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PERSPECTIVES ON RACE RELATIONS : Don't Muzzle the Messenger : Foundation executive Jack Shakely deserves a hearing, not censure, for his thoughts on tensions between blacks, Latinos.

July 18, 1993|KAREN GRIGSBY BATES | Karen Grigsby Bates writes from Los Angeles about modern culture, race relations and politics for several national publications.

The truth, as the Bible tells us, is the light. What it didn't tell us was this: Sometimes the light will make you mad before it deigns to set you free. Jack Shakely, the president of the California Community Foundation, found that out the hard way earlier this month, when he was blasted by Latino and African-American grant-makers who read remarks he'd made in an interview after last year's civil unrest.

The report ("Undimmed by Human Tears: American Cities, Philanthropy and the Civic Ideal") was commissioned by the Council on Foundations, a national coalition of more than 1,300 philanthropies. The council's members range from huge foundations (MacArthur, Ford and one of California's largest, the James Irvine Foundation), to small family trusts. If Los Angeles is the birthplace of many American trends, wondered the council, how do we contain and dissipate urban unrest before it begins? What are the factors that contribute to it, and what, if anything, can foundations do to defuse the urban tensions that can lead to it?

A consultant toured the country to compile the opinions of prominent foundation executives, Shakely among them. And when it was released within the grant-making community, the widely circulated but still officially unpublished report caused seismic reverberations.

Shakely, who has headed the California Community Foundation for 14 years, was quoted as saying that a large part of Los Angeles' unrest could be traced to economic hardship and racism. The combination, as has been proved countless times before, can be combustible. "I grew up in the '50s and '60s with the black and white nature of racial prejudice," Shakely said in the report. "It was hard, but pretty straight ahead." After living in Costa Rica for a few years, Shakely told his interviewer, he was dismayed to discover that "Latins are very, very prejudiced. The Latino is about as anti-black as a Southern Baptist in Mississippi." Apparently that anti-black sentiment, coupled with economic deprivation that forces many Latino Angelenos to take low-paying jobs that had been filled by African-American Angelenos, is a prescription for an interethnic migraine.

Shakely's observations did not go unnoticed. Many Latino foundation staff and board members accused him of racism; African-American trustees were outraged by remarks that they perceived to be anti-black. He'd noted that the plan to sharply reduce state funding in several critical areas would more adversely affect blacks than Latinos, because woefully undercapitalized African-Americans have traditionally received more government assistance and would therefore feel the proposed cuts first and most deeply.

I don't see the outrage in this. Ever since slavery ended, the government has found it more convenient to subsidize America's black communities than to help empower them. And although one may argue with their politics, organizations like the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party focused on black economic self-sufficiency. Government response to that was a system of organized infiltration designed to factionalize those groups and render them impotent.

There have been calls to dismiss him, but demanding Shakely's resignation sounds like a case of shooting the messenger to me. I've sat around enough dinner tables, stood at enough cocktail parties, waited in enough lines in enough ethnically different communities to say--even though it's an unpopular opinion--that his observations, crudely couched as they were, do contain the bitter kernel of truth. There is anti-black sentiment among some parts of the Latino community. Friends who are Cuban, Chicano, Puerto Rican and Brazilian have told me of the hurtful nicknames given them by fairer relatives and of exclusion and taunts attributable to others' disdain for their dark skin and kinky hair. (And yes, there are African-Americans who are color-prejudiced against their own people, too.) And anyone who watched television last year knows that the rising competition for a shrinking piece of the economic pie does have people like Danny Bakewell and Xavier Hermosillo throwing verbal bricks at each other.

The racial and ethnic conflict in '90s Los Angeles is not the same as it was in the '60s. It is, as Shakely told me last week, "much, much more complex than white people being prejudiced against black people--it's every group being prejudiced against every other group." And it's every group not understanding every other group. Some days, building those bridges seems like an insurmountable task.

Shakely has apologized, several times, for the way he stated his opinions. ("I cannot tell you how deeply, deeply sorry I am to have hurt some peoples' feelings. It was inexcusable.") But his remarks, intemperate though they may have been for a quasi-public official, offer the opportunity for what could be a fruitful dialogue between the African-American and Latino communities in this city.

The first step in building those bridges--and they will have to be built and crossed before Los Angeles can be whole again--is to acknowledge that there are problems, and to talk about them frankly. Shakely has cracked open that door a bit; if the Los Angeles philanthropic community is astute, it will fund projects and conferences that open that door wider still and let in a little light.

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