very much in L.A. What has changed here has to do with the other groups — the rise of Latinos and Asian-Americans in the discussion, which makes L.A. a completely different city than it was 20 years ago.

Connie Rice: On the individual level, there’s enormous progress. The younger generation today is, amazingly, actually integrated. They behave in a way that transcends race in a lot of ways; they’re much better on homophobia. The younger generation is really going beyond race. You see a lot of interracial families, and the rate of interracial marriage [is] going up. So, at the individual level you see a lot of progress. And you see a lot of progress politically; you couldn’t have had Barack Obama as president, if you didn’t see that.

But when we get to that unconscious racial dynamic and the unspoken suspicions that we have of each other at that tribal level, there’s no one that can convince me that that stuff can’t be triggered.

David A. Lehrer: Connie, as I’ve heard you say on innumerable occasions, the LAPD [Los Angeles Police Department] has transformed itself. It’s not an occupying force anymore.

And, talk about young people, the millennials are 95 million Americans now, and millennials, in terms of their acceptance of differences, in terms of their tolerance of different races and religions, are simply off the charts. That’s 95 million Americans out of 350 million. And they’re the future, not the past.

Hyepin Im: In planning for the 20th anniversary of the L.A. Riots, we [in the Korean community] have talked to a lot of key leaders in the community, and the topic of liquor stores is one area that is explosive. There is definitely a very wide and different understanding from the Korean community’s narrative to the African-American community’s narrative. I remember having a conversation with a key African-American leader, and I mentioned the fact that of the billion dollars in property damage in L.A. alone from the riots, Korean-Americans incurred almost 50 percent of it. And so, I was taking the perspective that Korean-Americans were also victims, and this leader said never in his wildest dreams did he ever think of Koreans as victims.

Abby J. Leibman:  My view of what happened here 20 years ago was that it was really the reaction to the beating of Rodney King that precipitated the violence here.

Lehrer: It was the reaction to the verdict.

Michele Siqueiros: To the sense of injustice.

Leibman: You had a police force that reacted one way; you had a justice system — courts — that reacted in a certain way, where you had a jury that did things that precipitated a result that was very violent. …

We don’t actually have those structures, the official structures, in the same way they did here 20 years ago.  But as a lawyer, I am not convinced that our justice system would react in a different way if something were to happen today that was similar to what happened 20 years ago. I’m not sure that juries would respond differently. I think that we’ve seen other very high-profile cases in which issues about race become front and center, for better or for worse, and whether the decisions are right or wrong, the issue of race is still very present among juries and in courtrooms.

Freudenheim: Isn’t the question how much we view one another as the other, as opposed to seeing ourselves as a cohesive group?

Joe R. Hicks: Obviously, demographics have changed. This doesn’t mean all the racial tensions have gone away between various groups, I’m just spinning this forward, going from 1992, and I’m remembering on Crenshaw seeing black picketers in front of a Korean liquor store with a sign, “Koreans are dogs.” This was in 1992. So if you look at where things have come, for a whole host of reasons, it’s hard to cast it as somehow standing still … or not being better.

Rob Eshman: Connie referred to progress politically, socially and racially. How much did economic disparities play into the riots themselves, and what’s changed since then?

Im: With this whole economic and foreclosure crisis, the Pew Research Center has shown that communities of color have been the most impacted. The Latino community, their wealth loss was by 66 percent, Asians by 54 percent, and African-American by 53 percent. The economic challenges are very present, and many of these store owners who are in those South L.A. communities, they have no other option. Particularly the Korean community; we have the second-highest language barrier, so even though we have the third-highest level of education, you don’t have places to go. With the Korean community, whoever comes and picks you up at the airport, whatever job or business they’re in, you end up going there. It’s not like with the Jewish community, with refugee assistance, etc. They’re not connected to any of those resources. So they’re ending up in these businesses with very little resources, very little training, very few connections.

Lehrer: What’s that a function of?  That they are recent immigrants, right? It’s not a function of racism, it’s a function of being a recent immigrant, and you don’t speak the language. So I don’t see why it’s relevant to our discussion.

Rice: Well, it’s all relevant to the discussion, because race can’t really be separated from a lot of the other fault lines, and context is everything. There’s context in which race doesn’t play a role at all, and there are contexts in which race combines with class, and language barrier and even gang membership, or, you know, which sorority you belong to. In L.A., it’s never one dynamic or the other; it’s always a combination. What I see is an extraordinarily complex diversity on the surface, a sort of surface coexistence. Even in the communities where you have a mixture — there are very few communities you can say are integrated, where there’s a fluid dynamic of back-and-forth. You can find it in some of the little pockets of, say, Altadena, some of the yuppie neighborhoods.

Lehrer: But that’s not true, Connie, that’s not true.

Rice: Just look at the testimony before the Citizens Redistricting Commission. You had some communities of interest come forward that were multiracial. Some of them were even income-mixed, and that’s the real fault line — underclass versus invisible L.A., meaning immigrant and underground L.A., and then underclass versus lower, working classes. It was very, very interesting to see the San Gabriel communities, a mixture of Latino and Asian-Americans, coming together and actually testifying that they were a community of interest, and that they wanted to be drawn together. But there were other parts of the region where the tribes were not integrated, and they really did want influence on districts, or they wanted their separate group recognized, because their groups exist separately, they coexist, but it is their disparateness that defines them, not a fluidity and not an integrated dynamic.

Lehrer: But do you know that Los Angeles is the least racially segregated large city in America?

Sonenshein: I think we’re missing the biggest change, and one mistake we can make is to say that today grew directly out of 20 years ago. Instead of having two groups — black and white — now you have four to six groups. L.A. has gone from being a black and white city with racial politics to a city that now has real ethnic politics for the first time in its history. Non-whites are now not just a demographic majority of the city, but also a political majority of the city. Consider that in 1993, Latinos cast 8 percent of all the votes in the mayor’s race. In 2005, Latinos cast 25 percent. Whites were 72 percent of the voters in 1993, less than 50 percent in the last few elections.

The transactions among groups of color is actually a huge story of L.A. politics right now, and were going to miss it if we keep thinking that all we’re doing is an elaboration of where we were 20 years ago, when Latinos were not a political force.

Hicks: I think you’re exactly right. But I want to return to this whole thing about segregation, because I think that’s the myth a lot of folks operate on. A very recent and quite sophisticated study was done by two professors — one at Duke University, the other at Harvard — that said racial segregation in this country is down from levels it hasn’t seen in a long time. And L.A., in particular, they pointed to as being what they called the least racially isolated city in America.

I live in the Hollywood Hills, and there’s everybody in the area that I live in. We’ve become far more integrated over the last 20 years, and I think we have to really reconfigure some very old ways of thinking about this city, that it’s changed dramatically over the last 20 years.

Samuel M. Chu: But just because they live close to each other, that doesn’t actually translate to connecting and knowing each other. I live downtown, and I worked in Koreatown in a Latino-dominant church for many years. Having grown up in Hong Kong, where I’m used to interaction, I walk around and actually talk to people, and know people who I buy things from and ride the subway with. That doesn’t happen here in Los Angeles, where people lack the imagination of just physically being in a space, being in a neighborhood, and being in conversation with each other. … I think that that’s part of the L.A. dynamic, that just because I know one Korean, that’s not enough, and just because I know one African-American person — that’s not enough. But it’s hard to create that kind of breadth.

Eshman:  Has it gotten better in the last 20 years or worse?

Rice:  Depends on where you’re talking about. It’s gotten more complex. Have we desegregated? Yes, we’re probably the best-desegregated big city, other than New York — but there are very few what I would call integrated communities.

Siqueiros: I was born and raised in Los Angeles, I went to public schools here; I have two kids who are currently in public schools here, and for me it’s been very disappointing and surprising how much more segregated their schools are than when I went to school. We may talk about us living together in a much more diverse community, but our schools are incredibly segregated, and the opportunities that exist for our children are incredibly segregated as well. For my children, as middle-class children now, they’ll certainly have access to a lot more opportunities, but for students that are low income and all they have are the few resources that they get at a very segregated school, with probably lower educational opportunity and access to resources than other schools, I think that is what is more terrifying.

Hicks: There are two things going on here — one is at just kind of a working-class level of people either immigrating, or living here just in association, living where they want to live, or where their money will allow them to live. People just trying to get along and make it. Then you’ve got the elite leadership that have these kinds of conversations we’re having now, and I guess the question is, well, what would you do about that? Everybody’s trying to get their piece of the political pie; it’s not about where people are living or working, it’s about the pure politics of power. …

Eshman: Joe, how do you reconcile that with what Connie and David were saying, that the millennials — this group is also the least racist, even though they’re the most divided. So how do you reconcile those things?

Lehrer: Seventy percent of their friends are of a different group than they are.

My four kids went to public schools. They had friends who were Korean, who were black, who were Asian, who were Latino — I mean it’s the nature of the beast.

Chu: When I worked in the LGBT community, we used to have a strategy where we’d joke around and say, you know, all we need to do is just wait until people die, then we’ll win LGBT civil rights, because it’s about generations. But at the same time, I do think that you don’t create this kind of awareness, perspective and thinking around race and politics and power in a vacuum. And, you know, one of the questions I would ask is, does the case of Rodney King even get taught in school?

(Various people say no)

Lehrer: These kids don’t want to be lectured to!

David Levinson: These kids are growing up with a black president! It’s a different world!

Lehrer: They are not interested in holding hands and singing “Kumbaya” and being told black people are like you and Latino people are like you and Asian — for them it’s superfluous.

Chu: But here’s what happens, when a 12-year-old kid goes to school and shoots their classmate because they think they’re gay, those are the kind of moments …

Lehrer: But that’s an anomaly!

Hicks: Connecting up those kinds of obscene acts with — I’m sitting here, by the way, looking at L.A. County’s hate crime report, which I think is largely bogus. They in some way do gather this data, each year, the hate crime reports go down, in terms of numbers, they say African-Americans have the highest percentage of hate crimes committed against them. It was 123 cases, in total, in all of 2010. Anybody know what the crime stats are in the City of L.A.? This is minuscule. It’s like, there’re some stats that say there’s 10 percent of the population who believe you can send a letter to Elvis, and you’ll get a return letter. There are going to be fools and crazy people and all kind of folks at the margin of society — somebody who’s going to run out and shoot a gay kid in the back of the head, for whatever reason.

Leibman: I don’t think you have to get that extreme to do this.

Hicks:  But I’m connecting it up, because Samuel made the statement about that kind of horrendous physical act. And I’m saying that’s disconnected from the larger picture. Because I think, frankly, the City of L.A., 20 years ago, versus now, people in this city get along amazingly well.

Leibman:  Until they get threatened. Until some population gets threatened, then they react, and when they react they often go to the basest level they can, which is typically race.

Levinson: That’s an unfair generalization.

Leibman:  Of course it’s a generalization.

Siqueiros: So then are you all suggesting that racism is an anomaly?

Lehrer: Racism is an anomaly.

Leibman:  That’s not true.

Siqueiros: I mean as a Latina, with this huge increase in anti-immigrant fervor in this country, I find that really offensive.

Lehrer: You can find it offensive.

Siqueiros: I think to cite all the beautiful examples of when we come together and work together does not mean that you don’t have privilege as a white man in this country.

Lehrer: I don’t.

Hicks:  Those are political positions.

Eshman: Taking everything together that you’re saying, what I hear is that even though now things are maybe better than they were 20 years ago, the kinds of seeds we’re laying — lack of economic investment in our schools, in our judicial system — we are no longer laying the seeds for them to be even better 20 years from now. In fact, they could even be worse 20 years from now — would you agree with that?

Lehrer: That’s not just an L.A. problem — the schools. California spends the second least of any state in the country. That’s the whole state of California.

Chu: I think that the absence of violence is not a sign that things are better. Just because things are calmer on the coexistence side — that there has not been another riot — is not an indication to me that there are better relations.

Levinson: I actually disagree. I’m on the ground, and I deal with people from every background in every neighborhood in the city, and they all want to get along. I have worked with very wealthy people and very poor people, of every ethnicity, working side by side.

There are a lot of people out there who are invested in keeping them apart. You know, you talk about the kid going in and shooting the kid — 20 years ago, there wasn’t an Internet on 24 hours a day with all those hatemongers on there. A guy like Rush Limbaugh is openly misogynistic; he’s openly racist. A guy like Rick Perry basically ran on an openly homophobic ticket — these things didn’t happen 20 years ago and weren’t repeated round-the-clock. So the world has changed. But in our city, the things I do, and LA Works, and many other groups, grew out of the riots.

Im: But I can’t help but agree with Connie that, depending on the framework, the answer could be very different. In this whole redistricting experience, our organization was very much at the center, or part of it, and when it finished, for the Asian community and the Korean community, I thought “What the hell?” It was the same old thing for us — our story was marginalized and demonized.

Twenty years ago, when the store owners tried to rebuild, no matter how much the store owners came out in massive numbers to public hearings to say, “You know what? Our businesses, our life savings, the American dream, all got burned down. We need help to get back on our feet,” it fell on deaf ears. They all said, “You know what? We just have to listen to our [City] Council person who represents that area.” And after this redistricting experience, we visited each of those Council folks. You know what they said? “You guys came out in massive numbers; you guys were organized — give you credit for wakening your community, but, bottom line: We can’t help you, because, really, the Council member who represents your community really sets the agenda, and we have to fall in line.”

Lehrer: But that’s politics.

Im: All I’m saying is: Has progress happened? Yes, if we point to the positive things — our organization, our model came after the First AME Church, so I could point to great examples, but then if you look at other areas, gosh — things haven’t changed.

Hicks:  So, Hyepin, what’s not changed other than that the Korean community is again getting caught in power politics in the City of L.A.?

Im: Perhaps, but depending on the framework — you’re right, if you think about Korean Wave [the spread of Korean culture worldwide] with Korean stars from South Korea coming here, and they’re on the “David Letterman Show,” and in South Korea they’re doing rap music, there is kind of a greater awareness and appreciation on a global scale. So you could point to all of those things. But, then again, when there’s kind of that point of contention on power or whatever it may be, the loss of privilege, loss of rights, whatever it may be, we still fall back onto the default, and that’s the point that still needs to be addressed.

Freudenheim: So, I ask all of you: What should we do? What’s the solution? How do we make it better for any single group, for all of us?

Im: We really need to do two things. First of all, we need to build a bridge of understanding that, really, we’re all in the same boat together.

Hicks:  What does that look like?

Im: One example is this foreclosure crisis: Our agency helps a lot of people across the country on foreclosure. When a home forecloses in one area, it actually impacts that whole block. And then, families move out of the area, then the schools get impacted because they don’t get their budgets, etc. And if the schools go down, then other families move, etc., etc. So it has a ripple effect.

So that’s one.

The other part is that for communities of color — with eviction rates, foreclosure rates and poverty rates — we have to realize we have a common enemy.

Lehrer and Hicks: Who’s the common enemy?

Im: The system. However, however …

Lehrer: Is this the ’50s? The ’60s maybe?

Im: In conversations with some African-American leaders, they talked about a common argument. Why don’t Korean store owners hire youth from the black community? Great idea — let’s do that! But, at the same time, I said, you know what, the black community — if I was to generalize — you guys have some great connections with entertainment and sports that maybe the Asian community may not have. Could we also place Korean youth into those businesses? So then, it’s lifting up both communities and lifting the strengths of what both communities have. It could be the artistic community, it could be other communities. I think that is the kind of strategy and conversations we should have, instead of tearing each other down.

Sonenshein: Let me ask you a question. Ten years from now, say, there’ll be another redistricting, and the discussions of that will start in about seven years, probably. What do you think the Korean-American community would do differently in preparing for that, in order to end up in a more desirable political position by the time the process was done?

Im: The short answer everyone else is saying: “Run.” Not me, but run your candidates, right? But other advice that we’ve been getting consistently, and I agree, is to build coalitions. I think that makes sense, absolute sense.

Levinson: The idea also is that people are voting for what the person stands for, not what the person is. Koreans can vote for black people, Jews can vote for Christian people, because what we’re saying in terms of redistricting is that you’re always going to vote for a person of your own world, of your own ethnic or racial …

Im: Right.

Hicks:  Is that any kind of operative assumption? Why are we, in 2012, still talking about drawing district lines as if we can only be represented by someone who looks like us? When all the studies have shown and there’s a California Supreme Court case that says that people will cross race and ethnic lines and will vote for whoever they think is the best candidate.

I’m not opposed to somebody of any ethnicity sitting around in that horseshoe, but the idea that there has to be district lines drawn because, you know, black folks can only be represented by somebody who looks like them …

Rice: No, no. Hold on, you know better than that.

Hicks:  No, I don’t know better than that, Connie.

Rice: In the black community for a long time, there was Kenny Hahn, a white guy, so it’s not about having to elect somebody who looks like you. It’s the community’s choice, and they can be of any race.

Hicks:  OK.

Rice: So that’s just a canard. You can let that one go.

Sonenshein: And the overwhelming majority of black and Hispanic elected officials represent areas with significant populations of their group — not all majorities, because they do need support from other folks. So, I would be very loath to give up legal protections for those two communities. But the Voting Rights Act does not guarantee any number of any particular group in office.

Hicks:  But, commonly here, people say you’ve got to protect the three black City Council seats in the City Council.

Rice: That is stupid — I agree with you — that’s stupid. But that’s not the way the law works. And there are spots where you don’t need the Voting Rights Act at all, and there are spots where black voting actually blocks Latinos from getting elected. The Voting Rights Act is actually quite applicable in a number of regions for the Latino population at this time.

Im: For the Asian community, we’re the second-largest minority population in California, in the county and city, and we have yet to have proportional representation of any kind. And so, in many ways again, our experience has been very marginalized.

Sonenshein: It’s interesting that it’s not a phenomenon throughout California, only in Los Angeles. One of the largest legislative caucuses in Sacramento is the Asian-American caucus. Asian-Americans are dominant now in San Francisco politics, in the South Bay, the San Gabriel Valley. Judy Chu was elected in a Latino majority Congressional district. Everything is just by the book, except for the City of Los Angeles, which stands out with 400,000 people of Asian-American background, more than 10 percent of the population, without a single representative, one whose principal concern is representing the community. So it’s an anomaly within California.

It’s a repeat, to some degree, of the history of Latinos in L.A. For so long, people said they are never going to be a force, and now they are the single most important force in the city. But it’s a striking situation.

Rice: You were asking what needs to happen. The No. 1 threat, as I said before, is that we’ve all got to pull together and focus on increasing the job base, because it is dangerously out of whack with our population. And there’s the underground L.A. — we’ve got to understand who’s here, and we’ve got to understand the hemispheric dynamics. But the third thing in terms of specific race relations — we are still clustering. There are some pockets of real fluidity, real integration, but it isn’t the dominant dynamic, and if you go into the schools, you will see the kids, interview them, and they can identify the different cliques; they can identify the different tribes, and they can say, “Well, we don’t really talk to those kids.”

They’re segregated by academic level, and that has racial segregation and stratification, too. Who’s in the AP [advanced placement] courses, who isn’t, and so forth. Not because of racial discrimination necessarily, but those are the results on the ground.

I’ve always said that the schools have to get together with the private sector and the civic and arts sector and create a dynamic of having the kids do sports, drama, art and music together — but integrated. In other words, you learn music at symphony hall or the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. But you have a school from Granada Hills, a school from El Segundo, the South Bay, from Watts and those four areas learn music together.

When kids learn together something that’s fun — art, theater or they do sports together or mix up the debating teams, the decathlon teams by income and by neighborhood, you naturally get a mix that exposes them to one another, and a lot of the walls come down.

I’ve never understood why we don’t use the rich civic and arts infrastructure that we have to help our kids learn about one another and really achieve integration.

Levinson: What I don’t understand is why we’re saying that things are so terrible.

Hicks:  They’re not, and that’s the point.

Lehrer: It’s never going to be perfect. This is probably as good as we can expect from a city that is the most diverse city in the world, where we could be at each other’s throats, but we’re not, and people are really making concerted efforts to make it better.

Rice: This is an amazing city. We’ve made tremendous progress, but we have a long way to go. I would say that about the police’s progress; I would say that about the interracial coexistence; I would say that about a lot of things in L.A. It’s not grim at all. We’re in a very good place, and things could have dissolved at any number of points, and I think that because of the fiber and fabric we’ve built, a lot of the flash points didn’t become the riots.

It’s not grim, it’s just that I always focus on the work that has yet to be done, so it sounds like it’s all negative. It’s not all negative at all. And compared to a lot of places, we could have had a very, very rough and bloody integration. When Latinos moved into black areas, yes, there were a lot of gang killings and so forth, but you didn’t have outright population fighting.  I understand how bad it can get, having seen other areas around the world not do this demographic shift as smoothly as we have, and there’s a lot to be celebrated there. But there’s a whole lot more that has to be done. Because it’s all good until it isn’t good. And then we’re all looking at each other and asking, “Well, how did that happen?” We’re trying to get to a level that few places get to.

Eshman: What would you say needs to be done to bring up the level of jobs in the city, because that was one thing you would say is pretty grim — the job opportunities.

Rice: Well, we really don’t focus on it. We focus on whether we each individually have a job, but we’re not focused enough on the regional machinery that’s needed to generate whole sectors of job creation. We really don’t have the machinery of the brain think tanks that come up with answers to how do we create Silicon Valley dynamics here in L.A.?  How do we get industries that are in Central California? How do we link to them? And our politicians don’t think big.

Siqueiros: I don’t think things are grim, but we’re often pushed into a box, so if we bring up, especially as people of color, issues of race or challenges that are happening in our community, it sounds like it’s awful, right?  And that’s certainly not what I’m trying to say. I think things have progressed, and I love living in Los Angeles because of its diversity, because of the opportunities in the city. But race does matter, and opportunity is affected often by race. 

Unless we tackle the challenge of education, both K-12 and what were doing in terms of decimating our public university and college system — I think those are our challenges. I don’t disagree with a lot of the points that have been made here, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t bring up the issues that still remain, and the challenges that our communities still face.

Sonenshein: There’s not a contradiction between pointing out the existence of racial disparity and at the same time saying that, for people of various communities, race is not the only thing they think about and it’s not the only thing they talk about. It’s not that they sit around all day long complaining and moaning about the state of the world, but it can be frustrating when people indicate the existence of disparities to have to have a big argument about whether they’re saying its everything, when in reality they’re not saying its everything.

I don’t know anybody whose racial and ethnic identity is the only important thing to them, but people do like to be heard when they say there’s some evidence, considerable evidence from numerous sources, about the existence of disparities on the basis of race.

I can also say, by the way, while ethnic politics may sound kind of crummy to people, ethnic politics is usually an alternative to violent conflict. Politics as a substitute for violence is not the worst thing in the world; fighting over power, and stakes where the people might change seats over time, based on political conflict, actually is a step forward over a situation where you can’t even imagine winning political access.

I’m not in the grim camp. I’m in the camp where there’s still a lot to worry about: I worry a lot about the decline of the public sector; I think it’s very important for minority communities.

Eshman: Raphe, how would you answer Susan’s question — what’s the thing that still needs — top of your agenda — that needs to get done?

Sonenshein: Other than all the great things people have said about communities understanding each other, which I completely agree with, it’s really important to find ways for working-class people in the city to get jobs, and that may mean passing a transportation bill and implementing it in Los Angeles, which I think would be a great idea. I also support slowing down the layoffs of public employees, who disproportionately serve and represent these communities. While promoting efficiency in government — I don’t believe in throwing good money into government for no reason — I think we should advance ways to increase public services where they’re needed. If you’ve got hard hats on the street, you’ve got some good things happening, and I would build more things that need to be built.

We have a lot of things that need to be built. We have classes where there are students that need to be taught. We have the Cal State [California State University] system, with tens of thousands of students not able to get in — all we have to do is give them seats, which isn’t the most expensive thing in the world. Keep people in school. Keep people working wherever we can. That’s what I would do.

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