The tensions are strange ones because you don't see their manifestations. They rarely surface in public meetings. They are not the kind of words that often cross interracial lines. Instead, they smolder, exploding only within each camp.
These are the periodic tensions that exist between many of Los Angeles' minority groups. In some cases they grow out of fractious contact--blacks in South Los Angeles feeling that the burgeoning number of Korean shop owners in their community are treating customers too curtly, for example. In other cases they grow out of perceived bureaucratic imbalances--Latinos arguing that they have not been placed on an equal footing with blacks in the murky world of affirmative action.
Quietly, Antonio Villaraigosa, a 35-year-old labor representative for the Los Angeles Unified School District's teachers union, tries to pick away at these problems. He is co-chairman of the Black-Latino Roundtable, one of several experiments in ethnic tension diffusion created over the past several years by the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission.
Other groups formed under the commission's aegis include the Black-Korean Alliance, the Black-Asian Forum, the Intercultural Media Network and a Hate Crime Network, which draws people from various ethnic communities.
The idea of forming the Black-Latino Roundtable grew out of years of small conflicts that occurred as tens of thousands of Latinos, many of them recent immigrants, began moving into areas of South Los Angeles that had been almost exclusively black. The most obvious changes began to show up in primarily black schools that soon began to include substantial numbers of Latinos.
The roundable began two and a half years ago. Its meetings attract between three and four dozen community leaders from the two groups. Villaraigosa's opposite number on the roundable is Mark Ridley-Thomas, executive director of the Los Angeles branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Sometimes, Villaraigosa said, the value of the round table lies in simply having a forum to discuss issues where black and Latino opinions seem to naturally divide, like the English-only movement. Many blacks see the proliferation of Spanish-language services as symbolic of societal concessions to Latinos that have never been made to blacks.
At other times, Villaraigosa said, the round table has been able to sponsor events tailored to both groups, such as a seminar on education that was held last year.
"This process is an arduous one," said Villaraigosa, who grew up in the primarily Latino City Terrace neighborhood of East Los Angeles but said he has dealt frequently with blacks in his career as a union representative. "As to whether it has impact or whether anything trickles down, only time will tell. . . . There're always stories about conflict. It's not as much a story to talk about getting together.
"This isn't the same city it was 35 years ago when I was born and was growing up in an all-Latino area, going to an all-Latino school in East L.A. and being sheltered until I went to a school like UCLA and began to interact with other kinds of people."
For all the demographic changes that have occurred in Los Angeles, Villaraigosa said the process of dialogue is made more difficult by the way ethnic groups in Los Angeles remain separated from each other.
"I've been all over this country, and Los Angeles is one of the most segregated cities," he said. "You don't get a feel for that until you go to other cities."
What has Villaraigosa learned from his participation in the round table?
"That it takes more than just a willingness to come together. All my life, my mother raised me like that. She had black, Latino, Asian friends, and in the 1950s that was unusual. I remember riding my bike into Alhambra and Temple City as a boy and being told by a cop to turn around and go back east. So I've always believed in that. I've made a purposeful effort to raise my kids that way, to expose them to other people so that the first time they meet a white student it won't be when they go to UCLA.
"And yet it's a difficult process. Some people--black and Latino--think this is a futile effort and that differences overwhelm the communities and that this is more an exercise of do-gooders and that we probably won't be successful."