In most quarters, it's a foregone conclusion that African American voters will react as a bloc against Valley secession on the Nov. 5 ballot. In fact, blacks are the only racial or ethnic group in which more than 50% oppose the breakup. But the nuances in black sentiment shouldn't be ignored. A substantial group of black voters--nearly a third--says it favors the Valley leaving Los Angeles. And there is a great diversity of opinion even among the majority of African Americans who do support a unified Los Angeles.
African Americans were among the founders of L.A., and throughout the city's history, they have continued to gamble on it as a place conducive to fulfilling their dreams. "We are here like other people," declared a 1913 edition of the Los Angeles Liberator, "to share these splendid conditions, buying houses and contributing to the common cause, building up this great [city]." Black Angelenos have always known that their dreams came with the price of civic commitment, a willingness to lead the political fights to tear down barriers to participation. But not this time.
One oddity of the secession fight is the uncharacteristic silence of many African American leaders. Mayor James K. Hahn has managed to bring in businessman and former basketball star Magic Johnson to speak for keeping the city together. But beyond him, there is silence. From San Pedro to San Fernando, high-profile black elected officials, clergy and other leaders are echoing county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who said, "I have taken no position. I'm looking at all the facts."
A primary cause of the silence of African American leaders is their desire to use their power to best advantage, given the high stakes. The black vote, many feel, is what put Hahn in office a year ago, something he has taken for granted. Now, a mobilized black electorate could provide the decisive edge in November. But after the fracas over the firing of former Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, there is deep suspicion of Hahn, and many question enlisting in his battle. Black community leaders may be deliberating out of public earshot, but they are nonetheless sending a message: In this political contest, African Americans are not to be taken for granted.
Another factor in blacks' reticence on the issue is deep ambivalence. Secession has some possible benefits. Smaller cities might indeed be better for neighborhoods and businesses. And a smaller Los Angeles could boost black power by upping the proportion of blacks and making the city more liberal. But secession is also viewed skeptically as just a latter-day form of white flight, a way of abandoning the urban challenge rather than fighting for its promise. Many worry that a patchwork of localities could not effectively address regional issues such as aging infrastructure and need for business development. And there is a real question about whether the reduced tax base of a smaller city would be adequate to address the needs of its people.
For African American Valley residents, both the potential benefits and the potential pitfalls loom large. Their tenure in the area dates back generations, peaking after World War II when low-income military housing was moved from Griffith Park to Pacoima, and the Joe Louis subdivision was developed for black homeowners. According to research that will be published this year by Cal State Northridge demographersJames Allen and Eugene Turner, the black Valley population is no longer consolidated in Pacoima but has dispersed to Van Nuys, Canoga Park, Sunland and other areas. "This community has changed," says Joseph E. Holloway, a professor in Northridge's pan-African studies department. "If you can afford to buy the property, you can live anywhere you want."
A lifetime Valley resident and member of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, the Rev. Zedar E. Broadous serves on the executive committee of Valley VOTE, the group leading the secession charge. He says he joined the group because he shares its view that the L.A. bureaucracy has been unresponsive to local problems, and he believes that voters have the right to decide on cityhood. But despite his involvement with pro-secessionists, Broadous says, "I'm on the fence, because I'm looking at both sides of the issue." Broadous cites as a positive of the proposed breakaway the possibility that "by having a smaller government located here, you would have more access." But he's skeptical about a new Valley city, saying "because there's no truly black geographical district, politicians will not be beholden to the African American community."