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A Model for Racial Harmony

May 28, 2000|Susan Anderson | Susan Anderson has written for The Nation and L.A. Weekly

Earlier this month, there were probably more streets blocked off for Cinco de Mayo festivities in the inner-city neighborhoods south of the Santa Monica Freeway than anywhere else in the city. This surprising development may point a way to social harmony as Los Angeles continues to diversify racially and ethnically. For it was black-run organizations that, as part of their mission of community service, mounted many of the Cinco de Mayo celebrations. From churches and hospitals, to service and civil-rights groups, a network of African American organizations is quietly tending the needs of mostly poor Latino newcomers who have settled in formerly black neighborhoods.

Yet, ironically, some of these organizations have been criticized by funders for not having integrated boards, no matter how integrated their staffs or effective their programs. These funders are unable to see that there's no contradiction between being a black organization and serving the whole community well.

Steady black outmigration and the arrival of Latin American immigrants have transformed South L.A. "The notion of a geographically determined black community is no longer correct or viable," asserts a recent United Way study. The growing population of Latino immigrants, by and large, lacks access to power and the resources needed for upward economic mobility. But when that access is provided, it is often by well-established African American organizations that remain in the area. "Don't move, improve" is their unofficial slogan.

Some of these organizations encourage new forms of civic participation. For example, a coalition that includes Ward AME Church, Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles and the Brotherhood Crusade initiated the Census outreach among Spanish-speaking South L.A. residents.

The Community Coalition to Prevent Substance Abuse in the Vermont Slauson area focuses on ending violence, drug trafficking and poverty. Karen Bass, its executive director, calls the group's approach "a new kind of affirmative action" to build a social-justice movement of blacks and Latinos.

The greater Los Angeles Southern Christian Leadership Conference takes its inspiration from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of inclusiveness. One program, Project Ahead, seeks to build partnerships among low-income African American and Latino parents and the 10 schools their children attend. The Rosa Parks Sexual Assault Crisis Center, the only rape center serving women of color in South L.A., receives 100 calls a week and works with the East L.A. Rape Crisis Center to better understand Latinas' responses to rape; 60% of the clients using the SCLC Dispute Resolution Center are Latino.

Other black-run organizations target practical needs. Historic First AME Church regularly provides food and other services to indigent residents, a majority of them Latino. In addition to delivering health care, Watts Health Systems, Inc., sponsors an art exhibition that celebrates "the global village of African, Latino, Asian, European and Native American creativity," according to Harold Hambrick, a public-affairs official. Broadway Federal Savings, founded after WWII to provide loans to African Americans, now mostly serves low-income Latino families. Community Build, established in 1992 by an African American board of directors, provides job training to 4,000 youth and their families, half of whom are Latino.

To help promote greater tolerance, there is a strong emphasis on youth development among all African American organizations serving Latino residents. Some organizations begin with the very young. Second Baptist Church established The Children's Center to provide day care for qualified low-income parents in 1966. Since 1986, Latino use of the facilities has grown from 30% to 70%, and the center has responded by hiring more Latino staffers and adopting a bilingual strategy. The Urban League's Headstart program has followed suit.

These African American-run organizations have been able to adapt to their changing communities for two reasons. One, the mission of the best of them reflects the venerable sentiment of the black freedom movement, a commitment not just to group advancement, but to justice. Two, despite an appearance of dwindling influence, the African American tradition of institution-building has created a strong civic infrastructure, often hidden from the outside world, made up of private/public organizations, sometimes loosely interlocked through their memberships. With their history of nurturing black talent against great odds, these associations are highly skilled at providing the resources immigrants need to adjust to their new environments.

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