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Malign Neglect 

A Weekly Roundtable discussion on black L.A.

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Thirty years ago, after a summer of riots in the nation's cities, President Lyndon B. Johnson impaneled a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to analyze urban ills and propose solutions. That group, which came to be known as the Kerner Commission, issued a grim report, which concluded that "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white - separate and unequal."

This year the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation and the Corporation for What Works sponsored a panel to take another look at the nation's urban core. The resulting report, "The Millennium Breach: Richer, Poorer and Racially Apart," notes that while the civil rights movement in the '60s and early '70s expanded opportunities for some people of color, the picture is still deeply disturbing. Urban public schools continue to decline, neighborhoods and schools are re-segregating, and housing opportunities for the poor have declined dramatically. If more African-Americans have gone to college, so have more gone to prison. And although more blacks have made it into the middle class, the gap has grown ever wider between rich and poor.

The panel's recommendations - from full funding for Head Start to job-training and employment programs to education and housing improvements - are not new, but they are a reminder of how much is needed to solve the country's ills. The Weekly recently called together a panel of Los Angeles activists to discuss the report's relevance to our city and to examine the problems and needs of our own urban core 30 years after the Kerner Commission drew its conclusions. The participants were:

Constance L. Rice, co-director, the Advancement Project, and former Western Regional Counsel, NAACP Legal Defense Fund

Antonia Hernandez, president and general counsel, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund

Joe R. Hicks, executive director, City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission

Susan Anderson, independent writer and director of special projects external affairs, Local Initiatives Support Corporation

Goetz Wolff, Department of Urban Planning, School of Public Policy, UCLA

Larry Aubry, board member of the Multicultural Collaborative and executive committee member of the NAACP

L.A. Weekly: Using the report as a jumping-off place, are its conclusions relevant to Los Angeles? Does it reflect what's happened here?

Constance Rice: The report identifies the sort of macro problems that haven't changed: the gap between rich and poor, the racial conundrum, and other things. But beyond that, I didn't find enough in the framework to apply to Los Angeles' complexity. If you read the papers, you think that everybody here is fine. The stock market is up; those in the top 10 percent have increased their income dramatically. But the problem here is that what's happened to the very poorest is on nobody's radar screen. There is no social ladder now. You used to have rungs, even though they were hard to climb; now there aren't even the rungs. You have an aggressive denial problem on the racial front, which is that you've got an incredible variety of people within every community here, but the majority of the economic power is placed in European-American hands in industries that none of these other racial groups and immigrant groups have any connection to. I don't see anything in the report that reflects the interracial and cultural complexities of Los Angeles, nor does it suggest the sophisticated approaches that would be necessary to actually look at urban-core poverty and figure out what would need to be done.

Joe Hicks: I was also relatively unimpressed with the study. It read like dusting off the old Kerner report and kind of said nothing's changed, but stuff's gotten worse. I think things have changed dramatically in many ways. Also, I was struck by how it again spoke from that kind of East Coast, black-white framework that frankly doesn't even work in the East anymore, and yet there is this attempt to look at America as if we were talking about a nation populated by black people and white people. It's no wonder the working class is not listening to what so-called left progressives are saying these days.

Goetz Wolff: Clearly, Los Angeles is a very different environment with regard to demography, with regard to its transformation. I see this report as a presentation which hauled in the usual kind of macro-data. The solutions are just beyond stodgy, I mean they are period pieces, and their basic audience, I think, is people who are social-service providers who see this as an excuse to get more funding to do their work, but not necessary to transform or change the conditions of people. These proposals are very top-down.

Susan Anderson: I want to disagree with the sort of universal condemnation of this report in the room. I think it makes several points that are very controversial in public discussion right now. The first thing is that while they talk about the systemic problems that exist and systemic racism, they also remind us that part of the reason that things have become worse in the 30 years since the first Kerner Commission report was written is the massive disinvestment on the part of both the public sector and the private sector. We live in such a cloud of ignorance right now, and of forgetting, and the level of public discussion about this is so absent that I think that anytime anybody at least acknowledges that a major characteristic of the last generation of our experience is that both the public and private sectors have completely abdicated the urban core, that's important. The other thing I think the report points to is that government involvement and government spending are critical to talking about solutions. I travel around the country, and I spend a lot of time in neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and one of the things that I've noticed is that Reaganism has triumphed. I find community-based leaders, left-wing people, almost everyone has copped to this argument that government has no role. I find that maybe one of the most disturbing parts of what's going on publicly now. I also found one of the most valuable things about this report, the consistent assertion that government must play a role. People forget that the government's still big, it's still important, it still has more money than anybody else, and it can get more money than anybody else. Anybody who's serious and committed to solving these kinds of problems has to talk about the role of the federal government. My objection to this report wasn't that it didn't reflect L.A. in all of its diversity and complexity; my objection was that, in communities across Los Angeles, there are some very energetic, very vital people who are getting a lot done, and they have, in the last generation since this report has been written, accomplished a lot. This is a doom-and-gloom report, and we're entitled to our doom and to our gloom, but on the other hand what I see is that there have also been people who've been creating models, and these are what we need to know about if we want to solve problems.

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