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10 Years After the Riots, We Stick With Our Own

Put money behind efforts to bridge the racial divide.

April 24, 2002|EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON

Ten years ago next week, while Los Angeles was in the midst of the worst looting and burning the United States has seen in the 20th century, Rodney King asked, "Can we all get along?" King's simple question was a heartfelt plea to actively work for racial tolerance and understanding. A decade later there are troubling signs that far too many still haven't heeded that plea.

A decade after the riots, which were sparked by the not-guilty verdicts in the trial of the four LAPD officers who beat King, the bitter truth is that the personal lives of too many Americans still seem too tightly manacled by race. Los Angeles County reflects that pattern of racial balkanization in which whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians remain socially isolated from each other. This does little to foster understanding and respect for diversity.

I see it every day on my job. I work for a public agency. There are no visible racial barriers, antagonisms or incidents. There are strict prohibitions against discrimination and an actively enforced affirmative action program.

There are black, Asian and Latino supervisors. Minorities are well-represented in the professional and skilled positions within the agency.

During the lunch and coffee breaks, however, it's a different story. The interracial mix abruptly halts. Each group stakes out its respective turf. Blacks sit at one table talking and eating. Whites sit at another, Latinos and Asians at others.

No one seems to give a second thought to this separate but equal clustering. It's just friends "socializing" with those they feel most comfortable with.

When I leave my office to go home, I pass the neighborhood school. With the exception of a small but growing number of Latinos, the students on the playground are all black.

My neighbors are a good mix of professionals, businesspeople and skilled workers. But other than a couple of older whites, they are all black. At the market the shoppers are nearly all black. My son and daughter's social contacts are exclusively black.

It's the same for young blacks and Latinos in South-Central Los Angeles and young whites in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys. They don't see and experience a nation where people of different ethnic groups work, go to school, play and live together as friends and neighbors.

The tensions aren't just between blacks and whites. Many Latinos believe that blacks are out to exclude them from Civil Service jobs and prevent them from attaining greater political power.

Many blacks engage in immigrant-bashing and claim that Latinos are out to grab jobs and funds for welfare, health and education services from them.

Many Koreans whose stores suffered the brunt of the burning and looting in 1992 regard blacks as lazy and crime-prone. And many blacks claim that Koreans are racist and accuse them of exploiting the black community.

The lingering racial divide, however, can be bridged. The Los Angeles City Council should revive its "day of dialogue" forums, which brought together community leaders and residents from throughout the city to discuss their problems and needs.

The city's public officials and business leaders should increase funds and programs for business and boost housing loans, social services and recreation programs in South-Central Los Angeles.

And the Los Angeles Police Department must finish the job of reform by ending racial profiling, weeding out corrupt and brutal officers and implementing more and better community policing.

There is still much work to be done before anyone can answer yes to Rodney King's decade-old question.

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Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press, 1998). E-mail: ehutchi344@aol.com.

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