South L.A. is the neediest and most politically challenging part of the city that gets in the news chiefly for the story of its shifting demographics — from mostly black to mostly Latino. Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti’s background fits nicely into that story. He is being touted as the first Jewish mayor, although the heritage he touted openly and often during campaign season was Latino. That’s identity politics, technically, but his win was hardly as landmark a moment as were Tom Bradley or Antonio Villaraigosa’s victories. But it was effective. Garcetti captured a solid majority of the Latino vote — 60 percent. Every elected official in the country and especially in California and Los Angeles is keenly aware of the upward trend of Latino political influence and the need to address it.
Garcetti didn’t really have to do a hard sell because of the Mexican heritage on his father’s side—his great-grandfather was killed during the Mexican Revolution—and he speaks fluent Spanish. Of course he’s very middle class, raised in the San Fernando Valley and in some ways much more reflective of a Jewish experience in the suburbs than a typical Latino experience in South L.A. But that doesn’t hurt him, either. In fact you could call it a perfect combination, representing two of the most significant political groups in the city, if not the country. Jews may be among the smallest percentages of the city’s population while Latinos are the biggest, but both groups demand attention and accountability.
Latinos are much newer to the accountability thing, but they’re learning fast; immigration reform is the battle cry nationally, but in L.A. it’s also jobs, good schools and occasionally immigrant-specific issues like fair laws for street vendors. Let us not forget that Latinos have been the lifeblood of a revived union movement the last 25 years or so, as they have filled every service-sector jobs from janitors to car washers.
In this rapidly evolving scenario, where are African Americans? To be blunt, nowhere.
Blacks haven’t been a political priority since the days of Tom Bradley (and we can argue about whether they were a priority even then) and every mayoral candidate since has done the requisite swings through black churches, talking the talk—some better than others–but not much happens afterward. Eric Garcetti did the same thing in going for a vote that is now mostly considered “swing,” more a mathematic calculation than a real political concern. What black residents in South Central and Crenshaw need is pretty much what everybody (including their Latino cohorts) in the neighborhood needs—good schools, more jobs and industry, solid infrastructure.
But within the similarities are differences that everyone, including black elected officials, are reluctant to address because they are so politically sensitive. For example, underperforming South L.A. schools that are increasingly Latino don’t focus on educational needs of black students whose issues are rooted in historical inequalities, not language differences. Blacks are unemployed and underemployed at higher rates than Latinos, partly because Latinos are preferred hires in many service-sector jobs that dominate the hood. It’s a situation that perpetuates itself in the service sector and in another key, more skilled job sector, construction.
There are some reasons to hope that tides will turn and folks will actually come together for the benefit of the whole area. Recognizing that black residents need to articulate an agenda that can be presented to whoever’s in the mayor’s office, this spring a coalition of South L.A.-based black leaders, the Black Community Clergy and Labor Alliance, came up with such an agenda, dubbed “the covenant.” (Full disclosure: I am involved in the coalition.) During the campaign, the BCCLA met with both Garcetti and Greuel to gauge their potential commitments to specific items of the covenant, which despite its somewhat ethereal name is focused on basic issues such as criminal justice, transportation and economic development.
Garcetti was one of the council members who recently voted to fund a rail stop in Leimert Park Village along the soon-to-built Crenshaw MTA line—something for which black transportation activists have fought long and hard. In his interview with the BCCLA committee, he also pledged to add a South L.A. rep and transit rider to the MTA board. Encouraging signs. At the same time, some blacks have expressed uneasiness that because they voted so heavily for Greuel—71 percent, according to one exit poll—that blacks won’t have a voice in City Hall. The assumption that the new mayor will ignore the needs of areas and constituents based strictly on votes cast speaks to the moribund political situation blacks have been in for decades now.
But Garcetti’s victory, which suggests a new LA. politics that could begin bridging the gap between the poverty associated with race and the progressive action associated with privilege, could ultimately be a win for South L.A. too.