Why can't Los Angeles be more like Joe R. Hicks?
Hicks himself is wondering.
The 57-year-old executive director of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission has transformed himself over the years from a gun-toting black nationalist living in Watts to an advocate of multiculturalism, married to a Jewish woman and raising two girls in the Hollywood Hills.
"My shift was from a place where race defined all, a very simplistic view," he said. "I reject race. I challenge the idea that racial identity should define how you view the world."
Now, he says, it's the city's turn.
Hicks is on a mission to transform the balkanized thinking of Angelenos, arguably the most ethnically diverse population in the world.
He heads a city agency that was created as a defense against the violent strains of race relations, but that under the best of circumstances is limited in its power to heal divisions created by income, language and color differences.
Still, Hicks believes in the power to change, and cites himself as an example.
"I understand why people identify with identity politics," he said. "I lived it. That was me. I just believe we've got to move beyond that. As Martin Luther King said, 'We can either live apart as fools or together as brothers.' "
Hicks, who was appointed to his $83,000-a-year post slightly more than a year ago by Mayor Richard Riordan, doesn't see Los Angeles as a city of fools. He sees a 21st century metropolis where race-baiting is rejected, where Latinos, Korean Americans and African Americans support political candidates based on issues and charisma, not race.
And in neighborhoods, he sees a network of advocates easing tensions among ethnic groups, averting the troubles that contributed to the city's 1992 riots.
But Hicks' sermons on multiculturalism aren't universally applauded.
Some old guard civil rights activists in Los Angeles believe that the former black nationalist abandoned the African American community and is now trying to water down its political clout in the city.
"Joe Hicks was a star in this community," said Frank Holoman, a former state assemblyman and owner of the Boulevard Cafe in South-Central Los Angeles. "Now he's just doing what the mayor tells him to do. He's got to do his job, I guess, but he doesn't have the best interest of our community at heart."
And in some neighborhoods, Hicks' message is barely being heard. In Pacoima and South-Central, for example, tensions between blacks and Latinos are boiling. The groups have clashed in hallways of schools in the two neighborhoods, and black parents are angry about school meetings conducted largely in Spanish.
Meanwhile, the pulpit from which Hicks speaks--the Human Relations Commission--is shaky and was, until recently, on the verge of collapse.
Commision Is Underfunded
Historically, the commission has been among the city's most underfunded agencies. It receives less than $1 million a year, placing it well behind more aggressive programs in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles County.
A USC study recently reported that the commission has failed to improve race relations--its mission when it was created in 1966, a year after the Watts riots. According to the study, the commission in the past three decades has accomplished little more than producing an annual community calendar and a student essay contest.
Larry Aubry, a former consultant to the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, said successful commissions foster communications and community organizing. But to do that, he said, they need adequate funding.
City Councilmen Mark Ridley-Thomas and Mike Feuer have tried to persuade their colleagues to allocate more money to the commission. But so far, it has not been a council priority.
"Politically, council members want to control their turf," Aubry said. "They think they can do the job better. I think that's been to the detriment of the city."
Bong-Hwan Kim, interim director of the Multi-Cultural Alliance--founded by Hicks to ease tensions between African Americans and Korean Americans after the 1992 riots--said the Human Relations Commission is underfunded because the city's "political leadership just doesn't get it when it comes to being proactive in race relations."
Feuer said, "I think there's a general understanding in the city of the importance of human relations," but Hicks must undertake "concrete projects which get people working together" in order to get more funding.
Philip Ethington, a coauthor of the USC report, said racial trouble is one of the few things that guarantees more human relations resources.
"A very sad and dispiriting observation we made is there's always a predictable flurry of activity after a major disruption like a riot," he said.
"Those reactive responses eventually taper off," he said. "They only last as long as the memory and outrage about the event does."