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Cloud Over the Promised Land

Dr. Johnetta Cole is not from Los Angeles. She never migrated here, doesn’t have a gig here, doesn’t visit once a week or commute from 50 miles away. Her deliberate way of talking, impeccable ensemble — really, not a hair out of place — and passionate but patrician air suggest Southern sensibilities thousands of miles removed from the decentralized, anything-goes ethos that defines indefinable L.A., even its most privileged classes. But Cole, chair of the national board of United Way and an anthropologist by trade, knows this town all too well. Last week her organization unveiled “The State of Black Los Angeles,” a report written in conjunction with the local Urban League that reveals black residents here to be in the same dire straits they are in everywhere else in the country, in some cases worse. The big city where African-Americans always figured they had their best shot at success and new beginnings is but a grimy mirror reflecting harsh realities that are becoming more, not less, entrenched: Of the four major ethnic groups, blacks have the highest unemployment rate (14 percent), highest death rate, lowest reading proficiency (17 percent by 11th grade), lowest rate of securing home loans, highest rate of violent-crime victimization, lowest number of children living in married-couple households (30 percent), highest representation among the homeless (30 percent). And so on and so forth. By almost every measure of an “equality index” that takes into account housing, education, economics and other conditions in L.A. County, blacks are at the bottom. (It should escape no one’s notice that they rank below Latinos, a group that shares many of the same characteristics but fares better partly because of its immigrant history, greater employability and less complicated racial dynamics in this country. In other words, their blues ain’t quite like ours.) The bad news is unfortunately not news — the United Way, Urban League and other groups have been compiling this data for decades. What the latest data make clear is that there has been virtually no political will over time to do anything to address the problems all this research identifies year after year. The problems associated with black people have instead become wallpaper, so ubiquitous and unchanging as to not even warrant comment or sustained debate anymore, except very selectively. But it is just this cycle of apathy that Cole says must be broken, now. And here. “I’m an outsider, but I’m a member of the African-American community, so of course this matters,” she says. “Some people might look at this and say, ‘Why should we bother? We know all this already.’ I don’t see it that way. While there’s nothing surprising in this report, we need to be shocked. You can’t find the solution unless you look at the problem.”Though looking at a problem over and over, particularly one that is so intimately connected to so many others, makes your vision blurry; we stop looking, even black folks. Cole acknowledges that, but insists we mustn’t give in to giving in. “We’ve got to be careful about compassion fatigue — getting tired of caring,” she says. “We have to be careful about saying, ‘Been there, done that.’ We must get beyond that. Nobody gets credit anymore for predicting the rain. It’s time to build the ark.”The report is not without some good news, though in the context of such overwhelming failure it feels more paradoxical than positive. More than 8 percent of blacks here earn $100,000 or more — higher than the national average — even though half of black households earn less than $35,000, well below the county median. In perhaps the cruelest bit of irony, blacks actually excelled in what the equality index calls “civic engagement,” a kind of citizenship litmus that includes voter registration, military participation, union membership and English fluency. Blacks outdo all other ethnic groups in this regard, yet are still mired at the bottom of the social scale, affirming an observation people like James Baldwin have made throughout history: Blacks are the most quintessential of Americans, but remain the most alienated. This is true even though L.A. County, like other urban centers, has a comfortable number of black elected officials — they’re 14 percent of the total — which suggests that blacks in office won’t, or can’t, do enough to remedy the problems of their black constituencies. The civic engagement numbers are what give Cole the greatest hope, and the greatest sense of frustration. “You’ve got all these people in office,” she muses. “But where’s the change?” It’s a question we’ve all been asking ourselves a long time. And while we’ve been asking them and getting no answers, and producing no real blueprints for change, the ground has been shifting under our feet; now, in a post–affirmative action, pro-multiracial world in which our numbers and influence are waning, we are forced to ask a question that never seemed necessary before: Does anyone even see black problems as black? Some say that’s a red herring, a philosophical distraction from the core troubles that were and still are inextricably bound to race, whether we want to frame them that way or not. For blacks, even those increasingly fortunate members of the middle or upper class, the picture is painfully clear.“We’re standing still — at best — and everyone else is moving ahead,” says Johnie Scott, a professor of Pan-African Studies and director of the department’s writing program at Cal State Northridge. “And this report speaks not just to black L.A., like South L.A. or Crenshaw. It applies to all of us, out in the suburbs or wherever.” Scott is glad that celebrities like Magic Johnson have made economic development in the hood their business, even turning it into a bit of trend. “But you’ve only got a few like Magic,” he says. “We need more like him.” And more interested parties, period. “When you’ve got a whole group of people that’s down, it’s everybody’s responsibility to look at it,” he says. “Black people are not going to fix it by themselves.” Valerie Shaw, a longtime civil servant and community activist, believes the root of most of the inequity is economic, and until that’s addressed, all the discussion in the world won’t make a difference. Simply put, too many black people are poor. “We need to bring back the war on poverty,” she says. ”But there has to be the will to do it. L.A. has all this black concentration of wealth, of middle- and upper-class people, but the problem is that they’re not experiencing the problem directly. But they’re experiencing collateral damage. We all are.” Shaw says that collective action — even among a deeply committed few, not the masses — is critical. That’s always been true, but it’s more urgently true now, as we move further across the threshold of a new century. “That action has got to happen,” she says. “Otherwise, in the next decade there won’t be any black people left to report on.” Cole’s prognosis is only slightly less sobering. “Our challenge is to wrestle with the double whammy of the ongoing effects of racism and what can only be described as a deepening malaise that we don’t seem able to change,” she says. “The great anthropologist Margaret Mead once said never doubt the ability of a small group of citizens to change the world. The question is, are there enough of them in L.A. to do that?”


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