"You have neighborhoods changing ethnically literally overnight, displacing people--and displaced people never feel good."
Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles
L.A.'s Veneer Stripped to Show Blemishes
Part of it was expert sleight of hand, some of it executed with mirrors, trick lenses. The high-flown public image of Los Angeles sprang up as if by magic: a searchlight-swept Hollywood facade, obscuring the nastier blemishes--frustration, anger, urban strife--which periodically threatened to mar the veneer.
Then came Watts, and Rodney G. King, and now O.J. Simpson, and the city's racial rapport teeters the factions staunchly divided. A place once viewed as idyllic and tolerant, a palm-lined paradise, has come to be seen as quite the opposite--a worst-case example.
"In many ways, L.A. symbolizes the racism in this country like probably no other city," said Richard G. Majors, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. "It's become the poster city for racism in America."
The truth is, Los Angeles has never been the perfect melting pot, with equal opportunity for all--nor is it the most racist of major urban hubs. It is, instead, a fast-changing metropolis where race relations are complicated by many of the same traits that lend the city its distinctive character: its newness, its wealth, its sprawling landscape, even its snaking system of freeways.
L.A.'s racial complexity is staggering. Like moving parts in a lurching, sputtering Rube Goldberg contraption, various sub-groups form an array of micro-cities divided by class, race, ethnicity and religion. As some neighborhoods merge, others secede from one another.
"You have neighborhoods changing ethnically literally overnight, displacing people--and displaced people never feel good," said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. "and it's not only a Latino, black, white thing: You can see it in Monterey Park, which went from being white to increasingly Latino, to now increasingly Asian, and you hear Latinos talking about Asians the way blacks talk about Latinos, and the way whites talk about blacks."
Situations arise that seldom, if ever, exist anywhere else in the world, demonstrating time and again the vexing nature of racial problems in Los Angeles.
On a single street in South-Central a few years ago, four cultures came together came together, clashing like mismatched gears. The home-owners were mostly blacks, living side by side with newly arrived Latino immigrants who occupied several large apartment houses. At each end of the block was a family-owned convenience store--one run by Koreans, the other by Vietnamese.
The blacks thought that Latinos were ruining the neighborhood: growing corn in their front yards, working on junker cars in the street. The Asian store owners refused to allow schoolchildren to place fund-raising signs in their shop windows. Language and cultural barriers prevented anyone from talking, so the anger smoldered until some blacks began moving out; others mounted a "Don't move, improve" campaign.
"Everyone was up in arms," said Christopher McCauley, executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission, which intervened to try to defuse the tensions. It used to be, McCauley said, that most neighborhoods had individuals--typically older men and women--who would step in and mediate such problems. But cultural tensions in Los Angeles have ratcheted up so far, become so entwined with violence and crime, that would-be peacemakers have retreated to the safety of their homes. "A lot of the human relations infrastructure of the city has broken down," he said.
The rules of racial interaction in L.A. are sometimes as difficult to read as hieroglyphics, symbols that vary from one neighborhood to the next.
Shop owners on one block in the heavily Latino Pico-Union district fear warring Mexican and Salvadoran gangs, worry about homeless blacks who have been blamed for robberies in the neighborhood, and try to avoid one homeless white woman who slaps at young Latinos and yells at them to go back to Mexico, said Yahaira Arauz, a Nicaraguan fitness instructor who stood in one storefront with a fresh bullet hole in the window.
In the mid-Wilshire district, Korean immigrant Chris John worries about street gangs, but less about the black gangs than the Latinos. the blacks "are pretty cool," he said, but the Latino gangs--which have robbed him twice at gunpoint--have caused John to consider moving west, toward whiter, less-crime-filled neighborhoods.
Racial bias here can be subtle, or extreme. A Latino construction worker recalled waiting got buy a silk tie in a Beverly Hills men's store--and being stared through "like glass" by the Armenian staff.
Donald Baker tells a far more unnerving story. That black high school teacher said that when a burglar entered his home in South-Central, he called the police for help and ended up in handcuffs, even after meeting officers at his door with an I.D.
"They talked to me like I was the burglar," Bakeer said. "They ... never 'respected and served," cause that's not the neighborhood where they do that."
Newcomers are often startled by the intricacy of Los Angeles' racial dynamics, especially after arriving from less-fragmented cities where racial issues involve only two or three groups.
"It's more intense here,: said novelist Bebe Moore Campbell, who moved from Philadelphia.