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Villaraigosa says racial tensions due to poverty

In speech, L.A. mayor states blacks, Latinos must address strains.

October 07, 2008|Phil Willon | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Monday said Latinos and African Americans must "face up to" existing racial strains over jobs, language differences and violent crime by addressing the underlying causes of those tensions, primarily poverty and the lack of opportunity.

At the same time Villaraigosa dismissed those who believe that such tensions define the relationship between blacks and Latinos "as if it's endemic to our DNA to have conflict."

Villaraigosa waded into the volatile issue of race at the National Black Latino Summit, a conference of community leaders and organizers who came to Los Angeles to tighten bonds between the nation's two largest minority groups and counter the "hyperventilating" over perceptions of a racial divide.

Though he acknowledged that recent gang violence and schoolyard brawls between blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles have drawn national attention and must be addressed, Villaraigosa emphasized the long history of blacks and Latinos working and living together. Blacks and Latinos joined together in the fight for civil rights, he said, and today Los Angeles is filled with thriving multiethnic neighborhoods.

"More than ever, our families live side by side, interwoven in neighborhoods as colorful as they are All-American," Villaraigosa said. "Our children play together in neighborhood parks, and in schools. We shop at the same markets where Indian curries and tortillas sit on the shelf right next to barbecue sauce and English muffins."

The conference was organized, in part, in response to the flurry of media speculation last winter about a political divide between blacks and Latinos, specifically about Sen. Barack Obama's inability to win over Latino voters in California, Nevada and Texas during the Democratic primaries.

"We wanted to dispel what the media was saying," said Ruben Lizardo of PolicyLink, an Oakland-based social research institute that helped organize the conference. "We're working together, but nobody knows we're working together. It's not as important to us whether Hillary is president or Barack is president. We care more about the agenda for people in poverty."

During the primaries, Villaraigosa played an instrumental role in Sen. Hillary Clinton's success with Latino voters. He crisscrossed the country campaigning on her behalf, and unleashed his political organization to help the New York senator win over Latino voters.

The L.A. mayor has repeatedly said that the primary was more a reflection of Latinos' support for Clinton than a display of animosity toward Obama, and that recent polls show Obama now has strong support among Latino voters.

Villaraigosa has actively campaigned for Obama since the Illinois senator locked up the nomination, although the mayor's support for Clinton has cost him politically. The Obama campaign did not invite Villaraigosa to speak at the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

The Rev. Eric P. Lee, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, said race relations in Los Angeles would continue to be a work in progress, and praised Villaraigosa for making the issue a priority.

"The tension really comes from the struggle for survival, not race," Lee said. "We all want the same thing. We all want a quality of life that speaks to dignity, respect and economic opportunity."

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phil.willon@latimes.com

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