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Will This Fork in the Road Lead Black L.A. to a New Coalition?

April 23, 2001|MADISON SHOCKLEY | Madison Shockley is a member of the board of directors of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference/L.A. E-mail:

What do the candidacies of James K. Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa mean for the black community?

Much of the talk during this campaign has been about coalitions, particularly which candidate for mayor of Los Angeles will revive the Tom Bradley-style coalition. With all the talk about coalitions, one might be tempted to believe that there actually is one. But what we really have are candidate coalitions, not community coalitions. And what Los Angeles needs is less of the former and more of the latter.

The foundation of the Bradley coalition was the support of two communities, African Americans and Jews, with a genuine relationship on a number of levels, not just during an election campaign. Such community coalitions are built around a common agenda--school and housing desegregation, civil rights--that is of vital interest to everyone in the coalition.

Candidate coalitions, on the other hand, serve to advance the interests of a candidate--namely, to get elected. They are constellations of support for a person. Community coalitions are constellations of support for a set of shared goals.

So does Hahn have a black/white/Jewish coalition, and Villaraigosa a Latino/Jewish/white one? No. Hahn has the support of black, white and Jewish voters. Villaraigosa has the support of Latino, Jewish and white voters. The man who should be mayor is the one who can lead us away from this kind of political coalition and into genuine community coalitions.

The harder challenge is for Villaraigosa, not because he is not willing but because the black community has a hard time seeing a common agenda with the Latino immigrant community. Many blacks view it as a zero-sum political calculation: Their gain is our loss. That's true if you view it from the ethno-centric politics of the past. It's not true if you view it from the perspective of the kinds of coalitions that will be needed in the future.

In the primary, 71% of black voters supported Hahn, while 12% voted for Villaraigosa. Black voters were the most cohesive voting bloc in the recent primary. Two Latino candidates shared Latino support. Jewish support was widely distributed. White and Asian votes were in every column.

Cold political analysis could cause Villaraigosa to conclude that the black vote is lost to him and that money and time spent wooing such voters would be wasted. He may even be able to win that way. But he'll be a better mayor if he doesn't.

To be the kind of leader Los Angeles needs, Villaraigosa must outline to the black community an agenda that can be shared by Latinos and African Americans. Therefore, he must stay focused on such issues as backing police reform, combating racial profiling, improving public education, expanding housing opportunities and improving public transportation even as he reaches out to the Valley constituencies.

But identifying issues is the easy part. The hard part is bringing the two communities into a working relationship to advance these issues. Harder still is addressing the unspoken fears of displacement and political dislocation so strongly felt within parts of the black community.

Villaraigosa must show blacks a way that African American culture, community and political participation will not be destroyed by the burgeoning Latino presence. A human relations program directly confronting these issues may be a start.

The black community has some work to do too. People must begin to see Villaraigosa as an individual, not as a symbol of their deep fears and prejudices, like the ones we heard during the debate over Proposition 187. In many a meeting in the black community, the dialogue sounded like it was scripted from a 1950s White Citizens Council meeting in Mississippi, with Latinos the target instead of blacks. This approach does not serve anyone.

Hahn, on the other hand, has major credibility in the black community because of the legacy of his father, longtime county Supervisor Kenneth Hahn. The merest mention of Kenny Hahn will provoke the widest of grins--certainly why Jim Hahn mentions it so often. And it's definitely a plus that Jim Hahn is a decent man with no hint of scandal.

But ask what Jim Hahn has actually done for the black community and you draw a blank stare. Should we consider the elder Hahn's legacy sufficient reason to elect the son mayor?

Of course, this concentrated black support for Hahn does have a more political dimension to it. The black community knows that Hahn is dependent on and therefore accountable to it. African Americans feel that they will have access to and responsiveness from a Hahn administration--things that Hahn must deliver on.

In this way, he is a little like Bill Clinton. For as some have hailed Clinton as the first black president, Hahn could be regarded as L.A.'s second black mayor.

The black community stands at a fork in the road. One way is to respond to Villaraigosa's overtures and become a substantial part of that coalition. The other way is to put all our eggs in the Hahn basket. But then should Hahn fail, the black community will be the biggest loser.

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