LARRY KNOWS BEST
It was Larry Elder’s homecoming and almost no one was glad to see him.
The self-proclaimed Sage from South-Central was about to face the rage of South-Central.
For nearly four years, Elder had slapped many members of his own race in the face on the radio, belittling them as whiners or losers, holding himself up as a model of African American excellence. He’d become a darling of white listeners who seemed to almost gush when they telephoned him on KABC talk radio, astonished to find a black man who not only wasn’t going to chastise them, but who also often agreed with them--a black man who declared that race no longer played a significant role in society. You were far more likely to see Larry Elder give a speech at a San Fernando Valley temple than in his native South-Central Los Angeles.
But here he was, on the last day of February, in front of 900 people, all but a handful of them black, in a Crenshaw district theater debating with a militant, dashiki-wearing conspiracy theorist on whether Hollywood and the mass media are racist. The man who loves to play a rock ‘n’ roll anthem called “I Won’t Back Down” was, as always, spoiling for a fight.
He listened to actress Anne-Marie Johnson as she asserted from her seat in the audience that she was “a living testament” to racism in Hollywood. Johnson, who has appeared in numerous films and sitcoms, was outraged at the recent Richard Dreyfuss comedy, “Krippendorf’s Tribe,” in which Dreyfuss and co-star Jenna Elfman paint their bodies black to make a phony anthropological documentary. “If Spike Lee did a film about Jews and gave them horns and a tail and a yarmulke, do you think it would get a green light?” she demanded.
The crowd was on its feet in support. Elder paused and then, deliberately, began reciting a list of names. “Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, Danny Glover, Samuel L. Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Angela Bassett, Cuba Gooding, Alfre Woodard . . .” He droned through three dozen more names.
“Answer the question! Answer the question!” many began chanting.
”. . . Whoopi Goldberg, Gregory Hines, Ice T, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, Halle Berry . . .” He droned through two dozen more.
“Answer the question!”
Elder paused again.
“It sounds to me,” he said, his voice rising over the chanting, stopping a beat for dramatic effect, looking straight at Johnson, “like your career isn’t going that well.”
Meet Laurence A. Elder, a 46-year-old libertarian who delights in turning race on its head.
Elder, a lawyer who owes his Ivy League education to affirmative action, is one of a handful of prominent African Americans--most notably Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Proposition 209 pitchman Ward Connerly--who are demanding a new, colorblind standard, past injustices or personal contradictions be damned. For Elder to stress his South-Central roots (his parents still live near the intersection where the 1992 riots erupted) and yet reject a racial view of the world is like a bus driver slamming his foot on the brakes. Larry Elder is giving a lot of black people whiplash.
Among his simple, incendiary views, which he preaches four hours each weekday: Affirmative action is wrong. Drugs should be decriminalized. Blacks exaggerate the effects of discrimination. O.J. Simpson murdered two innocent people. Too many African American leaders such as Danny Bakewell, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) and state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) teach blacks to accept roles as victims.
But what galls his enemies most is that Elder is winning.
Late last year, to make time for another host, KABC cut his air time in half. A black-led group spearheading a boycott of Elder’s sponsors claimed responsibility. Then Elder’s defenders--some from unlikely quarters--rallied. The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the boycott, and the conservative Center for the Study of Popular Culture spent $400,000 to pepper L.A. cable TV channels with ads depicting Elder as a victim of racism. By early February, KABC restored El-
der’s full 3-to-7 p.m. time slot, filling him with visions of besting rival KFI’s popular afternoon talk team, John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou. Elder publishes his own newsletter (The Elder Statement) and is a frequent face on national TV news analysis programs.
Against this backdrop, the vision of a Maxine Waters-Larry Elder debate is delicious, but it won’t happen. She, like many other prominent blacks, simply ignores him, never returning his phone requests to come on the show (or a reporter’s calls about Elder). Why should she boost the ratings of a man who ridicules her by mixing a recording of a barking dog over her sound bites? What does the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus have to gain against a man whose Web site includes a list of “Fifteen Ways to Avoid Being Called an Uncle Tom”? (Examples: See every Spike Lee movie, always agree with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, never question the legacy of federal social programs and always refer to the L.A. riots as an “uprising.”)
Elder talks provocatively about many more topics than just race relations. But his iconoclastic wit and intellectual agility make him a particularly attractive voice in a nation that seems weary of traditional racial dialogue. Last year, PBS selected him to host a special on race, and he became the subject of a flattering “60 Minutes” profile.
“Who, other than perhaps Rush Limbaugh and some like-minded middle-age white males,” asked an admiring Morley Safer, “would dare air such views--dare say that black leaders should stop whining?”
No matter what race you are, you know a Larry Elder.
Larry Elder is the guy in high school whom you could always whip at chess, who disappears after graduation, then shows up on your doorstep a couple years later with a chessboard in hand and asks: “Wanna play?"--and kicks your butt. Eventually it occurs to you that this is about more than chess. This is about coming back home, about payback, about the onetime loser having the last word. You know that list of black stars Elder recited to blunt Anne-Marie Johnson’s complaint? That might have seemed like a spontaneous rejoinder, but Elder had compiled it in advance. Nobody was going to checkmate him.
Elder was a bookish kid at Crenshaw High School, the self-described “poop-butt” on whom tougher kids picked, the student at Brown University in the early ‘70s who resisted the popular black-militant movement. He was the lawyer who didn’t come back to South-Central, going instead to Cleveland to work at a law firm and to set up a business. He fell into part-time TV and radio gigs in the late ‘80s and returned to Los Angeles as a talk-show host in 1994. He was determined to be different--neither a doctrinaire Democrat nor a Republican, boxed in by neither politics nor race. You would have to accept him as an individual, and this time he would choose the weapons, and they would be words. No matter how much you hated him, you would have to concede that, on the microphone, he could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee:
“I have friends who say: ‘Yeah, Larry, we follow young black people when they come into our stores because we find a disproportionate number of young black people shoplift. That’s why we do it. Now, I would prefer they didn’t shoplift. I want their money, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to, based on that profile, not observe when I see three or four black kids come to my store with baggy pants.’
“Now, if I’m a black kid with baggy pants and I’m not intending to shoplift, of course I’m going to be offended. But what I really ought to be offended at is the large number of my peers causing my image to be besmirched--not the motive of the shop owner. But we as black people are pissed off at the shop owner and we are not pissed off at Jamal, who stole a bag of Doritos the day before that caused this guy to be paranoid about young black men.”
There is a sober hollowness about Larry Elder’s triumph, an emptiness that parallels his Hollywood Hills home far from South-Central, the home where he lives alone, the artfully decorated, immaculate home with no family pictures on the wall.
This vigorous intellectual voice, buffed for verbal combat, cannot seem to find a worthy opponent. His enemies do not want to play.
Elder insists he is not bothered by the isolation. “I feel my relationship with my listeners is evolving,” he says. “My message is a little more difficult to take and I ruffle more feathers than other people who are saying the same old PC stuff. That’s OK, I’m going to get there.” In the minds of listeners, he believes, “I’ve gone from ‘Larry Elder is a self-loathing black’ to ‘someone who we disagree with, but who has a right to say what he says. “
Yet the frustration shows. “They don’t want to stand up to someone tough,” he complains duRing a conversation in his home. “Let’s rock! I’ll debate [Nation of Islam leader Louis] Farrakhan any place, any time. Jesse Jackson--your place or mine?”
Elder’s appearance in Crenshaw, sponsored by a local bookstore, matched him against the political equivalent of a has-been fighter, a black nationalist named Steve Cokely. Cokely, a former special assistant to then-Chicago Mayor Eugene Sawyer, is a ‘70s throwback, given to describing the Founding Father s as “a group of cutthroat whites,” whom Benjamin Franklin cleaned up “and made it look like they ran a democracy.” He made a point of thanking Elder for giving him the exposure.
Elder, wearing a gray suit, began his remarks from a table decorated in red, white and blue with a joke about ex-Klansman David Duke that had brought down the house not long ago when he spoke at a West Valley temple. Here, though, the punch line, mocking Duke as an entrenched racist and anti-Semite, brought only a few scattered chuckles, forcing Elder to explain it: No law could make the Dukes of the world disappear, he said. Blacks simply had to concentrate on hard work and education rather than racism.
Once again, Elder drew the line in the sand that makes him a lightning rod for antagonism: As innocuous as that prescription may sound to whites, it aggravates many blacks, who feel that despite hard work and preparation they have been unable to overcome the historical and lingering barriers of racism. Larry Elder may have grown up in South-Central, his black critics say, and his rhetoric fits comfortably around many black kitchen tables, but he will not sit down for a meal. To many, he has the heart of an outsider.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a black writer and author of “The Assassination of the Black Male Image,” scoffed at the idea of the debate and blames Elder for alienating so many African Americans, particularly those in Los Angeles’ power structure. “We are not going on to make ratings for him,” he says. “You’re Elder, you look around after three years of sledge-hammering the black community, the only one you can debate is someone from some fringe element.”
In the absence of any takers of consequence, Elder relies on those rare telephone calls from critics and on his occasional monologues, which always end with: “You have just heard The Word.” The Word tends to be an anecdote that illustrates a social contradiction or absurdity, and Elder’s aim for the visceral is Reaganesque.
“My friend once invited me to the corner of Olympic and Vermont. Outside that library there are all sorts of Hispanic kids doing wonderful tricks and flips on their skateboards. Then he said, ‘Let’s go inside.’ Wall to wall, Korean Americans and their mothers, standing room only, nary a Hispanic in the building despite the fact that the area is heavily Hispanic. You with me?
“Now fast-foward 20 years. Who is working the deep fries at McDonald’s and who is vice president of sales and marketing at Merck? That is what matters.”
You don’t hear many of them call up, but Larry Elder has a significant number of black fans. They are more likely to write him letters. (“You are like liver, Larry. When you first taste it, it doesn’t taste that good, but later on you realize it ain’t that bad. I’m happy you have the courage to say what our people need to hear even if they don’t want to hear it.”) Their existence underscores the fact that black America has as many political divisions as any race.
Elder grew up in a house full of those kinds of disagreements. He says he got his head from his father and his heart from his mother. Randolph Elder, 82, is a Republican, and Viola, 73, is a Democrat. (Ask Viola about her son’s suggestion that young black men ought to blame young black shoplifters for shopkeepers’ paranoia and she answers diplomatically: “That was a stretch.”)
Try to pin down Elder to one philosophy and your arms get tired. Who else do you know who invites the Jewish Defense League’s Irv Rubin to his speeches and also agrees with 90% of what Farrakhan says? Who else do you know who thinks everyone should be able to carry concealed weapons but believes the district attorney’s office should file manslaughter charges against a shopkeeper who fatally shoots two robbery suspects after chasing them out of his store? (Elder backed off on that position after many listeners chastised him.) He says that despite his anti-big-government libertarian leanings, which include his assertion that all drugs should be legalized, he is registered to vote as an independent.
The Elder clan, which moved here from Chattanooga, Tenn., first lived in the Pico-Union area, where Randolph Elder owned and operated a breakfast cafe while working two janitorial jobs. When Larry was 7, they moved to the working-class neighborhood of South-Central that has been the family home for nearly four decades.
Larry was the middle child, different from his two brothers, Kirk and Dennis, the latter of whom abused drugs and died last year at 43. “Larry was serious about school and read all the time,” says his mother. “Once he was reading a book about Dr. Charles Drew [who discovered medical uses for blood plasma]. All of a sudden I heard a big BAM! He had taken the book and thrown it a fter reading somewhere that Drew had died because he was not allowed to get a blood transfusion because of his color.” (Drew actually died as white surgeons, who happened to recognize him, worked to save his life, most historian s now agree.)
The Elders shared little of their past racial hardships with their sons. “We didn’t want to limit them,” Viola says. “We didn’t want them to use race as a crutch.”
The neighborhood’s sharpest student was also the best friend of the area’s top athlete, a kid named Perry Brown. “We used to ride the bus together to the movies and we had these vocabulary cards, testing each other,” Brown says.
Their friendship taught Elder lessons he continues to recount. One was his belief that Brown’s lack of discipline squandered his tremendous athletic ability. “You don’t get where you want to go just on your merit,” Elder says.
Another lesson, which took longer, was to stop backing down. “I was 67 pounds in the seventh grade and I had my locker between James and Jimmy, two bullies,” he says. “It’s 1964 and Muhammad Ali just beat Sonny Liston. James and Jimmy are talking about the fight, and I’m minding my own business when one of them decides to demonstrate the punch that knocked out Liston. He took his fist, swung it around and bam! Right into my chest. I thought I was going to die.”
Which brings us to the moment of truth, which involves a couple of other bullies who tormented him routinely on his four-block walk home from school. “One time they had me cornered. Suddenly I hear a voice from behind me: ‘Larry, don’t run!’ It was Perry. He ran over and said, ‘You touch Larry Elder one more time and I’m going to kick your ass.’ They looked at each other and ran. They never bothered me again. That was Perry. Perry was the baddest one you ever saw. He didn’t win every fight, but he never backed down. That is what I admired in him. He said, ‘Larry, it is important for you to fight even if you lose.’ ”
These days Perry Brown calls himself Abdul Gaidi and still lives in his mother’s house. He says it saddens him to listen to Elder on the radio because it reminds him that Elder takes for granted the advantage of growing up with two parents, while Gaidi had to grow up largely on his own.
“He has this great forum. To me it’s being misused,” Gaidi says. “I try to listen to his show, but sometimes I just have to turn it off.”
Elder exhausted Crenshaw High’s courses, and took a bus to Fairfax High for supplemental advanced classes. In 1970, he became one of a surging number of African Americans entering Ivy League schools under the first wave of affirmative action programs that admitted minority students with below-standard grade-point averages and SAT scores.
“Sometimes I regret that I checked that box” indicating race on his college application, he says when asked about the familiar complaint that he is a hypocrite for staunchly opposing affirmative action. “That doesn’t mean I wasn’t going somewhere.”
At Brown in Rhode Island, he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. He then went to the University of Michigan for his law degree and moved to Cleveland to work for one of the nation’s most prestigious law firms. He quit after three years to open Laurence A. Elder and Associates Inc., an executive search firm specializing in recruiting and placing attorneys. In the mid-'80s he began hosting a local weekly PBS television show. One day Dennis Prager, a Jewish KABC talk-show host whose disdain for liberalism had alienated many Jews, came into town as a visiting guest host. The pair struck up a friendship, and Prager eventually helped arrange a job offer that Elder took despite a salary he describes as 75% less than what his Cleveland business was generating. He left behind a crumbling marriage that later ended in divorce.
It didn’t take him long to begin rubbing some African Americans the wrong way. Out of the black community came anonymous fliers accusing Elder of hate speech, describing him as a “White Man’s Poster Boy” and a “boot-licking Uncle Tom.”
The roots of the 2 1/2-year-old boycott are murky. Initially, members of a secretive local group called Talking Drum claimed responsibility for the boycott. Later, the group denied it. But it is clear that the protest is still active. Several months ago, a reporter attended a Talking Drum meeting at a health food store on Crenshaw Boulevard and watched a man rise before 100 people and hand out form letters addressed to Elder’s radio sponsors, demanding they cease advertising on his show because it denigrated blacks. The man refused to answer questions or identify himself.
The impact of the boycott was clearer. KABC estimated that Elder’s sponsors canceled about $3 million in advertising during the past two years. All the while, station executives insisted that the boycott had nothing to do with their decision to temporarily cut Elder’s air time.
The boycott drew criticism from black leaders who usually disagree with Elder. Nevertheless, it wounded him and his family emotionally.
His mother’s church of 32 years withdrew an invitation asking him to speak. (“My mother was so upset that she quit.”) At his 25th high school reunion, an angry classmate confronted him. “I told him, ‘You know, I don’t give a
f - - - what you think.’ ”
A Junior Walker and the All Stars instrumental, “Way Back Home,” is playing as Elder moves into the last hour of his Monday evening show.
“Buenas tardes, Los Angeles!” he shouts over the airways. “The Court of Radio Free California is back in session!”
Elder wants to talk about the weekend’s Crenshaw debate. He has played taped snippets from it several times today, including his confrontation with Anne-Marie Johnson and a remark made by another member of the Crenshaw audience, who asked ominously: “How do you have the audacity to sit up here and support white America? You should be happy that you are walking out of here alive, because there are brothers that are tired of people selling out. And you better watch your back.”
There’s a lot of love in that room, Elder tells his listeners sarcastically, and as Tom Petty sings, “You could stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down,” he breaks to a commercial.
A little later, Ricky, a sympathetic black caller from Los Angeles, comes on the line.
“I was wondering why you decided to go to that place that you knew was bound to be hostile.”
“Why do you think I went, Ricky?”
“I think that you felt that someone had to do it. To be honest with you, I’m not a coward, but I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
“Ricky, that is precisely why I did it. Someone had to do it.”