Back in 1998, I wrote a story for LA Weekly called “Lost Soul” about how historically Black L.A.—i.e., South Central—was being reconfigured by a new wave of Latino immigration from Mexico and Central America. In the zero-sum game of local elections, the political implications seemed clear: Latinos would soon win more seats on the city council and other government bodies, eventually outnumbering Black representatives. But the question I was most interested in was: What did this mean? Would more Latinos lead to an expansion of the campaign for racial justice that Black people had forged here, or a contraction? And how were Black people in South Central feeling about the demographic shift?
The short answer was that they were feeling uneasy. Black people in America have lived with the threat of dislocation for their whole history—the westward migration to L.A. from their roots in the racially oppressive South is but one example. In 1998, L.A. was still living the aftermath of ’92, when Black grievances exploded into rage over the not-guilty verdicts in the criminal trial of four white cops who beat the Black motorist Rodney King. What followed were years of talk and community forums about race relations and how to finally achieve racial justice, and Black people were at the center of it all. Meanwhile, immigration, along with a Black exodus to suburbs and points farther, was remaking a landscape that, on television at least, was still regarded as chiefly African American.
At the time of my LA Weekly story, many Black Angelenos were cautiously optimistic that Latinos would be reliable partners in racial justice. This was in part because Black and brown people were sharing space, as well as certain social markers that eventually led all of us to adopt Black/brown as a kind of useful ethnic monolith when discussing poverty and police brutality. My father, a consultant for L.A. County’s Human Relations Commission, was in the thick of trying to build meaningful partnerships between Black and brown people—really, between Black people and everybody else—that went beyond the bad statistics and moments of crisis. On the flip side of that, Black and brown people aspired equally to some version of the L.A. good life that both groups had long been denied: house, lawn, reasonable proximity to the ocean.
But along with this spirit of cautious optimism was a sense of foreboding. “Blacks grumble that Mexicans are taking over,” Fernando Guerra, the director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University, told me at the time. “Well, in absolute terms, they are,” he added. In 1980, Los Angeles was 17 percent Black and 28 percent Latino. By 1998, the Black population had declined to about 10 percent, while the Latino population had soared to about 44 percent. Guerra pointed out that the civil-rights movement in Los Angeles had stagnated, whereas the Latino political profile had been growing steadily over decades but was now accelerating. The contrast was unflattering, and unsettling. “Black people in many ways are in retreat,” Guerra said. “The political empowerment Latinos are going through now is similar to the black euphoria of the ’60s.”
Nearly 25 years later, the leaked audio of an hour-long private conversation among three Latino city council members and a high-profile Latino labor leader suggests that the euphoria has since settled among some politicos into a mission of concentrating Latino power. The good news is that the reaction to that conversation, in which the four threw around anti-Black and other kinds of insults as they plotted a redistricting plan to favor Latinos, has been swift and furious, and it has come from brown and Black leaders alike. So far, two of the four have resigned from their jobs. The other two are still on the city council but hanging by a thread. In their condemnation, other Latino leaders seem eager to bury the idea that Latinos are fundamentally contemptuous of their Black neighbors. They want to dismiss Nury Martinez, Gil Cedillo, Kevin de León, and Ron Herrera as four bad apples.
But for many Black people, all the hand-wringing seems disingenuous. They’ve watched Latino ascendance happen not only at city hall, but in neighborhoods, schools, and job sites where Black/brown solidarity should have been building all along. By solidarity I don’t mean just getting along or being friendly—in South Central that’s more or less happened. The great demographic transformation has been relatively conflict-free. By solidarity I mean intentional efforts to expand job opportunities for all, improve schools, demand retail amenities—to really treat the shared space as common ground instead of succumbing to the overarching zero-sum mindset.
What we’ve had mostly is people living together but not often acting together, for various reasons that include language differences and a sense on both sides that immigrants have their own communities, culture, and networks that bolster Latinos but also separate them from their Black neighbors. It is Black people who seem to feel the separation more keenly. As their numbers have declined, the Latino expansion has been a constant reminder of what they’re losing, where their own leadership has gone wrong, and how far racial justice has to go. What I saw in ’98 and still see among Black people is not so much hostility toward Latinos as anxiety and frustration about their own vulnerability.
The frustration has no outlet. The moral outrage of the past couple of weeks has been refreshing, the universal admonishing of these Latino politicians for their casual anti-Blackness heartening. But the outrage might be fleeting. The truth is that, until recently, nobody has really seen Black loss—political, but also educational, economic, spiritual—as a crisis that needs to be addressed, even though Black people have been raising their voices about it for decades.
About 10 years ago, I was at a public meeting sponsored by Community Coalition, a well-known nonprofit in South Central that seeks to bring Black and Latino residents together around quality-of-life issues, such as improving food offerings at local markets and reducing the number of liquor stores. This particular meeting was about schools and what issues people could take on together. When the Black organizer running the meeting asked for suggestions, an older Black man stood up and said that the biggest problem he’d been having was finding office staff at his granddaughter’s school that spoke English. He tried to stick to this one complaint, but it quickly became bigger, existential. “I’ve lived here a long time,” the man said, his voice rising. “I’m a veteran. I pay taxes. And now …” He trailed off, but didn’t sit down. The Black organizer looked sympathetic, but also completely unprepared; he nodded his head but had nothing to say. Neither did anyone else in the room. Not because they—both Black and brown—didn’t understand the man’s sense of displacement, but because they didn’t seem to have the language to discuss it.
Manuel Pastor, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California, has followed the Black/brown relationship with frank interest. His book South Central Dreams is a collection of illuminating interviews, mostly with Latinos, about how they have fashioned the once-alien landscape of South Central into home, a process the book calls “homemaking.” The book is unselfconsciously complicated: It simultaneously celebrates Latino growth and adaptivity, and explores the racist views some Latinos held and still hold about African Americans. (Pastor and his co-author, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, write that “Latino immigrants entered this urban context not as blank slates, but after being raised in Latin American nations embedded with strong ideologies of European supremacy, colorism, and anti-Black and anti-indigenous racism.”) South Central Dreams speaks to Latino dynamism, the history of Black homemaking after arriving here during the “immigration” wave from the South to more racially tolerant California, and to the painful reality of Black population and cultural diminishment.
The question I’ve asked Pastor is whether Latino expansion in South Central is partly defined by Black loss, and whether that loss can be mitigated somehow. If so, by whom? Pastor answers by pointing out one of the more hopeful findings of the book: Younger Latinos who grew up in South Central in the ’80s and ’90s are much more aligned with Black people than older generations who grew up in almost exclusively Latino enclaves such as East L.A. are; they are more conversant in civil-rights history and Black culture—most notably hip-hop—and overall they take a singular pride in South Central not only as their home, but as a point of origin for both groups. They reject the status quo of zero-sum as not just wrong, but irrelevant.
This is indeed encouraging. Yet it was not the consciousness that prevailed in the back room two weeks ago when the now-infamous four were discussing redistricting and blithely speaking about “the Blacks” as a side note to their power, something to be contained and controlled, if not actually obliterated. I am not naive. I know that the session, with its focus on numbers, was about electoral strategy; it was certainly not about continuing the campaign for racial justice that both Black people and Latinos should support simply as a practical matter, part of the common ground rooted in common space. But it should have been.
Racial justice should be who Latinos are, who we all are. If L.A.’s elected officials fail to grasp that, we as a city of the future risk losing our soul for good.