April 19, 2012
20 years after the L.A. Riots
Where are we now?
(Page 3 - Previous Page)
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 …
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.
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.