The 10th District's Negro Problem

Illustration by Shino Arihara

I first met Martin Ludlow in 1986, when he moved to L.A. from Ohio and roomed with his childhood friend, whom I knew through a good friend and ex-roommate of mine. Ludlow was 22, eminently likable and, to my surprise, very knowledgeable about politics. I had nascent and rather naive ideas about politics at the time, which he was eager to flesh out with the sort of historical and philosophical details unique to a young man still formulating direction for himself and bent on having a good time in the bargain.

Some years later, in the white-hot political aftermath of the ’92 riots, I became a journalist, and one of the first public figures I formally interviewed was Deron Williams. As Councilman Nate Holden’s aide, Williams was then trying to establish a job-training alliance with an auto-parts store chain in the burned-out inner city as it scrambled to rebuild. Williams was young too, though as stolid and earnest as Holden was impetuous and impolitic, and he spoke about the importance of young people being able to work even modest jobs to lift themselves out of the bad circumstances and vocational idleness that had nearly engulfed him in his adolescence. I sympathized with Williams’ cautionary tale that ended well, and I admired Ludlow’s high ideas and clear ambition, and regarded both encounters as valid pieces of a larger picture of black leadership that I presumed would take shape in the years to come. Of course, I also presumed that there was room in this picture for both Williams and Ludlow, and whoever else had something to contribute to the salvation of a community sorely in need of it.

How little I knew. Thanks to radical demographic shifts in central L.A. from black to Latino, as well as the general fragmentation of black leadership, the picture turned out to be smaller and meaner than anything I could have imagined. Ludlow and Williams are now vying for a single spot on a city council that has increasingly fewer shoo-in spots for black candidates, and their 10th District runoff has subsequently been less about growing new black power than it has been about clinging to what power is left. Williams is widely seen as the plodding but steady tortoise, Ludlow the nimble but erratic hare who may get too far ahead of himself for comfort. In these highly uncertain political times, fixing potholes and maintaining a common touch — always Holden’s best points — seem more tangible than advancing alliances with labor or supporting a living wage. The bottom line is that we are in a time in which blacks appear to be more interested in righting the boat than in rocking it. How the majority-black electorate of the 10th District votes next week will say much about what we think is the best way, and who is the best person, to steady the ship.

 

But what appears to be a simple choice between traditional and progressive isn’t entirely. Tradition isn’t always a political pejorative in black communities; it implies family, and Williams is part of the family both at City Hall, where he spent 14 years, and in South-Central, where he grew up. His Horatio Alger story of overcoming the dire conditions that have become all too familiar to blacks across class lines — broken home, substance abuse — resonates with co-workers and constituents alike. The news that he was charged with cocaine possession as a teenager would sink other candidates, but it’s solidified William’s support among many in the black establishment in a very public way. He may have been guilty as charged, but he did manage early on to break the cycle of arrests and prison that traps many a black man for life, and some people felt he ultimately deserved more credit than condemnation. Sure, Williams bungled his response to the whole thing and subsequently raised doubts about his untested professional character, but his run-in with the law was common knowledge and had been accepted long ago (whether last week’s revelation about possibly illegal fund-raising tactics dilutes this support remains to be seen). This so-called news story was regarded by some as more trickery of the white media to bring a black man down — the Los Angeles Times’ April 11 headline erroneously said the charges occurred in ’98, not ’88 — and many blacks who’d seen this kind of thing before weren’t having it.

Casting Williams and Ludlow as traditional vs. progressive also taps into a much older and more insidious dynamic among blacks themselves, a dynamic rooted in slavery — the psychological division between the field hand and the house servant. Several people I talked to about the runoff alluded to this. For those who missed the controversial Harry Belafonte critique of Colin Powell as the house-servant variety of black folk, a review: The field hand is hardworking, reliable, and literally on the ground with other blacks; the house servant is educated, favored by whites and eager to separate himself from other blacks he deems beneath him intellectually and socially. The metaphor is mixed in this case; because of his ties to organized labor and especially to Antonio Villaraigosa and local labor honcho Miguel Contreras, Ludlow is suspected mostly of fronting for the interests not of whites, but of Latinos (though in the eyes of many blacks Latinos are fast becoming the new whites, but that’s another column). That he in many ways forged a political career as scrappily as Williams did — doing voter-registration drives in the street, working with youth — is often eclipsed by his smooth good looks, articulateness and political acumen — all hallmarks of house-servant privilege. That Ludlow is half-black and the adopted son of white parents does nothing to discourage the image either, though if we were to discredit every black leader in history for being of mixed blood, we’d be casting aspersions on everybody from W.E.B. DuBois to pioneering civil rights activist H. Claude Hudson. To say nothing of this humble writer.

Related to the concern of black authenticity is a fear that Ludlow wouldn’t carry a black agenda. I’ve tried for years to figure out exactly what a black agenda is — I know what it used to be ideally, if not practically — and I’ve concluded that these days it isn’t political nearly so much as familial. Nate Holden was hardly progressive or the purveyor of any agenda other than his own, but he could be counted on to give individual black people support or help them through an unforgiving system if such a thing fell within his purview to do so — Williams, of course, is a prime example of that. Nor is wariness of a “coalition” agenda entirely unfounded. Coalitions are necessary and laudable and have been popular remedies for various social ills since well before ’92, but thus far they have not translated into great benefits for black folks. Many might reminisce fondly about Tom Bradley being chief steward of L.A.’s golden age of coalitions, but many blacks grumble as much about the price Bradley paid for it by de-emphasizing the needs of the same black population that helped vote him into the mayor’s office. Even though black elected officials since Bradley — who of course began his political career as councilman in the 10th District — have not done much better than him in those neighborhoods, the association of coalitions with a certain betrayal remains. The real issue for blacks is a historical inability to coalesce with each other, a problem that both young candidates are being unduly charged with correcting. On the other hand, corrections have to begin somewhere.

The characterization of Williams as the darling of the black establishment and Ludlow as the darling of everybody else is false for another, more obvious reason: Much of the black establishment supports Ludlow, including heavyweight clergy like Cecil Murray at First A.M.E., pastor emeritus Jim Lawson of Holman United Methodist, Charles Blake of West Angeles Church of God in Christ, and William Epps of Second Baptist. Black churches have long sided with labor as a natural ally of their working- and middle-class congregations, but siding with it now against man-of-the-moment Bernie Parks and fellow pastor/progressive Madison Shockley — a sample few Williams supporters — has special significance. Ludlow also has the backing of black cultural and literary icon Maya Angelou, and — for whatever he’s worth at this point — Al Gore. I can’t say how the election will turn out, but if the picture of black leadership has not been enlarged, it has for the moment at least been enlivened.


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