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Cultural Diversity in Local Politics
This paper explores the limits and potentials of ethnic and racial coalition
building in Los Angeles. The demographic changes that have occurred in Los
Angeles during the past twenty years have been extraordinary, both in scope and
The area has witnessed a literal boom in population growth, increasing from 7
million in 1970 to 8.8 million in 1990. (US Bureau of the Census) However, it is
the dramatic change in ethnic and racial diversity of the population which has
caught most observers attention.
Los Angeles has taken on a new form in terms of its racial diversity, moving
from a biracial to a multiethnic setting. The non-Hispanic White population has
declined from its 71 percent share in 1970 to a narrow numerical plurality of 41
percent of the county’s population in 1990.
Meanwhile, the Latino and Asian Pacific population witnessed a doubling — from
15% to 39% — and near quadrupling ? from 3% to 11% of their population shares
respectively. Meanwhile, African Americans, while slightly growing numerically,
were a constant share of the county population (11%) during this period. (Oliver
and Johnson:57-94) Thus, on the eve of the twenty-first century, Los Angeles
has one of the most ethnically diverse populations of any metropolitan area in
What does this ethnic diversity mean for multiethnic coalition building in the
politics of Los Angeles County? Does the changing demography increase the
opportunity for ethnic cooperation? Or, has the ethnic changes increased rather
than decreased the prospects of interethnic conflict?
After the 1992 riots, a clarion call was issued from all corners for the
emerging multiethnic majority to take its rightful place in the politics and
leadership of the city. A multiethnic coalition, it ws suggested, could lead the
city to a new multicultural future.
This call was clearly built on the assumption that three divers groups ? African
Americans, Asian Pacific Islanders and Latinos ? could come together and pursue
a coalition built on their common interests.
But what do we do know about the prospects of multiethnic coalitions? There is
voluminous literature on urban politics. However, this literature has been
shaped principally by the question of racial politics. (Browning, Marshall and
Tabb) That is, how have traditional urban politics, read White politics, been
affected or impacted by the role of Blacks on the urban scene.
Probably the most influential work on Black/White urban political coalitions was
Carmichael and Hamilton’s Black Power. (Carmichael and Hamilton) In this work,
as in most of the literature, the foundation of coalitions were based on common
They argued that all political relations are based on common self interest ?
benefits to be gained and losses to be avoided. From this perspective,
Carmichael and Hamilton argued, there were no permanent friends or enemies for
Blacks in their struggle for freedom and power ? only temporary alliances when
self interests coincide.
Thus, they rejected the notion that White liberals, whose ideological
orientation was favorable to Black aspirations, should be viewed as reliable and
enduring allies. Rather, they were perceived as one among many which could be
either potential allies or potential adversaries on the road to power.
Carmichael and Hamilton’s emphasis on interests and ideology alone, when
extended to the multiethnic scene of Los Angeles, portends a rather bleak future
for multiethnic coalitions.
Alliances forging common interests are not readily evident or clear among the
diversity of racial and ethnic groups in Los Angeles. Moreover, class and ethnic
divisions between and within ethnic and racial groups have structured competing
and cross-cutting interests that, on the face, appear to be overwhelming.
Ethnic groups, for example, have diverse interests based on such factors as
citizenship, ethnicity and class. Latinos are divided by the diverse interest of
an immigrant noncitizen population and citizen native population. This became
evident in the aftermath of the riots when the mostly Mexican Americans,
citizen-based East Los Angeles leadership attempted to disassociate themselves
from the more Central-American and recent Mexican immigrant-based residents of
South Central Los Angeles. (Ramos and Wilkinson)
This division expressed a long standing concern that the Latinoization of Los
Angeles politics was in fact being ushered in under Mexican hegemony. Likewise,
diverse interests are apparent on the basis of national origin.
Among Asian Pacific Islanders, long standing historical divisions between
Koreans, Japanese, and Chines cause, in some critical cases, group enmity as
opposed to unity. And even African Americans have strong class cleavages that,
despite the concerted attempts of some middle class Blacks to reach out to the
needs and the concerns of their less advantaged brethren, show increasing signs
of developing into two separate communities.
Thus, in the context of Los Angeles, it is increasingly difficult to conceive of
common interests among groups who do not themselves have monolithic interests.
Making common interest the basis of coalitions is exacerbated by the more
enduring and seemingly intractable issues that derive from the structural
concerns cited earlier. Given the economic changes that have pitted some groups
against others for scarce social and economic resources, conflicting interests
have begun to emerge around at least four central areas: Jobs, education, crime,
and the role of government.
Since the rebellion, the issue of jobs has become a centripetal force in
intergroup relations in Los Angeles. While most studies indicate that there is
relatively little or no displacement of Blacks by immigrants in the labor market,
public opinion polls consistently show that Blacks are more likely than any
other racial group to believe that immigrants take jobs away from native-born
Americans. (Oliver and Johnson:449) The most general expression of this belief
in Los Angeles was the action of Danny Bakewell and the Brotherhood Crusade
which picketed rebuilding sites after the riots in an attempt to ensure that
Black labor was involved in the rebuilding of South Central Los Angeles.
(Boyarsky:b2) Many Blacks look at Latinos going to work everyday and ask why
they themselves do not do not have jobs? While at the same time, many Latinos
look at Blacks who are not working and perceive Blacks as lazy and irresponsible.
Thus, two groups ravaged by poverty are divided by their diverse experience in
the labor market.
Education, like jobs, appears on its face to be an area of common interest for
the emerging multiethnic majority. The lack of education, or poor education, is
directly related to economic disadvantage. It would thus appear that issues such
as the reform of public education would be in the interest of all of these
groups. But, like the issue of jobs, separate interests permeate the educational
arena, reflecting both cultural and structural issues. Nascent cultural
conflicts exist over the issue of bilingualism in the schools. Whites, Blacks,
and other native-born English speakers express a certain degree of concern over
the importance of bilingual education for non-English speakers ? the recent
thrust of the English-only amendments is but one example.(Horton:578)
Blacks are concerned on a number of fronts. Given that Blacks and Latinos share
school facilities more often than Whites and Latinos, Black parents express a
certain hostility to bilingualism, fearing that it will hamper their children’s
already fragile commitment to education.
A Black father in a focus group immediately following the riots noted that he
moved his child out of the Lynwood District following a parent-teacher
conference in which ” ? the teacher comes and tells me that he’s (his son)
sleeping in class.” The father finds out from his son that he is sleeping
because “They’re all speaking Spanish.”(LASUI:1992)
Likewise, this issue has a structural side to it as well. Blacks are concerned
that bilingualism will become another screening device to deny Blacks access to
both teaching positions and administrative positions in public bureaucracies.
Proponents of bilingualism, on the other hand, rightfully point out the
increasing necessity of a bilingual curricula as the proportion ofd nonnative
English-speaking students mushrooms. Thus, education becomes another forum where
access to jobs, prestige, and income become the basis for differing multiethnic
Another area of apparent common interest is in the fight against street crime.
Crime, especially street crime, affects communities of color much more seriously
than Anglo areas. However, immigrant and native minorities have far different
interests and opinions regarding how crime should be addressed. For Blacks and
native Latinos, the “get tough, more police, longer jail sentences” strategy is
viewed with a certain amount of suspicion. While these policies are generally
perceived as valid, there is a concern that these policies will
disproportionately adversely affect the youth in their communities. Police
brutality will increase, youth will end up with criminal records that affect
their ability to get a job, and long sentences will lead to the development of a
hardened criminal subculture. On the other side, recent immigrants who are
already involved in entrepreneurial activities find the “get tough on crime”
agenda the seemingly panacea for a life of constant threat on the streets. Mired
in some of the most dangerous and vulnerable areas of the city, this group sees
street crime as their biggest enemy in the fight for economic and physical
survival. Their concern is immediate and a heavy handed police and judiciary is
seen as the most efficient means to address the issue.
Role of Government
Finally, on the ideological level, there are some systematic differences between
native and immigrant minorities. Native minorities see the role of government in
much more positive ways. After decades of fighting for basic civil right, the
state is seen as an important protector of those rights. Legislation designed to
bar discrimination in employment, public settings, education and housing are
viewed as necessary and important implements to secure these rights. The role of
government is to intervene, to make the playing field fair, and, to insure that
minorities are protected from the abuses of the majority. Immigrant minorities,
particularly those who have a strong entrepreneurial impulse, are much less
sanguine about the role of government. They are more likely to resemble
“Republicans” in their laissez faire view of the role of government. This is
particularly the case in the area of any state intervention in the economy ? an
area in which native minorities have been calling for greater involvement, not
Taken together, the preceding issues portend that it will be highly unlikely for
the multicultural coalition to emerge. They essentially show that a narrow
approach to coalitions based on common interests and ideologies almost dooms the
development of multiethnic coalitions from the start.
The Crisis of Progressive Politics: The 1993 Los Angeles Mayoral Election
The second largest city in the US., Los Angeles is home to a durable and
powerful biracial coalition ? the twenty year alliance that sustained Tom
Bradley’s mayoralty. Principally built by African Americans and liberal Jews,
the Bradley coalition grew to encompass business and labor, Latinos and Asian
But Los Angles itself has changed dramatically in recent years. In the wake of
devastating civil violence in 1992, the Bradley coalition, already deteriorating
? fell from power with the election of a conservative Republican as mayor in
1993. The Black and White populations in the city were challenged by a huge rise
in other groups, particularly Latino and Asian Americans. Thus, Los Angeles has
moved from the model of biracial politics to the more problematic center of
multiethnic political theorizing, severe social conflict, and the rollback of
minority gains. The more vexing issue is the uncertainty about direction and
vision. On what basis should coalitions be built ? color, class, race, or some
other common factor? Two prominent paths for progressive politics are rainbow
and biracial coalitions.
In the “rainbow” theory, coalitions can best be formed among people of color,
with the participation of a small number of progressive Whites. The alliance
will be held together by a common alienation from a White-dominated society,
along with a progressive ideology and common economic interests. It’s roots lie
in the theory of coalition espoused in Carmichael and Hamilton’s Black Power,
calling on African Americans to build coalitions not on liberal ideology but on
self interest and a more radical critique of the system.(Carmichael and
Hamilton) It’s popularity grew with the naming and promotion of the coalition by
Jesse Jackson in his presidential campaigns.
The rainbow model contrasts with the biracial or interracial coalition, in which
minority unity is supplemented by extensive links to liberal and moderate Whites,
The most prominent White participants in such coalitions are Jews. Shared
liberal ideology allows members of these coalitions to temporarily build bridges
across racial lines. Such coalitions have provided the basis for the rise of
minority political power in a wide variety of settings and for the Bradley
coalition in Los Angeles.(Browning, Marshall and Tabb)
Despite the Riordan election being a sort of ideological anomaly, it was
nonetheless very important. It marked a powerful shift at city hall from a
Westside-minority coalition to a Valley-centered regime with limited minority
power. A feature of the Bradley years had been the dominance of city commissions
by liberals from Westside and minority areas.(Sonenshein:Ch9) Riordan was in a
position to change the direction of the government, and more important, to
establish the leadership credibility of the conservative side. If he were to
succeed, he would place progressives in a weakened position for some time to
come. And in time this might lead to a more conservative electorate.
In the short run, however, there was not a fundamental shift to the right among
the cities voters. Underlying the Riordan victory were two other important
factors: interest conflicts among the city’s groups and the quality of the
leadership in various communities. Research on interracial coalitions suggests
that ideology, interest and leadership are the determining factors in the
formation and survival of such alliances.(Sonenshein)
By 1993, the public’s perception of life in Los Angeles had reached critical
lows, moved steadily along by the fear of crime and disorder, and then
exponentially by the riots in 1992. LA was a very unhappy city, not just in the
inner city areas, and certainly in the suburban San Fernando Valley. White
disaffection with the status quo was less visible, but given the White dominance
of the voter rolls, it carried a great electoral punch.
Interminority conflict had been growing as well for a number of years; and the
city became even more crowded, grittier and crime-ridden as groups contended
over spaces that had previously been separate. Approximately 400,000 more people
lived in Los Angeles than a decade before. The engine driving the population
increase was immigration by Latinos and Asians. Suddenly the immigration issue
was becoming explosive.
All this took place in the midst of a blistering recession that hit LA and all
of California extremely hard. A major proportion of all jobs lost nationally
were lost in California, particularly in Southern California.
South Central Los Angeles, once a Black bastion, is now a contested area among
Blacks, Latinos and Korean American storekeepers.(Oliver and Johnson:449)
Koreatown is now divided between Korean Americans and Latinos. The near San
Fernando Valley, once all White, is now heavily Latino. The notion that Los
Angeles was living a charmed urban life, immune from the difficulties of other
big cities was destroyed in the violence of April 1992. Korean American stores
were attacked in both South Central LA and in Koreatown.
The 1993 mayoral election coincided with the sudden disappearance of a whole
generation of leaders. Within a very short span, Mayor Tom Bradley, Police Chief
Daryl Gates, District Attorney Ira Reiner, and county supervisor Kenneth Hahn
left office. Those who remained in office were either too raw and new, or too
tied to their own communities to build coalitions. Others made their deals with
Richard Riordan. Few who would lead at the grass roots had the clout or the
interest in building citywide coalitions. Never in the thirty-year span of
biracial politics had there been so few well-known people trying to do this work.
The most widely known progressive leaders in the city was probably the new
police chief from Philadelphia, Willie Williams.
Beyond the fall of these leaders was the loss of confidence created by the
devastating violence of 1992. The Watts uprising of 1965 brought confidence to
progressives. They were out of power, and could view the violence as a failure
of the conservatives sin power.(Sonenshein) No such view could be credible in
1992, after nearly twenty years of biracial liberal rule. The fiasco of turning
over the reconstruction of South Central to businessman Peter Ueberroth bespoke
a sense of weakened legitimacy at city hall. And would that not be indirectly an
argument for the election of a businessman like Riordan a year later?
Conclusion The 1993 election of Richard Riordan was a [powerful defeat for
progressive politics in LA. Already fading as the new decade came in, the ruling
biracial coalition lost its way completely after the civil unrest of 1992. With
its leaders aging or leaving office, with an electorate disenchanted with
government policies and with the state of their city, circumstances favored the
conservative outsider with unlimited funds and a simple message.
But the meaning of the election was much more complex than a simple shift to the
right. The ideological basis of coalition politics remained intact, and in that
sense the Riordan campaign represented an accommodation to the overall
liberal/moderate nature of the city’s voters. Even an ineffective liberal
candidate got 46 percent of the vote. The ideological potential also counted for
less than in the past, now that the city was filled with interest conflicts and
uncertain leadership. After Yorty’s defeat in 1969 to Tom Bradley, liberalism
was weaker as an electoral base than it is today, but leadership and interest
were far stronger in the direction of successful coalition and victory.
The persisting debate between rainbow and biracial coalition politics finally
led to the defeat of both. The rainbow model, by contrast to the interracial
approach, is too narrow to be successful. If progressives concede the bulk of
the White vote to the conservatives, and confine their minority appeals to the
rainbow ideology, then they will be facing defeat for a long time to come.
Latinos and Asian Americans must be approached on their own terms, not simply as
shades of the rainbow. Their interests are unique, and their concerns must be
taken seriously. Jews should not be arbitrarily excluded from progressive
coalitions, they still represent the single greatest link between minority
communities and Whites. It is crucial to build cross-town coalitions, not simply
to try and build an inner-city alliance against everybody else.
To hold power, progressives need to realize that the other side is more
formidable than in the past. Conservatives have gone beyond trashy demagoguery ?
or at least they do not need to prime the pump anymore ? and are arguing that
they can govern. This approach makes them a devastating threat to take control
of the center. And the center matters again in urban politics; if progressives
want justice and conservatives want peace, the balance of power increasingly
rests with those who want both peace and justice.
In the broadest sense, the 1993 LA elections shows the importance of the debate
between biracial and a rainbow model of minority politics. In the long run, the
cost of unexamined assumptions on this question may be profound. ? the rollback
of hard-won minority political gain. To apply the lessons of biracial coalition
politics to a new generation of progressives in LA is the most important task in
the years to come.
Boyarsky, Bill. “Competing for Jobs in the New LA,” Los Angeles Times, June 19,
1992., sec. B, p.2.
Browning, Rufus, P., Dale Rogers Marshall and David Tabb, Protest is Not Enough:
The Struggle of Blacks and Hispanics for Equality in City Politics (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1984).
Carmichael, Stokely, and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power (New York: Vintage
Horton, John. “The Politics of Ethnic Change: Grass Roots Responses to Economic
and Demographic Restructuring in Monterey Park, California,” Urban Geography
10:6 (1989): 578-592.
LASUI (Los Angeles Survey of Inequality) Focus Group Interviews, 1992.
Oliver, Melvin L., and James H. Johnson, Jr., “Interethnic Conflict in an Urban
Ghetto: The Case of Blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles,” Research in Social
Movements, Conflict, and Change 6 (1984): 57-94; US Bureau of the Census.. op.
Oliver and Johnson, see above; Also by Oliver and Johnson, “Interethnic
Minority Conflict in Urban America: The Effects of Economic and Social
Dislocations,” Urban Geography 10 (1989): 449-463.
Ramos, George and Tracy Wilkinson, “Unrest Widens Rifts in Latino Population,”
Los Angeles Times, May 8, 1992.
Sonenshein, Rafael J., Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los
Angeles (Princeton: NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993).
US Bureau of the Census, Census of Population and Housing. (Washington, DC: US
Bureau of the Census, 1970).
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