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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

the country.

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

Books, 1967).

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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