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Setting the Record Straight on Compton : Race relations: One youth’s police-abuse complaint is being misused to distort a history of black-Latino tolerance.

<i> Legrand H. Clegg II is the Compton city attorney. </i>

The city of Compton has been the center of nationwide attention ever since a videotape revealed what appears to be hostile contact between an African American Compton police officer and a 17-year-old Latino on July 29. Although investigations into the incident have just begun, some Latino activists have already invoked the memory of the Rodney King case and are blaming the affair on black racism in Compton.

Arnulfo Alatorre Jr., president of the Latino Chamber of Commerce, made the astonishing allegation that “Latinos are treated worse by city officials than the blacks were treated by whites in South Africa.” Others complain that no Latinos are employed in City Hall. Still others accuse black elected officials of indifference toward Latino complaints in the July 29 incident. None of this is true.

In Compton, a complex relationship has evolved between Latinos and African Americans over the past 50 years. Before World War II, many Latinos lived in Compton, but blacks were not welcome. After the war, Compton was one of the few suburbs where African Americans were allowed to buy homes. They moved to Compton in large numbers until the black population reached its peak of 73% in 1980.

After the outbreak of civil unrest in neighboring Watts in 1965, white people began to leave Compton, and the Latino middle class appears to have joined the flight. In the early 1980s, a new, less affluent class of Latinos began moving into the city, and today it constitutes about half of Compton’s population.

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The black reception of this new group has been anything but racist. African Americans have never burned crosses on the lawns of Latinos. Black children have not withdrawn from schools integrated by Latinos. Nor has Compton witnessed a black flight in response to the changing demographics. Local African-American merchants frequently hire Latinos, and large numbers of black people patronize Latino businesses.

This is not to suggest that Latinos have no legitimate grievances in Compton. There is, for example, a dearth of Latino representation on some levels of local government. Is this, however, due to racist policies? The evidence suggests not.

There are two politically active groups in Compton. The most prominent is the African American middle class, which is largely composed of senior citizens who have resided in the city for 30 years or more. The second is a tiny but vocal body of Latino leaders who own local businesses but generally do not reside in the city.

Regrettably, because residency is a requirement for seeking public office, few Latino leaders have done so in Compton. Moreover, the Latino population does not, in large measure, participate in political events, and generally votes in minuscule numbers. Nevertheless, in a city where the voting population is 80% black, two officials who have had the longest terms in public office have been white and Latino.

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African Americans began to integrate City Hall in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Since black people suffer most from employment discrimination, many are reluctant to change jobs once they have found security. Therefore, a number of African Americans, who were hired by the city when blacks were a majority, have remained in its employ for 15 or 20 years.

Over the past two decades, however, African Americans certainly have not been the only people employed by the city. Among others, numerous Latinos have been hired, and many of them are paid bonuses for their bilingual skills.

Just as it is unfair to accuse black officials of historical racism toward Latinos in Compton, it is equally wrong to charge them with indifference in the current crisis. Upon receiving a complaint from the arrested youth, the Compton Police Department began an internal investigation. After viewing the videotape, the mayor called a press conference, not only to apprise the public of the department inquiry but also to state that the officer involved had been placed on paid leave, and to reiterate that the district attorney had been invited to conduct an independent investigation to ensure impartiality.

The mayor has also held numerous dialogues with Latino leaders since this controversy began. Black clergymen and leaders of the local NAACP have pledged to work with Latino groups and city officials to see that the events surrounding the July 29 incident are fully investigated.

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Finally, black fury over the Rodney King beating followed years of brutality by white police officers against African Americans in the South and in urban ghettos. To compare the King incident with the present case, thereby accusing the officer of racism simply because he is black and the youth Latino, is highly inflammatory and a gross exaggeration.


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