IN AMERICA, ALL CITY POLITICS TENDS TO be racial — and, if the racial groups have been around long enough, tribal. This isn't true at other levels of government. In state capitals and in Washington, where issues of wealth distribution are determined, class politics exist alongside those of race. At the municipal level, however, governments deal more with issues like housing and policing, issues that are racial to the core. The cries of police brutality, the complaint "There goes the neighborhood" — these are shouted at city halls, not statehouses.
Marx to the contrary notwithstanding, it's always easier to strike a deal on questions of class — at least, on how to divide up the pie — than it is on race. Tribal politics are zero-sum games. The Temple Mount is either Israeli or Palestinian. The next police chief of Los Angeles will be of one race or another (though with rates of intermarriage soaring, this will not always be the case), and that will predispose some groups to support him and others to yelp to the skies. Not that colorblind meritocracy doesn't have its claims, but Mayor Jim Hahn has to select a chief of police in a city where race still matters — no matter how liberal, cosmopolitan and multicultural that city may be. He may go off alone to make his final choice, but the politics of race will be there at his side.
There are three local tribes that Jim Hahn can't — and won't — lose sight of in making that choice: Latinos, African-Americans and Valleywhites. This isn't to say that a majority or plurality of these groups, or the political elites of these groups, will insist upon a Latino, or African-American, or Valley-friendly chief. But Hahn has to seem to be weighing these groups' concerns, whoever his choice may be. While Hahn can be insensible to other quadrants, he also knows that the largely liberal white population south of Mulholland is not quite so emotionally invested in this choice, unless he picks a chief in the mold of Bill Parker or Daryl Gates. Which he won't.
There's a fourth group, too, that Hahn can't ignore: the LAPD itself. Former Chiefs Willie Williams and Bernie Parks were both brought down in large part because they provoked heavy opposition from elements of the department — in Williams' case, the conservative old guard; in Parks', the rank and file and their union, the Police Protective League, to whom Parks came across as a drill sergeant with a toothache. The PPL's political clout was already such that in last year's mayoral election, every candidate sought its support. As it is also the grim reaper of recent chiefs, any mayor would need some indication that his choice, at least for an initial period of time, would fly with the flatfoots.
OVER THE PAST DECADE, DIFFERENT groups of Angelenos have laid claim to two key civic-leadership positions. After Daryl Gates, Rodney King and the '92 riots, after it was clear to almost all that the LAPD's historic racism was also the LAPD's ongoing racism, much of the African-American community insisted, with good cause, that the best possible new chief would be black. That surely was a factor in the decision of Tom Bradley's Police Commission to choose Philadelphia's chief, Willie Williams. When Richard Riordan, whose mayoral bids had fallen flat with black voters, sacked Williams, he decided to anoint Bernie Parks not only as a matter of personal preference, but because he needed to keep politics in black L.A. from exploding.
Similarly, as the L.A. Unified School District became overwhelmingly Latino (the percentage in fall of 2001 was 71.4 percent) and the God-awful condition of LAUSD schools became a huge concern for Latino parents, many Latinos concluded that the position of district superintendent would best be filled by one of theirs. When Richard Riordan's school board moved to sack Superintendent Ruben Zacarias, the reaction in Latino L.A. was strong and swift: First came the cries that Zacarias be brought back; then, the demands that his successor be Latino.
The Zacarias affair was but a prelude to the eruption of rage that followed Hahn's decision to dump Parks. Los Angeles is a city where truly nut-case ethnic politics, mercifully, is a sometime thing (unlike New York, where it's a constant), but the reaction in the black community to Parks' heave-ho was a wake-up call to anyone who thought multicultural L.A. had left ethnocentrism in the dust. Parks had taken on the PPL, which is disproportionately the political home of the good old (and younger) boys so feared and loathed by the African-American community. That made Parks, in the eyes of many black Angelenos, the enemy of their enemy; and what more could you want in a friend? In every other particular, though, Parks aggressively worked to restore the good old days of Daryl Gates. He opposed civilian control of the force, resisted Christopher Commission reforms to weed out the out-of-control officers, opposed the monitoring of traffic stops to see just how many driving-while-black citations his officers wrote.
Yet any number of the African-American leaders — from Maxine Waters on down — who'd raised holy hell about all these policies when Daryl Gates enacted them rallied to Parks' side when Hahn removed him. Hahn was labeled a traitor to his base, and their race. These were not the only voices raised during the Parks and Zacarias controversies: Then-Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa tried to mediate the Zacarias dispute, while civil rights attorney Connie Rice dared to point out that Parks was not the perfect cause célèbre for black liberals. But the nationalist voices were certainly the louder ones.