March 11, 2004
Community activist Karen Bass' victory in the 47th Assembly District's Democratic primary provides a valuable opening for coalition efforts between the Jewish community and a new generation of African American and Latino activists.
Los Angeles has a long and distinguished history of biracial coalitions. Rooted in the 10th City Council District, then divided among African Americans, Jews and Asian Americans, the coalition behind Tom Bradley stormed the gates of City Hall.
Bradley was first elected to the City Council in 1963 and then to the mayoralty in 1973, a position he held for 20 years. The Los Angeles black-Jewish coalition became a national model for interracial politics and governance.
But the Bradley coalition has largely fallen by the wayside as the city's politics have fragmented and as the leadership ties that sustained the coalition have atrophied. While promising efforts to build bridges between Jews and Latinos are beginning to bear fruit, they are still young.
The open 47th Assembly seat seemed likely to hurt rather than help intergroup coalitions. The 2001 redistricting had reshaped the district represented by former Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson from a surefire black seat to one potentially contested between African Americans and whites.
The district was moved westward and northward and now includes such white liberal -- and significantly Jewish -- areas as Westwood, Cheviot Hills and Beverlywood. Whites represent 37.8 percent of the population; African Americans, 40.1 percent; Hispanics, 22.6 percent; and Asian Americans, 8.5 percent. The voting population, however, is more skewed toward blacks and whites.
With three strong black candidates -- Bass, Rickey Ivie and Nate Holden -- fragmentation of the black vote and intergroup conflict with whites seemed possible. A white candidate could have potentially won the race but without broad-based support in the district.
Bass took the creative way out of the box: She reached out to Latinos, organized labor and white voters, including Jews. The three black candidates received a combined 88 percent of the vote, with Bass drawing a near-majority 48 percent. Clearly, Bass received strong support both from African Americans and white voters. Out of possible conflict came something much more promising -- potential bridges among African Americans, Latinos and Jews.
I was less surprised than I might otherwise have been, because of my knowledge of Bass' previous work. I first met Bass about a decade ago. A federal agency had contracted with me to study how a particular organization in South Central Los Angeles managed to impact the alarming dispersion of liquor stores.
I visited the offices of the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Training -- later shortened, thankfully, to the Community Coalition -- where I met Bass, the organization's energetic director. She was working to prevent the rebuilding of some liquor stores that had been burned down during the violence of 1992. The office was brimming with energy, with young staff and volunteers, African American and Latino.
There was a serious conflict of interest between those who wanted the stores reduced in number and those whose livelihood depended on the stores staying open. In New York City, a similar conflict became highly racialized, as calls arose to "kick Koreans out" of inner-city communities.
By contrast, Bass' dedication to keeping the conflict nonracial helped Los Angeles to keep the focus on the behavior of individual liquor stores and not on the ethnicity of the owners. Bass insisted that it did not matter who owned the stores, only how the stores were operated.
Because she and her organization stuck to that philosophy with such consistency, no traction could be created for an anti-Korean campaign.
I spoke with leaders of Korean American organizations who saw themselves under attack on the liquor store issue. Those I interviewed were very unhappy and resentful about the coalition's pressure but recognized and appreciated that Bass kept the racial aspect to a minimum. Bass was also adamant about reaching out to Latinos in South Central Los Angeles and actively incorporated them in her organization's activities.
Bass' victory in the 47th Assembly District marks another new turn for the politics of urban Los Angeles. New participants -- organized labor, Latinos, young minority activists -- are reshaping the city's traditional politics of black and white.
While African American candidates are likely to keep dominating the offices in Central, Mid-city and South Los Angeles for some time to come, their constituencies are shifting. The Jewish community should keep its eyes and ears open to these developments and look for new ways to connect to a promising, exciting and boundary-crossing politics of the next Los Angeles.
Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University, Fullerton, is the author of "Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles" (Princeton University Press, 1993). His article, "The Battle Over Liquor Stores in South Central Los Angeles: The Management of an Interminority Conflict," appeared in the July 1996 issue of the Urban Affairs Quarterly.