SANTA BARBARA — The time to re-invent the politics of black Los Angeles has come. The death of Councilman Gilbert W. Lindsay and the retirement of Councilman Robert Farrell give voters in their districts an opportunity to elect successors who can teach the nation a political lesson about coalition-building at the local level.
Recognizing that all politics is local first means understanding what distinguishes Los Angeles and Southern California. Most important, but seldom acknowledged, is the fact that this region was once part of Mexico. Although there has been a concerted effort to bury this cultural heritage, the question of Latinos lingers.
Accordingly, those who aspire to replace Lindsay and Farrell--to a much greater extent than their counterparts in Philadelphia, Atlanta, St. Louis and a good slice of this nation--have to be sensitive to the interests of more than one ethnic minority that faces discrimination. That is a formidable task.
Wars and escalating debt in Central America have transformed the demography of Southern California, generally, and Farrell's and Lindsay's districts--the 8th and 9th, respectively--particularly. The city's Latino population, now close to 40%, continues to grow; the number of African-Americans remains flat, at 18%. In part, this is because many African-Americans are returning to their families' original homes in Texas, Louisiana and the Deep South. But the number of black immigrants from Belize, Jamaica, Guyana and Africa, for example, is climbing, though not at the same rapid rate as that for Latinos. (These immigrants illustrate the narrowness of the term "African-American," which tends to exclude those of African descent who may not be "American.")
Black politicians in Los Angeles face special challenges because of the peculiar demographics of the region. This reality is laced with irony.
--Though blacks constituted less than 15% of Los Angeles' population, Tom Bradley was elected mayor, in 1973, more than a decade and a half before David N. Dinkins was nominated and elected in New York City.
--Though blacks made up only 8% of the state's population, Mervyn M. Dymally was elected lieutenant governor in California 10 years before L. Douglas Wilder, now governor, was elected to the equivalent post in Virginia.
--Maxine Waters, while serving in the state Assembly, was appointed chair of the Democratic Caucus four years before William H. Gray III was elected chairman of the Democratic Caucus of the U.S. Congress.
--Willie Brown is entering his second decade as Speaker of the Assembly; in New York, Arthur O. Eve--the exceptionally competent African-American assemblyman from Buffalo--has been repeatedly foiled in his bids to reach the top legislative post.
This relative "success" of black politicians--Bradley's losing races for governor notwithstanding--has led some analysts to conclude that power brokers can get away with their unwillingness to come to terms with the burgeoning Latino population, now at least one-third of the state's, by granting limited concessions to the smaller African-American constituency or black politicians. Others suggest another escape route: Because blacks probably constitute the third largest ethnic minority in California, the state is better able to adjust to the new political imperative of "diversity"; by contrast, in such states as New York, where the black minority is largest, anti-black racism converts the issue of "diversity" into a "Negro Question," thereby weakening the imperative.
This is not intended to downplay the acknowledged anti-black racism that plagues Los Angeles. It is only to suggest that the political heirs of Lindsay and Farrell must have more than an ordinary ability to form coalitions.
The 8th District, for example, is 66% black, while Latinos comprise nearly 18%, according to '88 figures. Lindsay's 9th is 58% black, 25% Latino, per these estimates. The newly elected leaders of these constituencies must therefore be more like Ronald V. Dellums, the Democratic congressman from Berkeley, than Gus Savage, his Democratic colleague from Chicago. Simply put, they must have an multiethnic appeal to become effective leaders.
It also suggests something else. Just as the English-speaking Brian Mulroney and other high-level English politicians in Canada--where the fate of the nation rests on accommodating the Quebecois--are obligated to have some knowledge of French, so should the post-Lindsay-Farrell generation of black leaders acquire at least a reading knowledge or rudimentary speaking ability of Spanish. (Hopefully, the City Council, the mayor, the Board of Supervisors on up to the governor--and all officeholders in between--would follow their example.)
This requirement makes for an obvious difficulty among the most likely candidates--Mark Ridley-Thomas, Billy Mills Jr. and Kerman Maddox. The black community in Los Angeles, long burdened by economic recession and its accompanying ills, at times is quick to misinterpret overtures to Latinos as giving up hard-won victories. There is, sadly, not much reason to expect such ethnic defensiveness to ebb.
But, to his credit, Jesse Jackson, in his 1988 bid for the Democratic nomination for President, demonstrated that it is possible to build a multiethnic coalition without sacrificing the interests of black voters. Indeed, the common interests of voters in Lindsay's and Farrell's districts--affordable housing, accessible and safe mass transit, good schools--are the crucible for the shaping of a new political force. The next generation of black leaders can afford to do no less if they expect to survive politically.