Ethnic rivalries have long been an unpleasant, but persistent, element in big-city politics in America. Under the best of circumstances, political leaders try to take them into account, if only to make sure that competition for government services, jobs and other benefits is resolved peacefully rather than in the streets. But in the riots' aftermath, the occasional tension that had existed between some--but not, it must be emphasized, all--of Los Angeles' Mexican-American and African-American political activists has reached a worrisome and potentially dangerous point. It's time for other leaders of those two large communities, particularly the elected officials, to come forward and cool tempers before things get out of hand.
TIME OF CONFRONTATION: The current increasingly tense standoff began when African-Americans, led by Brotherhood Crusade President Danny Bakewell, decided to close down construction sites where riot damage was being repaired if no blacks could be found in the work crews. Bakewell argued, not without some justification, that it is hypocritical and counterproductive to try to rebuild Los Angeles if some of the city's many unemployed blacks don't get some of the jobs produced.
Unfortunately, that strategy led to two widely reported confrontations in which Latino workers were chased from construction sites by Bakewell and some of his supporters. Bakewell, who is not known for a low-key style, compounded one already bad situation by talking to Latino workers harshly and in broken Spanish--a situation that angered many Latinos who felt it showed a lack of respect for the workers, who might have been more cooperative if the situation had been explained to them politely and in proper Spanish.
Last week the Mexican-American activist group N.E.W.S. for America challenged Bakewell. Accusing him of having incited "terrorist attacks," the Latino activists said they will have "sting teams" with video cameras at construction sites around town to monitor any black protests. That may be a bluff, of course, but the possibility that this new tactic could lead to further confrontations--and an escalation in what, so far, has been a war of words and political posturing--cannot be ignored.
That is why it is time for cooler heads to prevail. There are many black and Latino leaders in this city besides Bakewell and N.E.W.S. for America's equally outspoken chairman, Xavier Hermosillo. These other leaders have avoided taking a high-profile stand against the needless rivalry between the two groups. Blacks and Latinos could be working together to revitalize parts of town, like Watts and central Los Angeles, that they share as neighbors, if not always as friends. Bakewell and Hermosillo get as much media attention as they do because they are filling a leadership vacuum created by minority elected officials who seem suddenly afraid to assert themselves.
WANT OF LEADERSHIP: Where have City Council members Richard Alatorre, Mark Ridley-Thomas, Mike Hernandez, Rita Walters and Nate Holden been while all this ethnic hostility was bubbling to the surface? Either lamely saying that work site confrontations are a problem for the police (Walters) or meekly signing their names to a letter endorsing N.E.W.S. for America's confrontational stance (Alatorre and Hernandez). Mayor Tom Bradley, who once took such pride in his strong ties to both the black and Latino communities, has not done enough either. Neither have County Supervisor Gloria Molina and the two African-American women who are running to fill the supervisorial seat representing south Los Angeles, state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) and attorney Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.
Of course, all these politicians can rightly point to things they have done behind the scenes--providing temporary summer jobs for young people, for example, and steering contracts for rebuilding to minority-owned contractors. All well and good, but that is not the issue here. In a city where emotions are still raw in the aftermath of the destruction last spring, politics as usual is not enough. What is called for is more than skilled maneuvering or deal-making. This community needs a little public statesmanship and political courage.
Yes, courage. It will not be easy for an African-American political leader to stand up to a Danny Bakewell and say, "Enough." Nor for Latino politicians to tell Xavier Hermosillo, "Ya basta. " But it will have to be done if Los Angeles is ever to move beyond the politics of me-first.
NEED FOR UNITY: There are groups working in minority neighborhoods around town that have shown what can be done when poor and working-class people come together, regardless of ethnicity. Grass-roots community organizations like the South-Central Organizing Committee, one of the groups promoting the anti-gang Hope in Youth program, or the Los Angeles Community Partnership, a coalition of minority contractors working to rebuild riot-torn areas. The good work such groups do is proof that any rivalry between blacks and Latinos need not create political gridlock.
But all that good work at the grass-roots level could come to naught if the most visible manifestation of the Latino/African-American relationship remains angry confrontations. So it is incumbent on the most prominent black and Latino leaders in town, elected officials, to assert their leadership by trying to calm the waters before the dam breaks again.