Work to Prevent the Next Fire

Joe R. Hicks is the executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission. Stewart Kwoh is the president of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center

As we approach the year 2000, long simmering tensions and conflicts in Los Angeles will cause the city’s social and political fabric to be stretched and tested.

Los Angeles will face a census count, the reshaping of legislative boundary lines and city charter reform proposals. Part of the debate will focus on the possible expansion of City Council districts. These issues are becoming racially and politically loaded and will challenge the ability of local leadership--elected, appointed and community-based--to head off potentially divisive struggles among groups seeking expansion or retention of political control and influence. The lines are hardening and positioning has already begun. Will the 21st century see strong, cooperative and collaborative human relations or will the city implode as the result of ethnic politics?

The growing debate over expanding the the City Council illustrates the problem. The appointed commission has proposed six additional seats; the elected commission’s plan is pending. A coalition of business leaders has offered the most radical plan: a 35-seat City Council. As the plans were put on the table, they came under intense scrutiny for evidence that they would be an advantage or disadvantage to ethnic or racial groups. Other proposals are certain to emerge.

Accommodating legitimate concerns is important. And it should go without saying that people need to feel that their interests are being represented through their elected officials. Much of the city’s charter has been in place for 75 years and needs examining in light of a population explosion and diversification. We are not that far removed from an era in the city’s history when unfair gerrymandering effectively disenfranchised many nonwhite voters. But even with this as a backdrop, it would be foolhardy to believe that the interests of Latino, Asian, black or white voters can only be expressed by someone who looks like them. Real leadership represents the interests of all people within any jurisdiction.


Arguments for the expansion of the City Council should turn on the merits of increased civic participation, more efficient delivery of services and increased accessibility to elected officials. But there is a real need to ensure that laws to protect minority voting rights are protected. The reality is that the times have changed and so have the city’s demographics. In 1960, the city was 80% white. In 1990, the city was 38.17% Latino, 37.29% white, 13.99% African American, 9.81% Asian, .47% American Indian and .28% “others.” Since 1990, these numbers have shifted significantly, with notable growth in Latino and Asian populations. But whatever the change, L.A. will not be a less diverse city.

Our city’s leadership must take a heightened interest in human relations and begin now to take bold steps to head off the troubles that lie ahead. While race may not play the all-pervasive role in our lives that some assert, it is often an important subtext in politics, the economy and social life.

What can be done? The first step would be to identify and then nurture programs and community initiatives that advance us beyond the basic level of racial politics. There is little doubt that changing neighborhood demographics have created tension and conflicts that tend to make the tasks related to racial and ethnic reconciliation difficult. Finger wagging and lectures about “racial tolerance” are simply inadequate. There is far too much emphasis on “celebrating our differences” instead of a recognition that we all share a great deal in common.

Competition for jobs and resources as well as polarizing racial politics compound the problem. Leadership must accept the fact that all our fates are inextricably linked. Community building efforts for economic empowerment must be combined with residents becoming more responsible for building the best possible human relations in their neighborhoods. Citywide leadership forums that bring together significant leaders from throughout the city are conspicuously missing from the current equation.


Part and parcel to the debates raging around city charter changes is the discussion of neighborhood councils. Rarely talked about, however, is how they can be an important human relations vehicle for pulling together parts of this city that rarely communicate. If organized into periodic citywide gatherings of neighborhood representatives, lessons can be learned and interests shared. This possibility of intergroup exchange has not been articulated adequately in the debates about neighborhood councils, and yet such a possibility can make the councils more powerful because they are interconnected and more racially cohesive. Finally, the politics of incumbency, parties, race and geographic interests will make the redistricting process contentious. New technologies and the availability of data will make the ability to propose redistricting plans easier. Interest groups must begin now to discuss their concerns with one another. A civil, informed discussion of minority voting rights can be held without the entire city sinking into an endless abyss of identity politics. Now is precisely the time to find out where and if there is common ground. In 1991, it took Latino and Asian American community leaders two full years to arrive at a unified redistricting proposal for the San Gabriel Valley that was eventually approved by the Legislature and the courts. We must start the dialogue now.

Is the city up to the challenge? It simply must be or face the consequences of dangerous balkanization. Los Angeles is the most complex ethnic environment in the country. Let’s seize the initiative and create new models of ethnic cooperation that can serve as a beacon of light for the rest of the nation.