"Are we one nation under God, or two nations manacled by race?" This is the agonizing question political scientist Andrew Hacker asked in his groundbreaking book, "Two Nations," that explored black-white relationships in America. My question is: Are Los Angeles city officials shackled by racial manacles? The word in South-Central Los Angeles is that they are.
Against the backdrop of the Rodney G. King and Reginald Denny beating trials, city officials constantly urged residents to come together in the "healing process." Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti made a futile attempt to calm the situation. He repeatedly insisted that the Denny case was not about race, but about right and wrong.
Ideally, it would have been. But the case brought out much of the racial ugliness that lurks beneath the surface in Los Angeles. At times, it appeared the city was Balkanized and split into warring factions. Talk-radio shows were filled with bellicose talk from whites outraged over the "lenient" verdict. They threatened to buy guns and defend their neighborhoods from attacks.
While blacks generally expressed satisfaction with the verdict, they used the case as a springboard to attack the racism in the justice system. A Times poll a week later confirmed that whites and blacks had wildly different perceptions about the case. The perceptions are based on real concerns about safety. They can't be dismissed as racist or irrational.
The King beating stirred deep fears in many blacks of racial violence.
They could easily envision themselves on the ground that night being pulverized by white police officers. The Denny beating stirred equally deep fears in whites of black crime and violence. Many whites could easily envision themselves being yanked out of their motor vehicles and pulverized by young blacks. Mild appeals to "racial harmony" won't erase these fears.
A search for scapegoats won't either. Some black leaders, out of frustration, accused the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission of twiddling its thumbs during the crisis. But the commission operates on the meager budget of $100,000 and employs two full-time staff members. To think it can resolve the crisis is wishful thinking.
The city could face even more trouble with the December sentencing of Damian Williams for his role in the Denny beating and the trial of a white LAPD officer charged with the murder of a black tow truck driver. The responsibility for bringing racial peace must be tossed forcefully in the lap of city officials.
But City Council members have been mostly silent. Maybe they believe they can drop the racial volume by saying nothing. Nate Holden was the only council member who dared venture an opinion, saying: "There was no victory and no defeat in these trials. The city is still suffering." Holden's cryptic comment contained no hint of a prescription for easing the pain.
Meanwhile, Mayor Richard Riordan again insisted the key to peace was hiring 3,000 more police and creating more jobs. But Riordan knows these are measures that may take years to implement, given local and state budget constraints. The city's racial crisis can't wait that long for resolution.
When there's a natural disaster such as an earthquake, fire or flood, city officials immediately mobilize resources and personnel, and flood the airwaves with relief information to allay public fears. When the recent devastating fires that destroyed hundreds of homes in Los Angeles and surrounding cities occurred, Riordan immediately called a press conference along with top Fire Department personnel to reassure the public that all available city resources and fire-fighting personnel would be used to contain the blazes. City officials must do the same to contain the fires of racial rage.
The first step is to dispel the myths. City officials must assure whites (and many Latinos and Asians) that young blacks are not lawless, crime-prone terrorists on the prowl for suburban victims. They must assure blacks that whites aren't trigger-happy vigilantes plotting to attack black churches and leaders.
Riordan is in an especially good position to exert the strong moral authority the city desperately needs. He's a conservative Republican businessman and politician. He commands the respect of suburban whites.
They would be receptive to his call for a series of citywide forums between community leaders in the San Fernando Valley and black and Latino leaders in South and Central Los Angeles. At the forums, elected officials should be present to discuss problems and needs with residents.
We've heard the shrill sound of fear and hysteria. Now is the time to hear the sound of calm and reason.
Sadly, the only sound we've heard from City Hall is silence.