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Malign Neglect

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.

 

Larry Aubry: I thought the value of this report was that it reinforced much of what I see on a daily basis. It makes a strong point about how cities are re-segregating. That's certainly a true in Los Angeles, which is one of the most segregated cities in this country.

Weekly: But is that a reality of class or of race?

Hicks: Listening to this discussion, one would presume that the lines are drawn and one cannot cross them. But if you've got the money, you can. People do. The Encino Hills have a few well-to-do black families; there are pockets of upper-middle-class black folks and Latinos and Asians and others living all around the city, including the Valley and other areas. So I think that class has to be part of this discussion of segregation.

Anderson: Segregation is always based on race. What we're still dealing with are the residual effects of racial segregation. People were herded together based on race regardless of the range of incomes that were represented in their communities. Los Angeles, historically speaking, actually was much more open than other cities around the country. One of the things that drew black people here was that you could buy a home anywhere. It remained true until about the time of the Depression, when both large-scale white and black migration from the South changed the tenor of the city. Southern mores became stronger then, and housing covenants began to be written routinely into deeds. Those covenants, we should remember, affected everybody, Japanese-Americans, Jews, you name it. For quite some time through the '40s, the black community in Los Angeles was the most affluent urban black community in the country. We'd had this early experience of being free to live where we wanted, but that changed radically. Let's remember that Tom Bradley had to get white friends to buy his house in Leimert Park in the early '60s. We are still living with the residual effects of that segregation.

Rice: Following up on what Susan said, I think the residual damage of legal segregation and cultural segregation is still with us, but I think that there are other drivers now that are driving the inequities and driving the forces that shape our communities. I think the major problem that I had with the report was the fact that the solutions don't match the scale of the problem. Every community has got great people doing great work; every community has good programs; you can look around and see pilot projects and all sorts of great works being done all across the board in the urban core. But what we need is to generate an economy - not just jobs, but an economy. Urban-poverty economists have told us, in report after report, that good programs are not enough. You've got to use your zoning laws; you've got to use your tax-incentive laws. It's not enough to establish an enterprise zone where companies come in and take a tax deduction, then go to Singapore. We need companies that are captive because of economies of scale. We need to create clusters that generate the kinds of jobs that are synergistic, so that you take four or five industrially linked companies, and give them all of the incentives to locate there for 10 years, and then watch as they generate other kinds of nexus with supporting companies. It's all very complicated, but that's my objection to this report, that there's nothing in here that suggests solutions that match the scale of the problem.

 

Weekly: What kinds of jobs has the inner city lost over the last 30 years, and why?

Wolff: We once had a tremendously large industrial system. We had auto, steel, rubber, glass, large firms, most of which were unionized and provided opportunities across the board for various racial groups. They were profitable industries, but they then began looking for even higher profits, super profits. Those companies found they could make more money in other parts of the United States or the rest of the world. There was also a transformation in the way in which business was done, so that companies, in many cases, became smaller companies and found it more convenient to be located elsewhere. The one kind of manufacturing that grew tremendously was the nondurable industry, which involves things like food and apparel. These industries employ people, but at extremely low wages, and the preponderance of those jobs went to immigrant workers for a variety of reasons including the racism of owners. I actually went door to door to businesses in the mid-'80s doing research on the proposed Watts enterprise zone, to find out who was being hired and why, and business owners just flat out said they did not hire blacks. There was a conscious segregation policy in hiring people.

Anderson: Research has shown that if there's a factory in a neighborhood that is a mixed black-Latino neighborhood, and the black kids go for a job, the black kid will not get hired. It was amazing how open the employers were with UCLA researchers about the kind of workers they wanted. They wanted docile workers; they appreciated the fact that the immigrant workers lived in fear, and were therefore more passive. They did not want people who would come in and raise hell about their wages and maybe form a union, and they also wanted people who were part of a network, so a cousin, a brother, a nephew also could be brought in to work at the same level of wages.

Wolff: A related point of concern is that African-Americans did find job opportunities in the public sector. But that too is threatened, given this anti-government perspective.

Weekly: Let's focus on housing segregation. One thing that the report notes is that over the last 30 years, there's been a housing ladder out of the inner city for affluent African-Americans, that they are the people for whom segregation has loosened a little bit. But it also notes that this outward migration of wealthier blacks has destabilized the communities left behind.

Hicks: It's true that well-to-do people are moving pretty much where their money will allow them to go and that a lot of poor folks are locked into staying where they are. They can't afford to go anywhere other than areas that are suffering the most. In the middle class, you've got folks moving everywhere. My family picked up and moved to San Bernardino, so now I've got to drive 65 miles to see my mom. And that's not unique.

Aubry: I can tell you that in terms of my own experience and folks I know, the Latino housing base is much more dispersed. It's out there rather than being confined and contained, and I think that relates to color. I'm not sure if it's all due to color, but color is still a major factor in that regard. It's also a problem that folks who are black, whether they're middle-class or upper-class or whatever, often do not look back to provide the kind of political help or the political will that's really necessary to do something about the problems. There's a lot of talk about the system and systemic stuff, but it seems to me very few of us get to that level of really impacting the systemic aspect of things, because it's so damned hard to do.

 

Anderson: I think Larry is raising the central issue right now for this day and for this topic. Many of the big changes that we've seen came out of a movement that engaged people in such a way that they were forced to confront big issues. The last period when this really happened was during the civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s. But the fact is that the civil rights movement was part of a very old freedom movement that has been the concern of black political leadership in the United States for 200 years. Today, we're in what we could call a very quiet period of that movement. I think that when we look at issues from public education to affordable housing to the conditions of life for people in Los Angeles, there is something missing. We are not asking the sort of moral questions that are raised by these conditions; we aren't starting from the premise that it is outrageous and should be unacceptable to us.

Hernandez: I find this passion fascinating, but I think my reaction to the report and my reaction to this discussion is the same. It's irrelevant to my experience. Kerner did not describe L.A. the way it was 30 years ago, and the new report doesn't describe it today. L.A. is much more complex. Take this whole issue of the left and the right: Neither ever cared about Latinos. I think most of America doesn't understand the Latino community. We don't fit in categories. Segregation is still rampant, and yet there isn't a census track in L.A. County where a Latino doesn't live. So how do you reconcile that? The challenge of L.A. is that we are a very diverse society. It's not a black-white paradigm. Learning about one another, learning to live around one another, learning about our commonalities: To me that's the challenge.

Hicks: I think Antonia is exactly right. See, I think one of the reasons we are in a quiet period, as Susan described it, is that people are still looking at 1968, talking about 1968, and the world has gotten much more complex. The issues are much tougher to deal with. Whenever I'm in a room of movement folks, whatever that means, I don't find people looking to challenge themselves and push beyond old-style thinking. I don't see people looking at the era we're working in and asking how we meet the new challenges, how do we break out of the black-white paradigm that is frankly stifling this racial debate.

Anderson: Whenever I hear the phrase "the black-white paradigm," I want to say: Talk to the Founding Fathers, if that paradigm is disturbing. Talk to the people who set up in the beginning a system based on slave labor. Who wanted the paradigm, for God's sake? It was a kind of holocaust. But I think simply dismissing the black-white paradigm is another way of avoiding some tough discussions.

Hicks: But whenever you drop that phrase it can cause this kind of polarizing discussion. It never was a black-white paradigm from the very beginning.

Anderson: Then why say it?

Hicks: We know that slavery and Jim Crow laws framed much of the discussion of race in this country. It would be ludicrous to pretend that those things aren't at the center of much that takes place around race in this country. But from the very beginning, it was about more people than black people and white people: Asians in the Southwest building railways, Latinos in the Southwest, and on and on. I find some black people hanging on to the black-white paradigm because they feel that bringing others into the discussion somehow diminishes the importance of black people in this context. But the paradigm for discussing race has centered on blacks and whites to the exclusion of the realities of what's going on in the country.

Hernandez: I really believe that African-Americans and Latinos must coalesce, for a whole variety of reasons; I think that our future is interlocked. The fact of the matter is that if you look at South-Central, if you look at the San Fernando Valley, if you look at San Bernardino, poor working Latinos and poor working blacks seem to end up in the same neighborhoods. We share the buses in South-Central L.A. We share the same issues. I firmly believe in coalitions. The difficult part right now - and I speak about Compton, I speak about Inglewood - is that we're having a transition problem. In these places, even though you have a population of 50-50 black and Latino, the powers that be are African-American.

Weekly: So how do you form coalitions between groups fighting for the same crumbs?

 

Hernandez: So the question is, how do you come to a situation of sharing power? I mean the fact that the students are 50-50 doesn't speak to those in power being responsive to the needs of the students learning to live with one another and relate to one another. What are we going to do in a totality to help Inglewood not become a Compton? Compton is a very difficult situation. Latinos there feel sort of like "Hey, black folks aren't treating us any different than white folks, so what are we going to do? Just wait until we take control." I'll tell you, my biggest fear is the tension that's coming up with re-districting, because you're talking about the small amount of power that the African-American community has managed to amass.

Rice: It will be difficult. How do we forge alliances starting from where we are, which is a lot closer to Bosnia than to any kind of working model? There are pockets of hope for interethnic cooperation now. You see it with Anthony Thigpen's Metropolitan Alliance and Karen Bass' Community Coalition and the Bus Riders Union. But in general, the ethos is not there yet. So what do you have to do? You have to have in place very fair policies that are enforced. Genethia Hayes [executive director of the L.A. Southern Christian Leadership Conference] and I called the officials in Compton, and said, "What in the hell are you doing? If you were white in Mississippi, doing what you're doing in Compton to blacks instead of Latinos, we'd be suing you. You've got to cut it out." So you have to have fair policies that are enforced, number one, and number two, you also have to start enlarging the pie. If you're just battling for crumbs, there's no way to create the alliance.

I also want to speak about racial issues, and I'm somebody who's worked on issues of race and gender all of her adult life. The racial issues in this country have always been the diversionary subtext as far as I'm concerned. They're very important and vital. But I'll tell you something, while we're fighting over Proposition 209 and Proposition 187, the top 5 percent of the country is walking off with the wealth. It has always amazed me that we can't keep our eye on the two prizes at the same time.

Aubry: Let me just say this. I'll bet you money that I've been involved in more attempts at building coalitions than anybody in this town. I'm not saying that to make myself look good, because I haven't succeeded. The point is, the coalitions have failed because they were not gatherings of equals. They never worked. Even the civil rights thing was a moment in time. This country doesn't give a shit about people of color. That's my opinion; that's my experience. Now how do you get from there to someplace else? I am suggesting that one thing we have to do is not back off from the reality of race.

Hicks: I think there has to be a nurturing of a new leadership, that begins to talk about this issue of coalitions and alliances. Frankly, Larry, here's where you and I may disagree. I think that there does need to be a new kind of politics and a new paradigm built that goes beyond race. If we continue to be locked in this identity-politics piece, all we do is reproduce what has been a nasty kind of politics based on power and privilege that goes back all the way to white supremacy, which was the original identity politics in this nation. I see it being reproduced in an ugly way on all kinds of levels, including Compton. It's the same a mentality of "We've got the seats, we've got the power, we're going to keep other people locked out." This kind of identity politics is poisoning the ability of people to coalesce and act in their own self-interest across the lines of race and ethnicity.

Anderson: Coalitions are how you do politics, how anybody does politics. There are, on the one hand, some wonderful examples - I think the Bus Riders Union should be a case study of how you bring people together. But looking at the conflict that's out there, it is not obvious to everybody that coalitions are necessary. We're presuming they are. But people need to know more. They want to know why, and what do we get from it? What is the goal of the coalition? The Bus Riders Union had a goal in mind, and that goal was very clear, and it was what people were after.

Rice: I think we also have to keep in mind the danger of losing sight of the big picture. With all these ethnic fights, people focus on the crumbs without ever asking, hey, what's a recipe for a bigger pie? Take education: No one's focusing on the big issues. I have never seen a coherent analysis of what's really wrong. No one is even telling us what questions we need to ask about the public-education system. The one honest conversation I ever had with [former LAUSD superintendent] Sid Thompson was right before he retired. I said, "Sid, people are asking you and your teachers to give an education and frame of reference to kids that you don't have." And he said, "You're right, I can't solve this. I was a chauffeur when I started, and I moved all the way up, and I'm just proud to be here. I don't have the solutions, and that's why I'm leaving." I also said I didn't think he had the ability and the capacity to be able to transcend the power politics and racial politics that prevent any real agenda being put on the table about achievement in kids. And he agreed with that. But those kinds of conversations and realistic takes on what are the real problems seldom happen, and then they're never attached to policy.

 

Anderson: In order to get policy, you have to have politics, you have to do politics.

Rice: But it's the politics that get in the way of the policy.

Anderson: I don't mean institutional politics. Over the last generation we've forgotten what politics is; we've forgotten the grand stage of public life upon which we enact the dramas of what matters to us. The politics within the school district are little politics, institutional politics. In the meantime, people in every sector and in every institution in America are eating each other alive because we don't have any big politics.

Wolff: It's market mentality. The market mentality has wiped out the idea of a commonwealth, a common interest. Everything's always being measured on what profit can you make.

Aubry: Another thing I'm concerned about right now is that children in LAUSD, in Inglewood, in Compton, are interpreting, and being allowed to interpret, failure on the basis of race or ethnicity. The flip side of that is that white kids are allowed to interpret success on the basis of race or ethnicity. We've got to get out of that. But solutions aren't obvious, and they're terribly complex. Some of the kinds of things that we inadvertently supported are things that unfortunately reinforce the status quo.

Wolff: I think there's a tremendous role for organized labor, despite the problems it has had, because labor can cut across racial and ethnic lines. I think the idea of labor-community linkages is crucial. We have to ask, under what circumstance does business change its mind? I mean, with the eight-hour day, child-labor laws, you go through the list of things. They did not come about because business said, yes, it's good public policy. It's because workers said, this far and no further.

Hernandez: For me it's rather grassroots and simplistic. I think that we need to deal with education and jobs, things that people can relate to. I think we need to form coalitions around common interests. The fact is, both blacks and Latinos are getting lousy educations. We share common fears around issues of police and safety. Once people learn how to work together and see their commonalities, then you really have a permanent kind of coalition that transcends issues. People really care most about two things: having a job and getting an education for their kids. We need to focus on these things.

Hicks: Like Antonia, I am convinced that we have to reform education, we have to find ways to make kids competitive, to get away from the fairly racist notions of teachers and school districts that seem to think black and Latino and other poor youngsters simply can't learn, that they need the bar lowered. We need to insist that schools are brought to the level of excellence. I think, at a more fundamental level, though, that what we suffer from today is a lack of vision. Unlike in other eras, we don't have people who are speaking in sweeping terms. We have a leadership that is locked into issues of their particular identity, whether it's gender, sexual orientation or skin color. I think we've got to get back some history, to begin to rethink things like King and his Grand Alliance concept, that talked about white working-class people and folks who come from minority backgrounds and how they could in fact be brought together to see that their destinies are interwoven. I think that would begin to finally provide a vision I think is desperately lacking and take us finally beyond skin-color politics.


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