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A Different Approach to L.A. Politics

Gregory Rodriguez, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a research scholar at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and a fellow at the Washington-based New America Foundation

At first glance, few would have predicted that the campaign for the District 1 seat on the L.A. School Board would wind up racially charged. After all, two-term incumbent Barbara M. Boudreaux and her opponent, Southern Christian Leadership Conference director Genethia Hayes, are both African American. Yet, as much as the campaign is about differing approaches to representing one of the lowest-achieving districts in L.A. Unified, it is also a clash of two fundamentally opposing views of the role of race in politics.

Boudreaux, who has been endorsed by many prominent black officials in Los Angeles, has cast her opponent and her African American supporters as race traitors who will “sell out” black students. Boudreaux, who endorsed Richard Riordan in 1997, now accuses the mayor, who is backing Hayes, of playing “plantation politics,” of “using the in-house slave to control the workers in the fields.” She also has criticized Hayes backers Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) and Assembly Speaker Antonio R. Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) for meddling where they don’t belong.

In contrast, Hayes has called for an end to this type of racialized politics in favor of a “multiethnic politics of reconciliation.” She pledges to serve not only the interests of African Americans, but also of the majority of students in the district, who are Latino. Backed by Los Angeles Human Relations Commission executive director Joe Hicks and civil-rights attorney Connie Rice, among others, Hayes describes her candidacy as “a monumental departure in black politics.” Her coalition-building strategy, she contends, sets an example for other black candidates who want to win at a time when the African American share of the population is declining.

Although unusual in its tenor, the Boudreaux-Hayes debate about race in politics is emblematic of a larger struggle among local African American political leaders over the future of black representation. Within the last five years or so, there has been a series of news reports and commentaries announcing the imminent demise of L.A.'s black political establishment. The suburbanization and dispersal of the region’s black population, coupled with the Latinization of what were once solidly black political districts, have led some analysts to predict that African American political representation will be cut in half within a decade. L.A.'s black officials are devising ways to avert these dire predictions.

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Their support for Boudreaux notwithstanding, most major African American officials in Los Angeles publicly declare that race is no longer--and should not be--the preeminent issue on their agenda. City Councilwoman Rita Walters, once part of a movement to secure African American representation for black constituents but whose district is now majority-Latino, says she hopes that “people wouldn’t just elect someone on the basis of race.” But more than just a strategy for political survival, the deracialization of black politics directly flows from a deracialized white politics.

The first generation of African American officeholders arose after blacks were systematically excluded from power by whites. The succeeding generation does not feel it is working under similar constraints. For example, state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles), chair of the Black Legislative Caucus, challenges the “concept of racially polarized voting” in California. “Sometimes, communities ghettoize themselves,” he says. “We ought to change our assumption that a black candidate can’t be competitive in a nonblack district.”

In 2000, the Black Caucus is aiming to back as many as three or four black candidates running in predominantly Anglo districts throughout the state, including the 17th Assembly District in San Joaquin County, which is less than 10% African American. Noting that recent Latino political gains have occurred in majority-white districts, Murray and others acknowledge that they’re borrowing a page from the Latino Caucus playbook and its head, state Sen. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles).

The essence of Polanco’s strategy to elect Latinos in non-Latino districts has been to support candidates who were raised in diverse areas and have both transethnic appeal and moderate ideological backgrounds. Similarly, the Black Caucus will be seeking African American candidates who grew up in multiethnic suburban districts and are comfortable with a more mainstream agenda. The new “crossover” agenda will be as concerned with economics, health care, education and the environment as with civil rights.

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Rep. Julian L. Dixon (D-Los Angeles), whose diverse district may already make him the prototype of the future black politician, says that even African American politicians who represent traditionally black seats will feel the pressure to redefine their approach to issues. “To be successful in the future, they’re going to have to reach out to coalition politics and broaden their agendas,” he says. “Some black officials have always been that way, and others are going to grow into it.”

Successful crossover black candidates are not new to California. Former Mayor Tom Bradley, former Lt. Gov. Mervyn M. Dymally and former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Wilson C. Riles are solid examples. But term limits at the local and state levels are forcing politically ambitious blacks to cultivate broader bases if they want to move up the political ladder. “I think that any politician who has any ambition knows that you can’t be a single-issue candidate,” says L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke. Freshman Assemblyman Herb J. Wesson Jr. of Southwest L.A. prides himself on having won all the predominately Anglo precincts in his district, which includes Culver City. A strong believer in the need for more black “crossover” candidates, Wesson says the current political climate makes it unwise for a candidate of any ethnicity to pigeonhole himself ethnically.

David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, says that the declining emphasis on race in black politics is a national phenomenon that can be traced to a generational shift in African American leadership. “The first generation of black leaders who came straight out of the civil rights movement are no longer dominant,” he says. “You’re seeing a newer generation, who are looking for broader positions of power. They don’t ignore race, but they are much more cognizant of the broader politics.”

Many local black officials emphasize that expanding their appeal doesn’t make them any less African American. Some contend that their ability to serve African Americans actually depends on accumulating greater influence in the larger political world.

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But the rise of crossover black politicians is driven as much by changes among Anglo Americans as among black Americans. Political scientists are finding signs that racially polarized voting by whites is abating in many parts of the country. Not only do the majority of big-city black mayors in America represent nonblack-majority cities, but also nine African Americans elected to Congress last year were from majority-white districts, including Democratic Reps. Melvin L. Watt of Charlotte, N.C., and Cynthia A. McKinney of suburban Atlanta. One remarkable trend working in these candidates favor is the narrowing of the gap between the perceptions and attitudes of younger black and white Americans. In opinion polls, older whites and blacks are the farthest apart of any groups on race-related issues, while younger generations of each race are increasingly closer to each other on the same issues. This phenomenon makes it easier for black candidates to transcend race and appeal to the shared opinions and interests of a diverse constituency.

Still, for all the changes in black political discourse, the heavy endorsement of Boudreaux is evidence that even the cruder forms of racial politics are not yet vanquished. Inglewood Assemblyman Ed Vincent has warned that L.A.'s black leadership must shift to the new style of politics soon or “there’ll be hard times ahead.” While L.A.'s African American political establishment has begun to speak more of “crossover politics,” the next few election cycles will reveal how much black candidates actually embrace broader coalition agendas in practice.*


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