Funny, but it wasn't too long ago that optimists were heralding a new dawn in Southern California politics, a chance to leave behind the stormy racial and ethnic conflicts of the '90s. The occasion was the election of three members to the Los Angeles Board of Education, a slate backed by Mayor Richard Riordan to reform the district. Certainly it had been easy to lose trust in a board that couldn't get textbooks in children's hands and decided that an old oil field was a fine place for a $200-million high school that may never open. Of the board members up for reelection, it was easiest to say good riddance to Barbara Boudreaux and her brand of racial rhetoric.
It was Boudreaux, an African American, who accused Los Angeles' white mayor of engaging in "plantation politics" in backing the campaign of rival Genethia Hayes. Black leaders took to the ramparts for Boudreaux. It mattered little that Hayes, also African American, had a solid record of service and was regional director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Hayes, Boudreaux suggested, was "the in-house slave" being used "to control workers in the field."
All of which made the election of Hayes and other reformers feel like the sudden warmth of sunshine. The politics of ethnic identity had failed, I thought.
How quickly the storm clouds reappeared. When the new board, with Hayes as president, clumsily engineered the sacking of Supt. Ruben Zacarias in October, it was Latino activists who took to the ramparts, asking why, in a district where almost 70% of the students are Latino, only one of seven board members has brown skin. There were protest demonstrations, sharp criticisms of Hayes, snippets of anti-Semitic rhetoric directed at board members.
What's wrong with this picture, class? In an ideal world, candidates, school superintendents and other public officials would be judged by character, performance and ideas. However, this not being a perfect world, race and ethnicity will drive Southern California's political dynamics for the foreseeable future, or at least until mixed heritage blurs identity distinctions.
That's not to suggest nothing has changed. To the contrary, as Southern California gallops into the next millennium, it seems identity politics are paradoxically both more and less important. It's more important in that a generation of immigrants has bolstered Latino power and built up other distinct communities--Armenians in Glendale, Chinese in the west San Gabriel Valley, Koreans in the Mid-City and east San Gabriel Valley, Cambodians in Long Beach. The gay-rights movement has created another identity. Now there are more tribes, more turf battles, more land mines to step over.
Yet in searching for Southern California's future, in listening to dozens of activists, academics, elected officials and schoolchildren, I encountered more hope than dread, though no one was sanguine. Certainly there will be struggles and controversies that break along racial and ethnic lines. But as the region's demographics change, as a growing number of identity groups gain strength, problems will have to find solutions through broad coalitions, and political candidates will have to find support outside their individual ethnic groups. Together, those influences may well foster a public arena that is less polarized and more constructive.
What is most striking about the transformation of the L.A. school board is the long-anticipated rise of Latino power. "We're going from a black-white paradigm to a brown-whomever paradigm," says Paul Vandeventer, president of Community Partners, a nonprofit agency that is incubating more that 125 civic and charitable programs in greater Los Angeles. The successful leader, Vandeventer suggests, "is the one who can break out and straddle multiple ethnic groups. That will be the key to civic leadership."
Numbers tell part of the story. The 2000 U.S. Census is expected to show Los Angeles County to have a population of about 10 million--Latinos at 45%, whites at 33%, Asians at 12%, blacks at 9%. By 2020, Latinos are expected to make up about 55%, whites about 23%, Asians 14% and blacks 8%. These estimates, however, don't take into account another important trend: The growing number of intermarriages means more people with multicultural identities.
To get a better sense of the changes, imagine a mural. Once upon a time, what grabbed your eye--or at least the media's--was the conflict between black and white: Watts, Sam Yorty and Tom Bradley; the NAACP and the BusStop anti-busing campaign; Daryl Gates, Eula Love, Rodney King; Florence and Normandie avenues; O.J. Simpson. For more than 20 years, with the exception of one year, L.A. has had a black mayor and a white police chief, or vice versa.