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L.A.'s Race Relations Will Mend Slowly, Leaders Say : Coalitions: Lack of cohesiveness, political support and festering racist stereotypes are called formidable barriers to progress.


Bulldozers have demolished many charred buildings to make way for construction projects. And some burned-out stores and mini-malls are being reopened. But five months after the city's core erupted in flames, community leaders agree that little progress has been made in repairing race relations in Los Angeles.

Leaders say several roadblocks stand in the way in forging inter-ethnic ties, including what they see as a lack of political support and the absence of a central structure for drawing minority groups together.

And in addition to tackling the problem of deep-seeded racism, community leaders must devote time to dealing with economic issues such as unemployment and housing.

"I think we've been sold a bill of goods by politicians and Rebuild L.A. that there'd be immediate solutions and I think the public has been led to think we're going to see solutions of a massive sort," said Geraldine Zapata, executive director of Plaza Community Center in East Los Angeles.

"Maybe that'll happen in increments. But right now I think each ethnic group is trying to consolidate their own position and give some thought to whether resources are really being committed (to their communities) and if their groups are going to reap the benefits of it."

There has been a continuation of pre-riot efforts to bridge ethnic gaps, such as the 6-year-old Black-Korean Alliance and the 45-member Ethnic Coalition, a multiethnic group formed in 1989 to encourage minorities to get involved in politics.

And a few new programs--including the multiethnic Coalition of Neighborhood Developers, which is rebuilding some housing in riot-damaged areas, and the Multicultural Collaborative, a group of eight nonprofit minority organizations--have formed in the wake of the April-May civil disturbances.

But there is no central effort to tackle inter-ethnic issues--a Rebuild L.A.-type organization devoted to race relations--that could link the grass roots organizations, community leaders say. And there has been little political support for creating such a group.

Only one staff member is assigned to the city's Human Relations Commission, a fact community leaders point to when they complain about the city's performance on the race relations front.

Dr. Clyde Oden, executive director of the Watts Health Foundation, said he is worried politicians will soon forget the destruction remaining in Los Angeles. Already attention has been diverted to repairing hurricane damage elsewhere in the country, he said.

"The activists need to get to the politicians or get involved with politics in some way to foster change," Bong Hwan Kim, executive director of the Korean Youth Center. "Right now they're isolated and on their own."

But on a grassroots level, ethnic unity sometimes takes a back seat to economic concerns. Juanita Tate, executive director of Concerned Citizens for South-Central Los Angeles, works with poor black and Latino families in that area and is unsure when the community will be able to transcend its economic problems. South Los Angeles has a 30.3% poverty rate and a median household income of $19,382, according to 1990 U.S. Census data.

"I don't know how you put a time limit on a 40% unemployment rate, on finding shelter for homeless families. That doesn't get solved overnight," Tate said.

"The events of the riots caused great pain in many communities," added Ron Wakabayashi, executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission. "It crystallized the need to look inward."

Many community leaders believe that power in Los Angeles lies in forging alliances, such as a collective of African-Americans, Latinos and Asians, to influence economic and social policy.

"The three collective minority groups are now a majority, but those numbers are not reflected in political power," said Dennis Westbrook, program director at the Martin Luther King Dispute Resolution Center. "Unless that changes, nothing will."

But even if there is political and economic progress, attitudes also have to change, leaders said. Breaking down racist stereotypes that have festered for years will take more than one meeting or rally, they said.

"What we're faced with is like David and Goliath--a society so deeply rooted in racism that to expect people to see beyond the stereotypes and images they've been seeing for years, in just months is impossible," Kim said.

James Hilvert, executive director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, said the discourse toward building stronger inter-ethnic relations must also include whites, which several existing groups haven't done.

However, while community leaders can point to the difficulties in improving inter-ethnic relations, they are hard-pressed to come up with solutions. Some see the existing community group efforts--formed before and after the riots--as the building blocks that may create multiethnic bonds.

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