April 20, 2001


Latino Victory in L.A. Race is Only Semi-Multi-Ethnic

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson

LOS ANGELES — For six months, mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa has barnstormed through this city promising to forge a multi-ethnic coalition that would be a model for racial peace and progress.

Villaraigosa was the man to make this pitch. A former civil rights and labor activist who calls himself a progressive Democrat, he could make history by being the first Latino mayor of America's second biggest city this century.

Villaraigosa's support from Latinos, Asians, and Jews was strong enough to propel him to a surprising first place finish in the April 10 primary — beating the favorite, L.A. City Attorney, James Hahn, a white centrist Democrat. The race will be decided in a June 5 run-off election.

While his success seemed to prove his multi-ethnic pitch worked, it crashed on deaf ears with black voters. Villaraigosa got less than one in five of the votes cast by blacks, who voted overwhelmingly for Hahn, helping propel him into the June run-off.

Political observers assumed that Hahn got the black vote because of fond memories of his father, Kenny Hahn, an L.A. county supervisor for nearly four decades and staunch civil rights fighter.

This explanation is far too simple. Black and Latino leaders have long papered over tensions and conflicts between the two groups by putting on the public face of marching in lock-step to battle the twin afflictions of discrimination and poverty.

But the surge in Latino numbers and voting power may drastically change this notion, particularly in Los Angeles, where nearly half the city's three million residents are Latino.

Many Latinos have prospered in the professions and business, and have deepened their influence within the Democratic and Republican parties. Latino political leaders and activists relentlessly demand that political and social issues no longer be framed solely in black and white.

But poverty rates remain staggeringly high among Latinos, and they are still heavily concentrated in poor, inner-city neighborhoods, with underserved, failing public schools.

Inter-ethnic tremors have ignited brawls between black and Latino students at some area high schools and deadly clashes between black and Latino prisoners. The biggest and potentially most troublesome areas of conflict jobs, politics, and education.

Jobs: An early warning sign of how blacks feel about the swelling numbers of Latinos was the 1994 battle over Proposition 187 which denied public services to undocumented immigrants.

White voters voted for the measure by big margins. But a majority of blacks also backed the measure, mortally afraid that Latinos would bump blacks from low-skilled jobs, putting black poor even further out on the margins, making things worse in their neighborhoods.

Latino leaders correctly point out that racial discrimination, lack of job skills, training, and education are the major cause of high black unemployment. Yet a severe economic downturn could heighten competition and tensions between blacks and Latinos for shrinking numbers of low-end jobs.

Politics: Latinos make up about five percent of the vote nationally and their numbers are growing. But in California, the rise in Latino political power has been spectacular. More than two million Latinos voters in the state, and that number will soar to three million by 2002 Congressional elections. In Los Angeles, Latinos leaped from eight percent of the voters in 1993 to 21 percent today.

Some black politicians and leaders openly worry that this could dilute their political power. Especially in California, where the state legislature had ten black state representatives in 1996, and now has only six while Latinos now hold one in three of the seats in the Legislature, the Lieutenant Governor post, and eight of California's 52 Congressional seats.

Education: Latino and black students are in the majority in the nation's big city schools — schools that are often saddled with poor teachers, insensitive administrators, overcrowded classrooms, and shortages of materials.

Some blacks and Latinos blame each other for these conditions, and for poor student performance. Their blame is misplaced. Inner-city schools stagnate because of the overfunding of white middle-class- suburban schools, the underfunding of poor, urban school districts, the lack of uniform testing standards, and the refusal of many districts to hold teachers and administrators accountable for student performance.

Villaraigosa promises that multi-ethnic politics is the best way to fight urban and racial ills. He's probably right. But it will take more than a promise to convince many blacks of that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the president of the National Alliance for Positive Action. His e-mail address is ehutchi344@aol.com.

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