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Lost Soul 

A lament for black Los Angeles

Wednesday, Dec 2 1998
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Page 6 of 8

More to the point, we don’t live where we live anymore; even where we are present, it tends to be in the flesh only. We have grown to believe too much in the larger-than-life status conferred upon us by the varied engineers of pop culture — film producers too enamored of ghetto stories, record executives who revere hip-hop and its unlimited power of product placement — who hardly have our social survival in mind. It has become perfectly okay to invoke the virtues of black people without being anywhere near them. Recently it was reported that Assemblyman Kevin Murray does not live in the Crenshaw neighborhood that he represents, and where he grew up. Doctored addresses are hardly new to politics, but Murray touts the place so eloquently and speaks so forcefully on behalf of L.A.’s black community that his absence from that community is a specific kind of betrayal. Not that one must necessarily live in a place to work for its benefit, but the fact is that, these days, very few black folks who don’t live in the hood have its future at heart.

Which is not to say that there aren’t black phenomena that need to be relegated to the past; there are. One is the willful, often hostile inertia of black politicians and civil servants who ignore the needs of Latino constituents, at everyone’s peril. Constance Rice, former attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, recalls angrily accusing Compton school district officials of the same dereliction of public duty that got white governing bodies slapped with civil rights lawsuits. "I told them, ‘If these Latinos were you, you’d be screaming for blood,’" says Rice, who, for the record, maintains a pro-black stance, and believes that many issues are culture-specific and not easily remedied by the platitudes of multiculturalism.

"No question, more and more blacks are becoming a victim population, becoming internally disconnected from each other," says Genethia Hayes, director of the L.A. chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "But we can’t talk about personal responsibility merely — there’s no good health care, day care, there’s insurance redlining. Don’t tell me all black people have to do is get out there and open a store."

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Just beneath the conversation of many African Americans is a frustration at never reaching, as a group, a level playing field, whose existence has lately become America’s fondest social myth. "Blacks have been sold down the river. They never got what we were promised," says Teryl Watkins of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, an organization that has seen its core constituency rapidly shift from black to brown. "We are survivors, but at some point . . . we want to get past that struggle just to keep up a basic standard of living. We’re tired, dulled, still in the middle of a rip-off. Shoot, I want my 40 acres and a laptop."

Covert resentment does not play out only in politics. I have a neighbor who startled me one morning by suddenly announcing over coffee that she was "sick of the Mexicans," who had exhausted her sympathy for everything from leaf-blower rights to bilingual education, who in the grand scheme of things, when one examined how poorly black folks were still faring, had no right to complain at all. I have another black friend who applied for a position with a black-run outfit but was pessimistic about getting the job because the employers, who dealt chiefly with families in Central L.A., preferred someone bilingual. My friend was not angry, not yet, but wistful and despondent because she had been looking for work for years, had been on county aid, and had now finally found a job for which she thought she was qualified — almost. Once a student of marked optimism, she had been left behind by a world that had changed during her long absence from the work force. "I hope I get it," was the last thing she told me, but her voice already sounded far away, like a drifter who must move on not because he wants to, but in order to keep moving at all.

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