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In a City's Life, Each Person Is Important to Every Other

New leaders must balance reality of a color-conscious society with principles that go beyond color.

May 09, 1999|ANGELA E. OH | Angela E. Oh served as a member of the advisory board to President Clinton's initiative on race and is currently a visiting scholar and lecturer at UCLA

Once again, Los Angeles demonstrates that it is a community on the cutting edge of political, social and cultural change. The April 13 elections provided us with a chance to consider how race relations is evolving through the prism of politics.

Race and ethnicity played a role in the campaigns for the school board, City Council and community college board. They will continue to play a role, but in a much different way. Race relations in the 21st century will be less about color than about finding leadership capable of addressing the reality that we are a color-conscious society that must deal with issues that transcend color.

The mantle of leadership will go to candidates who understand that there remains a hunger for symbols of representation (viz., racial diversity), yet recognize that Los Angeles is a place where people of color who vote look for substance. Does the candidate understand the issues? Does the candidate recognize that whatever the issue, there are complexities because of the emerging diversity of our community? Are there any innovative solutions being offered?

Deep divides still exist. Modest progress toward advancing race relations can be seen in academe but not much has happened on the street. Living in a time when "reasonable racism" operates so effectively has made the task of voting in Los Angeles more difficult. Jody David Armour, in his book "Negrophobia," describes "reasonable racism" as bigotry that is based on the imperfect information that people have about "the other." This form of racism appears intelligent because all the information around says the bias is justified. What is frightening is that when most people stop to consider their attitudes and beliefs about other racial or ethnic groups based on personal relationships or experiences, many see that the foundation of their presumed knowledge is weak. Who are our closest friends? How often do we invite others into our homes?

Instead, what many people think they "know" is based on the imperfect information that comes in 60-second sound bites on the nightly news or newspaper stories that are simply inadequate (and sometimes inaccurate).

When reasonable racism begins to operate in the political arena, it has a profound effect on deepening existing divides. The messages are both implicit and explicit, and disturbing and unhelpful in answering the real questions that voters should focus on. For example, when two candidates of the same racial background seek the same office, part of the campaign speaks to who is the more "authentic" race representative. We've witnessed this. When the field of candidates is diverse, there is inevitably an attempt to undermine voter confidence based on an appeal to reasonable racism. We've sensed this. When endorsements are put forward, it's not just a political statement but one about loyalty to one's racial group. We've heard this.

The principles in these situations speak to insecurity, dishonesty, avoidance and exclusion. Our future must rest on a very different set of principles if we hope to build healthy and prosperous relations.

Candidates who demonstrate a capacity to balance the reality of color-consciousness and principles beyond color will be the winners. The long-term public servant will be the person who recognizes that all racial and ethnic groups want to know that their children will be safe at school or play, that jobs will offer families a measure of security and decent wages, that affordable housing stock will be available and living conditions decent, that when a loved one falls ill, he or she will have access to health care and that religious traditions will not be threatened or denigrated.

We have spent the better part of the last seven years rebuilding Los Angeles. There are many brick and mortar projects in our future. But elections always remind us that building community is about more than brick and mortar. Los Angeles can look to another state for guidance.

Close to 50% of Hawaii's population is of mixed race or ethnicity. Almost 13 years ago, the governor signed into law legislation that captures what many people seem to be looking for in a 21st century paradigm of principles on race relations. The law guides those who serve in the statehouse, the courts and public agencies. It urges that officials recognize that there exists an " . . . essence of relationships in which each person is important to every other person for collective existence." It suggests that one way to understand what must be done is " . . . to hear what is not said, to see what cannot be seen and to know the unknowable."

Visionary leaders and others have long practiced this way of understanding. Voters in Los Angeles will have the chance to begin building a paradigm of principles when they go to the polls in June. It's a task that must be undertaken because the alternative is simply unacceptable. We have the opportunity to deliver leadership that fosters innovation, creativity and hope. These are qualities that cannot be defined solely by religion, ethnicity or race. But we already know this.

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