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Fighting With Blacks for Jobs Is Self-Defeating : Race: Rather than ply the politics of racial entitlement, Latino leaders must look into their own back yard for economic empowerment.

August 02, 1992|Victor Valle and Rudy D. Torres | Victor Valle teaches journalism at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Rudy D. Torres teaches in the Graduate Center for Public Policy and Administration and the Department of Chicano Studies at Cal State, Long Beach

At an off-the-record dinner in April with Latino journalists, Supervisor Gloria Molina was asked to comment on a reporter's contention that local African-American political leaders were continuing to deny Latinos their fair share of the city's political and economic pie. Molina replied she understood the reporter's frustration. Sooner or later, she went on, Latino leaders like herself would have to persuade their African-American counterparts to face up to the political consequences of demographic reality: Latinos are ready to accept the rewards of being the county's new majority.

Molina correctly sensed the growing dissatisfaction with the way some African-American leaders have used race to define "minority" struggles for social and political justice. Today, other Latino community leaders, some elected, are voicing this dissatisfaction in public.

The escalating rhetoric surrounding job competition in the rebuilding of South Los Angeles signifies the quandary in which Latino political leadership finds itself: Although they perceive themselves as agents of change, they ply the old politics of racial entitlement. And their failure to face up to this contradiction has distracted them from taking inventory of the political and economic power they already possess.

This does not mean that Latinos should drop their demands for more responsive and inclusive government. But Latino leaders simply can't afford to continue to express their frustration in ways that reinforce a status quo predicated upon a system of race-based power sharing. And that's precisely what they do in seeing government as a banquet, at which guests are served according to how loudly they proclaim their appetites.

Latino leaders insist that because their constituencies have grown in numbers, they deserve a proportionate share of the feast. Sound fair, no? Not to African-American leaders, who argue that their constituencies are entitled to a larger banquet share to compensate for past injustices.

The riots only exacerbated these competing claims. All of which explains why playing politics as a zero-sum, race-reductionist game is bound to lead to confrontation.

Latino leaders don't have to play this no-win--and humiliating--contest with African-Americans for government jobs and urban-revitalization funds. By doing so, they not only perpetuate the image of ethnics as victims; they also distract ethnic communities from cultivating--and using--the power they potentially possess. For Latino leaders, economic empowerment is as close as their political back yard--if they would only look.

For Latinos, the most pressing task is to recognize that the huge Latino community east of the Los Angeles River defies the barrio stereotype of a third-world landscape of deprivation and powerlessness.

To be sure, the Greater Eastside--an area stretching from Olvera Street to Pomona and home to more than 70% of the Latino population--has its share of chronic problems. But it has served as the county's industrial shop floor for more than five decades. As such, the Greater Eastside has survived several industrial transformations, the latest of which is the transition from mass-production unionized industries to small and unorganized specialty manufacturers.

Consider some of the features of this micro-economic landscape:

-- Until recently, the Greater Eastside has enjoyed a surplus of jobs, compared with other communities. Although not all the jobs are held by Latinos, enough of them are to significantly shorten, on average, their drive time, when compared to workers who reside in other communities.

-- Greater Eastside is home to both huge numbers of low-tech, low-wage craft-specialty jobs and high-tech, high-wage employment. This manufacturing diversity is mirrored in the region's residential landscapes, which range from the overcrowded worker suburbs of Bell Gardens to the relatively stable and prosperous middle-income suburbs of Santa Fe Springs.

-- The transformation of the Greater Eastside into an industrial landscape was largely financed by massive infusions of property taxes diverted to redevelopment agencies during the last 30 years. More than $186.2 million, or 51.7%, of 1989-1990 property taxes were channeled to 64 municipal and county redevelopment projects now operating in the Greater Eastside's 1st Supervisorial District. By contrast, $25 million, or 6.9%, of that year's taxes were diverted to 20 projects in the 2nd District, which includes South Los Angeles. This transfer of public capital represents only part of the redevelopment equation, since tax dollars invested in site preparation, abatements and so forth attract private capital.

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