September 22, 2006

It’s Not a Zero-Sum Game

Second of a Six-Part Series
By Rene P. Ciria-Cruz
New America Media

Editor’s Note: Despite blacks’ declining political clout, organizers insist reports of rivalry with Latinos are exaggerated. This is the second of a six-part series on the role of longtime black and Latino community leaders in building interethnic tolerance in South Los Angeles, which has been suddenly transformed by the massive influx of Latinos.

WATTS, Los Angeles—In the retelling of the experiences of South L.A. activists like Arturo Ybarra, what becomes clear is that joint efforts to confront shared problems, more than rose-colored visions of interethnic harmony, were the key tools in successfully bridging the divide between the black and Latino communities here over the years.

But the first thing they’ll try to clarify is that things aren’t as bad as they sound.

In Los Angeles these days, intermittent schoolyard brawls and street shootings are unfailingly reported as potential racial incidents. In this South Los Angeles neighborhood, however, daily interaction between African Americans and Latinos seems uneventful.

On Watts’ South Central or Wilmington Avenue, Latina schoolgirls casually walk past groups of chatting black men without any hint of trepidation. In the public library black and brown kids comfortably share tables and line up for computers.

When asked about black-brown tensions a librarian shrugs and says dismissively, “Yes, well, I’ve seen some irritants.”

At the edge of the neighborhood, in Willowbrook, blacks, browns — and whites — have lunch in a seafood restaurant gaily decorated with palms and thatched palapas, like a Mexican beach shack. Only the thick bulletproof glass window that protects the cashier and the kitchen hints of the possibility of danger.

“The divide isn’t as big as it’s made up to be,” insists Andre Herndon, the young executive editor of The Wave Newspaper Group, an African American chain. Herndon covered city hall in Redlands and San Bernardino before working for The Wave in 2000. He took over as executive editor three years ago.

“We get more angry letters upset about our conservative columnist than about immigration,” Herndon laughs.

“Immigration is talked about as a zero-sum game-they come, we lose. But it isn’t a zero-sum game. There have always been scapegoats for economic problems. It was blacks then, it’s immigrants now. Who’s next?”

With a population of roughly 23,000 and a per capita income of only $7,000, Arturo Ybarra’s Watts neighborhood is one of Los Angeles’ poorest quarters. Half of the families and individuals live below the federal poverty level, according to the 2000 Census.

In August 1965 a still predominantly black Watts exploded in a deadly riot fueled by residents’ pent-up anger against police abuse, prejudice and shoddy public services and schools. As a result of the unrest, authorities tried to improve access to health care and social services.

In the following two decades, as Watts was becoming more Hispanic, street violence rose once again, this time from the proliferation of youth gangs and the onset of the 1980s crack infestation. In 1992 the Rodney King riots visited devastation once again on struggling South Los Angeles neighborhoods, including Watts.

The arrival of Latinos is often blamed for the mass departure of African Americans, but Jim Smith, a middle-aged consultant for the Youth and Family Center housed in a modern building on Century Boulevard, says it’s “fear of drug killings (that) has driven many blacks out of Watts for other neighborhoods in South Los Angeles.”

“Improved social mobility also enabled many blacks to migrate to the Inland Empire, like Riverside, or Palmdale in Antelope Valley,” Smith adds. This leaves the poorest blacks living in the shadow of the more numerous new arrivals.

DECLINING CLOUT

African Americans are now sensing a decline in their political clout. While Watts remains a bastion of their political presence in the city, it’s now predominantly Latino — Latinos now make up 62 percent of Watts residents, blacks only 37 percent — which heightens feelings of vulnerability among some black political leaders.

Smith, for example, wants to run for city council. “I’ve worked for four mayors and for this community through riots, fires, gang wars, earthquakes. Got a good record,” he says.

Jim Smith of the Youth and Family Center in Watts has “seen riots, earthquakes, fires, and shootings” but remains hopeful for the neighborhood.

He thinks, however, it may be his last opportunity to run for office: “Hispanics have taken over businesses, schools, the neighborhood. They’re now the economic cornerstone of the community. Without them Watts would be a ghost town. Of course, they’ll want to vote for their own.”

He adds as an afterthought, “I have nothing against that. It’s a fact of life. As long as they serve everybody. Antonio Villaraigosa is doing fine because he’s still the mayor of ALL the city.”

Ironically, Mexicans had been the earlier occupants of Watts. The area that is now South Los Angeles was ranch land in the early 1800s. Later in the century rail travel brought in whites and black train workers.

Watts became largely black in the 1940s during World War II. Several housing projects like Nickerson Gardens, Jordan Downs and Imperial Courts were built for war industry workers. By the 1960s, most whites had moved out to the suburbs.

WRONG EMPHASIS

“There’s too much emphasis in the media on the present conflicts instead of what has been built in the past between us,” Ybarra protests.

He should know. His WCLO was born in 1990 when blacks and Latinos came together to defeat a controversial redevelopment plan. Founders of WCLO became acquainted with black community organizers in the midst of that fight, and they have long memories of what “has been built in the past.”

Ybarra is particularly proud of the longstanding ties he has forged with African American leaders. “The Watts Economic Development Advisory Council is 95 percent black, but they elected me vice president,” he says.

Inside the WCLO offices, a boarded up one-story former liquor store on blighted Wilming-ton Boulevard, some walls are covered with photos of past events — a parent-student school cleanup drive, a gala fundraising dinner, a Cinco de Mayo celebration. All show a mix of black and brown faces, including those of elected officials like Rep. Maxine Waters and county Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke.

There are neatly laid out cubicles for the staff, bulletin boards with job announcements and mentoring schedules as well as flyers for a huge immigrant march. In a dim corner, a lone black youth, Bernard Harris (“I’m a musician”), is hunched in front of a computer.

A bank of 30 or so computers draws a crush of brown and black kids after school hours. They do research on the Internet or prowl MySpace. Harris, who’s surfing hip-hop sites, says he often comes first thing in the morning to avoid the crowd.

“We have tutoring, community cleanups, celebrations, housing assistance, savings and finance education you name it,” explains Ybarra. “We serve everyone, Latinos and blacks. Look at those pictures.”

Yet, just the previous Sunday, a few miles away in Leimert Park in another section of South Los Angeles, a small, angry group of African Americans led by conservative black activist Ted Hayes and white Minutemen vigilantes railed against Latinos for allegedly elbowing blacks out of jobs and other opportunities.

For a small demonstration, it caught a lot of attention from the nation’s news media.

Next: Beyond Just Getting Along

This series was written by NAM editor Rene Ciria-Cruz as a Racial Justice Fellow of the USC Annenberg’s Institute for Justice and Journalism.

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