Race Relations, Hunky-Dory. Economy, Not So Hot

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File

A homeless man pushes a shopping cart full of his belongings across an intersection in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles.

An earlier version of this story appeared at The Los Angeles Times. Subscribe here.

On the 25th anniversary of the Rodney King riots, Los Angeles is glowing with racial amity—and festering with economic disparity. As King himself might have put it, we all are getting along just fine—but by the way, many of us are very poor, even though we work as hard as we can.

That’s the take-away from the remarkable poll released last week from Loyola Marymount University’s Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles. Fully 76 percent of respondents said that racial and ethnic groups in LA are getting along well. In 1997, when the Center first polled Angelenos, only 37 percent said racial and ethnic relations were good.

LA’s progress, however, has been strikingly uneven. As the Times noted in its report on the poll, the city’s unemployment rate may be half that of 1992, but Angelenos’ median income is actually lower than it was when the riots broke out, and the city’s poverty rate—22 percent—is comparable to the level in the years preceding the riots. With the end of the Cold War and the near-collapse of the LA-centered defense-aerospace industry, not the bottom but the middle fell out of the Los Angeles economy.

The rising arc of race relations and the descending arc of broad-based prosperity illustrate the triumph and limitations of what a city can accomplish. In both 1965 and 1992, the riots that engulfed the city were provoked by a racist, brutal police department, and in the case of the ’92 outbreak, by a system of justice—personified by the all-white jury in Simi Valley that acquitted King’s blue-clad attackers—that all but shouted that black lives didn’t matter.

Tom Bradley, the city’s mayor from 1973 through 1993, tried repeatedly to change the culture and structure of the LAPD, but it was only after the televised airing of King’s beating that he was able to persuade city voters to enact changes, and only after the ’92 riots that he was able to prod the city’s power brokers to oust Chief Daryl Gates, who in the tradition of many earlier chiefs viewed the department’s mission as the suppression of minority communities.

Since then, the work of transforming the LAPD into something other than an enforcer of racial oppression has been a constant challenge. But at the insistence of three successive mayors (James Hahn, Antonio Villaraigosa, and Eric Garcetti), backed by a leftward moving electorate and with the help of federal oversight, the city has largely, if provisionally, met that challenge. 

That leftward moving electorate is partly the result of the city’s racial recomposition: The share of Angelenos-of-color has swelled since 1992, while that of whites has shrunk. But the politics and racial fears of LA’s whites have changed as well. In the Center’s 1997 poll, a bare 27 percent of whites said race relations in the City of Angels were good—a figure considerably lower than those of blacks, Asians, or Latinos. Today, 81 percent of whites say the city’s different races are getting along swimmingly—a figure only a couple of points higher than those of blacks, Asians, or Latinos.

The post-riot white backlash that led Angelenos to elect Republican Richard Riordan (who ran on the slogan, “Tough Enough to Turn L.A. Around”) as their mayor in 1993 (or, for that matter, to re-elect the race-baiting Sam Yorty in 1969) isn’t really a feature of the city’s political landscape today—for good reasons (growing tolerance) but also some not so good (economic secession). Indeed, LA’s largely-but-not-entirely-white rich and many within the still-largely-white-but-more-diverse upper middle class have ascended to a socially liberal but economically cordoned-off world of private schools and services.

The rifts that have widened to a chasm in Los Angeles since 1992 are more those of class than of race, though the lines between classes and those between races substantially overlap. As in the rest of the nation, the middle class has dwindled, while the working poor have become legion.

A city can work on its culture, its inter-group relations; it can reform its police, elect a racially representative leadership, and re-enforce the values of tolerance. Los Angeles has done all that. What a city can’t do on its own, even if, like LA, it raises the minimum wage to $15, is create a thriving middle class. That takes the resources and commitment of the federal government, a corporate sector that invests more and rewards shareholders less, and a social movement, yet unborn, that’s powerful enough to reshape the broader economy.

LA isn’t rioting. That doesn’t mean all is well. 

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