If you’re old enough and have been in L.A. long enough, you can remember a time when the city’s black community was at the center of local progressive politics. From the late ’50s, when the stirrings of the civil rights movement began to reanimate American liberalism, through the early or mid ’80s, African-American L.A. was the linchpin of a liberal coalition — also (though not invariably) including Jews, labor and Latinos — that dominated city politics.
By the late ’50s, liberals in all four of those communities had begun to come together in the state’s Democratic club movement. It was then that a young Jewish political strategist (Maury Weiner) met a young black police officer (Tom Bradley) while working on the unsuccessful supervisorial campaign of the city’s only Latino councilman (Ed Roybal), who was already a hero to L.A.-area progressives. A few years later, Weiner helped mastermind Bradley’s breakthrough election to the City Council and, 10 years thereafter, as mayor.
Most black politicos who started their careers in the ’60s and ’70s — not just Bradley but Yvonne Burke, Julian Dixon, Maxine Waters and Dianne Watson — came to power with significant backing from liberals all across town. In turn, they played leading roles in advancing the causes not just of civil rights but also of police reform, workers’ rights and economic opportunity. They fought for a broad liberal agenda, and the broad liberal community fought for them.
Then Los Angeles expanded, and the black elected elite chose to shrivel. A tsunami of immigrants, chiefly from Mexico and Central America, started to sweep over L.A. in the mid ’80s. The effects this had on black L.A. were not uniformly positive. In a few short months, for instance, the city’s largely black and unionized janitors were laid off, as building managers replaced them with immigrant, non-union Latinos whom the managers paid less than half what they’d paid their predecessors. By the year 2000, and through Herculean struggle, those immigrants rebuilt the janitors’ union, won themselves decent pay and benefits, and became a potent political force in city politics. But that was a struggle from which black officialdom was largely absent — even though by then, almost all of them represented districts where Latinos made up a plurality of the residents.
In representing their new constituents, some black leaders are AWOL altogether. Maxine Waters, for instance, was a champion of the citywide movement to stop the closing of auto plants and other major factories in the ’70s and ’80s, but in the struggles of the past 15 years against the city’s nouvelle sweatshop economy, she’s been missing. For decades, no one was a more trenchant critic of LAPD abuses than Waters, but during Rampart — in which officers, some of them black, ran amok in immigrant precincts, while black officials were running the department — she said almost nothing. Waters still has friends and allies among the civil libertarians and Westside liberals she’s known since the struggles of the ’60s. What’s not clear is whether she has any contact with any L.A.-area liberals outside the black community and under the age of 50, since she has long since absented herself from their struggles.
In some ways, Waters is emblematic of the more retro trends in the larger black community. Close analysis shows that black L.A. narrowly supported Pete Wilson’s immigrant-bashing Proposition 187 back in 1994, and, of course, the black community overwhelmingly supported Jim Hahn in the 2001 mayor’s race over the choice of the rest of liberal L.A., Antonio Villaraigosa (whom Waters casually vilified). In both instances, the city’s black vote was aligned with that of the city’s only conservative quadrant, the white, west San Fernando Valley, in an election-day anti-Latino alliance.
If the second half of Waters’ career stands in screaming contradiction to the first half, the careers of most local black officials first elected since the ’90s tend to be more uniformly conservative. On the City Council, the outgoing Nate Holden has been a tendency unto himself, but newer members Jan Perry and Bernie Parks see themselves as representing business interests first and foremost. Perry, whose district is teeming with immigrants, is a mouthpiece for the Central City Association in its war against immigrant labor and the living wage. Parks comes to office imbued with the economic viewpoints of Richard Riordan’s and Magic Johnson’s business advisers. Today, it’s L.A.’s Latino electeds — Villaraigosa, Gil Cedillo, Hilda Solis, Fabien Nunez, Cincy Montanez and others — who draw support from liberals across town, and who advance the economic justice as well as environmental and other causes central to the crosstown progressive agenda.
Tuesday’s City Council election in the 10th District to succeed the term-limited Holden offers the black community its first real chance to rejoin the larger liberal city. The two candidates, Holden aide Deron Williams and former Villaraigosa aide and L.A. County Federation of Labor official Martin Ludlow, are both African-Americans, but Williams would be a member in the mold of a Perry or a Parks, while Ludlow has roots not just in the black community, but in labor and Latino L.A., and the general liberal community. In backing Ludlow, African-American voters in the 10th can not only help promote the growth-with-equity agenda that black L.A., like the rest of L.A., so desperately needs. They can also reclaim the most glorious part of their heritage.