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Joe Hicks

<i> Warren Olney is host of KCRW's "Which Way LA?"</i>

In the 1993 campaign for mayor, Joe R. Hicks supported former City Councilman Mike Woo against Richard Riordan. At the outset of Riordan’s first term, Hicks says, he was a “vocal critic,” even a “detractor,” who believed the Republican businessman was satisfied with the status quo in racial issues. So why, in December of last year, when Riordan wanted leadership for a new, dramatically expanded city Human Relations Commission did he pick Hicks?

Hicks says their relationship began to change after he uttered some scathing public criticism of Riordan, which turned out to have been based on a false report. Hicks can’t remember the details, but says, “Riordan had the guts to call me up to tell me why I was wrong, and that was the beginning of a respectful relationship.” When the position of executive director of the Human Relations Commission came up, Hicks applied. He now says that, because he had carved a niche as “a neutral, impartial person who did not represent any particular racial or ethnic group,” the mayor and the city council agreed he was right for the job.

Hicks now occupies an office on the seventh floor of City Hall East, where he administers a budget of more than $900,000 and a staff of 15 people, a far cry from the two- or three-person operation of pre-Riordan days. Hicks came to the job from the Multicultural Collaborative, a privately funded, public interest group he helped to found after the 1992 riots, in hopes of “transcending racial and ethnic divisions.”

Previously, Hicks held important positions with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Service Employees International Union. He helped found the Black-Korean Alliance. Other causes he’s been involved in include police reform, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights and the abolition of apartheid in South Africa. The 57-year-old Hicks is married and has two small children.

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Oddly enough, the “neutral” position he takes today represents a 180-degree turn since the aftermath of the Watts riot in 1965. Then, Hicks was leading a “dual existence,” as gas company employee and radical black separatist. In his office, he talked about the turning points in his thinking and his vision for the Human Relations Commission.

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Question: Where were you during the Watts riot?

Answer: I was living on 80th Street, right off Broadway, close to what was called “Charcoal Alley,” at Florence and Broadway, and I could look down the street and watch people carrying sofas and televisions across the street. One night, during the curfew, these National Guardsmen pulled down my street and ordered me off my porch. I didn’t move. When they pulled up again about 15 minutes later, one of them trained a gun on me and said, “Nigger, I said get off your porch and go in the house.” That time, I did comply, but I was seething. Right down the street was the headquarters of an organization called US. I walked in and signed up.

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Q: Was US related to the Black Panther Party?

A: No it was not. The Panthers were reading Marx and Mao and working with white radicals like the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground. US was a black nationalist movement, very much into Pan-African culture, that believed vehemently in not working at all with any white people in any way, shape or form. No alliances, no coalitions. We ridiculed Marx, because Marx was white and we couldn’t be caught reading ideology by some German Jew.

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Q: What happened with US and the Panthers?

A: It developed into a full-fledged war between the two organizations, not just here in L.A., but nationally. There were two deaths on the campus at UCLA. One day, some young US members went to San Diego, and I was assigned to pick up one of them at the airport when he came home. He proudly recounted walking up to a Panther in a phone booth and blowing his brains out. I said to myself, “Young people are killing each other for no reason. What the hell am I doing here?” I got out of US--and I ended up in the Communist Party.

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Q: What was its appeal?

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A: I guess I admired people who had changed their nations. The Chinese, the Vietnamese who liberated themselves from the French, the Cubans, and some of the parties in Africa. I was attracted to that form of social and political change, and I began to read the Socialist classics, Marx and then Lenin.

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Q: What happened to your racism? Why, suddenly, were you taking seriously people who weren’t black?

A: I also read cultural anthropology and, much as I tried to refute and take issue, it just eliminated from my mind this notion that people are driven to do things by genetics, much less by their appearance. I began to question the contrast between the wonderful, warm, sun-loving African people as opposed to the cold, barbaric Europeans with their genetically driven need to dominate the world. . . . I was looking for more realistic political movements that could move entire nations. I saw this international movement of nations collaborating with each other, all based on the writings of this German Jew and, after that, it was very difficult to hold to these backward notions of a racial imperative.

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Q: Did you travel to the Soviet Union?

A: That was another turning point for me. I expected streets paved with gold and the absence of class distinctions. Instead, I saw exactly what all the “enemies of the Soviet Empire” had been describing. It was gray, colorless and full of drab people looking forlorn and beaten down. Only members of the Communist Party wore good clothes, drove cars, ate at the state-owned restaurants. There was favoritism wherever you looked. The status of women was abysmal. . . . I came back [home] disillusioned. . . .

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Q: But you still wanted to make social change?

A: Yes. I began . . . reading material I’d only just skimmed before--by and about those old figures of the civil rights movement I had totally disregarded, even ridiculed, as dupes and fools and apologists for the American system. I really began to read [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] and Thurgood Marshall. . . . It was really a gradual process that began in the 1940s, but it culminated in the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s, which finally made discrimination illegal. Not that there won’t be prejudice for generations to come--but nowhere in America today is there a law that allows it.

The changes that have taken place in this nation are amazing, but they often don’t get their due--even from African Americans and other minorities who have been the major beneficiaries. So, here were the truly radical folks who actually altered the face of America, and brought down the Cotton Wall, just like the Berlin Wall was finally brought down.

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Q: Things had changed after all?

A: In a revolutionary way--right under my nose--and I had dismissed it, because I thought violence was the only way. I had to reorient my own life toward completing the civil rights agenda: enforcing the laws against bigotry and moving on toward the goal of creating one America.

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Q: You were active in the campaign against Proposition 209, which eliminated affirmative action, even debating David Duke, the white supremacist. Did that change your thinking about creating “one America”?

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A: It got me reinvested with an almost religious zeal in the movement to make this a racially inclusive nation beyond peoples’ skin color. . . . [In the debate], I was struck most of all by Duke’s insistence that he was just like all the other folks engaging in race-based identity politics. He said, ‘If black folks have the NAACP, why can’t whites have the Assn. for the Advancement of White People?’ or what ever he calls it. . . .

Now, of course, the history of racism, backed up by laws enforcing slavery and discrimination, was the reason for the NAACP and other groups. But I came to realize that the entrenched racial investment that we condemn in Duke or the Aryan Nation is only tolerated in others because of that history. There’s a reason now to question where it will ultimately lead us.

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Q: Where?

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A: It’s the road to Bosnia. To tribalization and fragmentation. The American nation cannot possibly survive if we are to be simply a loose federation of different groups each trying to extract what’s good for itself. Now, the remembrance of discrimination is still fresh in the minds of a lot of people, and there’s still enough discrimination to make people think they have to organize on racial lines, so it’s not popular now to argue against identity-interest politics. But I think Mayor Riordan and the city council would like to see the Human Relations Commission speak with an independent voice and advocate a new kind of politics.

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Q: What’s the first step?

A: What I’d like to see is a good, healthy public debate. We need to ask if we aren’t far enough removed from the era of legal discrimination that we can talk about dismantling identity politics. What do polls show about people’s attitudes about race and intermarriage and integrated housing and job sites? America is sometimes described as an irredeemably racist nation. Is that really true? Or has it made more progress than some people might want to acknowledge as we stand at the edge of a new century?

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Q: How does the Human Relations Commission fit in?

A: The rightful role for government in this realm is not to preach at people. It’s about looking at the realities of a city that is reassembling itself because of demographic change. Like it or not, Latinos, African Americans, Central Americans and other people are living side by side in many parts of the city. We need to rebuild a sense of neighborhood, an ethic of sharing.

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Q: How do you do that?

A: For the first time in history, the Human Relations Commission is fielding project coordinators, setting them up in neighborhoods where tensions are greatest. They’re trained to use conflict resolution and mediation in creative ways. For example, when there’s a perceived slight by a merchant from a different ethnic background, or a conflict over who controls the school, or suspicion that one group is getting a better deal in a housing project, they’ll step in--first to make sure there is no injustice going on, and then to help defuse the situation.

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Q: You’ve been through a lot of intellectual phases and career changes. Is there any pattern?

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A: I think there’s been a continuum of political development that’s taken place incrementally over 30 years. I’ve been willing to question myself in quiet moments and, when I’m uncomfortable with the answers, I’ve searched for a better way. I’ve matured since the ‘60s, when we thought it would take a revolutionary movement to transform the nation. For example, I now look at Dr. King and see him as a race-transcendent, prophetic figure who can’t be claimed solely by African Americans or any other group. He started, of course, with blacks--the most oppressed Americans of all--but since race doesn’t make any sense scientifically, he offered a broader vision of the nation as a better place for all people. You can draw a line from the coalition politics I now embrace back to Dr. King as a thinker and radical political figure.

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Q: What made you go into government?

A: I had to think long and hard about that. I realized that, in the arena of race and human relations, I was trying to work across the lines of apparent difference among people to create the best conditions not only for self-interest but for the greater good. It seemed to me that was the proper role of government, and I concluded that I could work from within to make government more actively responsive to people’s needs. We’ll have to wait several years to see if that’s right or wrong.

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Q: What evidence is there that this is the way to go in Los Angeles?

A: There isn’t any. Human relations is imprecise; it’s not a science. We’re making it up as we go. But it’s obvious that the nation is undergoing a huge demographic shift. Fifty years into the next century, there won’t be any one majority population. Latinos will replace African Americans as the largest minority. The Asian population will be enormous. Los Angeles is the most dramatic example of these changes and the tensions they inevitably produce. We’ve seen what happens when those tensions boil to the surface, as they did in Watts in 1965 and again in 1992. We have no alternative to testing as many models as we can and then trying to replicate them, to create a shared sense of the future so that we won’t be divided in very ugly ways.

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Q: Is your job to prevent the next riot?

A: No. If I thought that was my job, I wouldn’t be here. Calming people and keeping things quiet is the Band-Aid approach. I’m not talking about just refereeing battles between different ethnic or racial groups that think they have different interests. We need to jar that ethnocentric orthodoxy, even if it makes people uncomfortable. Of course, there’s been a history of bigotry and discrimination. Ethnic differences have been useful to organize around. But, we have to get beyond that. The concept of difference based on race or ethnicity is absurd. Wherever you go, whoever you talk to, whether they say it in Yiddish or Ebonics or Spanish or English, people want their kids educated, they want good jobs, they want affordable, clean housing, they want what everybody else wants.

All the elements are in place here to show the world that people of different religions, skin colors, sexual orientations, and class distinctions, can come together and see the common good that overrides ethnocentricity and identity-interest politics. Cities like Houston, Chicago and Miami are beginning to look like Los Angeles, so this is exciting. We can create models that they can apply, too. Government has often been lambasted as part of the problem. Here’s a chance for government to use conflict to reach a higher level of understanding and be part of the solution.


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