Black isn’t enough

ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN is a contributing editor to Opinion.

THE SENSE OF triumph was almost audible in the giant banner headline that ran in last week’s Los Angeles Sentinel, the city’s oldest black newspaper: “Laura Richardson Wins”.

Richardson, the first-term assemblywoman from Long Beach, will likely be catapulted to Congress after a special election to fill the House seat of Juanita Millender-McDonald, who died in April. Out of a field of 17 Democrats, Richardson came in first. She still faces a runoff among the winners from other parties in August, but she’s the overwhelming favorite in the heavily Democratic district.

Consternation over who would replace McDonald in the 37th Congressional District had been rampant among the black political elite and others who felt that another African American must replace McDonald. They wanted to maintain a hold on a black seat, even as the district’s Latino population surges. In fact, Richardson’s top challenger was a Latina, fellow state legislator Jenny Oropeza, which only increased blacks’ fear of displacement and ratcheted up the stakes.


The Sentinel’s glee isn’t surprising -- in this era of dwindling percentages, any win for black folks is viewed as complete victory, an end in itself.

It’s understandable. It’s also too bad. Lost in the obsession about the horse race was any discussion of what Richardson might actually do for black constituents. It’s a discussion that happens all too rarely, as this virtually issue-free campaign made clear.

Yet there is some hope that black voters are finally realizing that it is the issues, not simply being represented by someone of the same skin color, that matters. In the same week the community was breathing a sigh of relief over Richardson’s showing, it also was breathing some fire to reporters over county Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke’s unconscionably long silence on the fate of the hospital formerly known as King/Drew, which most of black L.A. wants to see fixed, not closed.

Burke made it easy for her critics by declaring two years ago that the hospital would be closed “over my dead body” (an unfortunate choice of expressions, as it turned out). But the fact that some blacks have broken the code of silence on the performance of a black elected official, especially one as generally well-liked as Burke, is significant.

Of course, Burke is hardly the only black pol who deserves to be taken to task for letting down her constituency. The truth is, too many black politicians commit worse sins of inaction, which has had a cumulatively disastrous effect on black communities suffering from high rates of incarceration, gang activity, unemployment, underemployment, sluggish economic development -- you name it.

Black politicians all know the issues, at least superficially, and they’re all skilled at delivering I-feel-your-pain speeches at every (campaign) opportunity. They simply don’t address the problems, or they don’t address them enough. Talking the talk is the main thing they deliver.

Unfortunately, that’s all their constituents seem to require of them. The problem isn’t that black people are voting for black candidates, it’s that they don’t hold their representatives accountable.

THERE ARE A LOT of reasons why: lack of a coherent agenda to measure officials against, a romantic belief that black politicians always have the interests of black people at heart, fear of jeopardizing the increasingly tenuous state of black representation by complaining about it and -- this is particularly acute in L.A. -- a tendency to see politicians as celebrities. There’s also the practical impossibility of figuring out exactly who’s responsible for what hasn’t been done -- the old conundrum of proving a negative.

But even when there is a course of action to criticize, blacks usually don’t. In 2000, when racial profiling was a hot-button issue, then-Assemblyman Kevin Murray championed a bill that would have required law enforcement to collect ethnic data on every motorist stopped, which many blacks applauded as long overdue. But Murray eventually sold out that bill for a weaker one that didn’t have the crucial data collection requirement, a move that cost him nothing politically.

For years, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) supported the demands of middle-class Vermont Knolls residents to get retail stores and restaurants into an area in South L.A. still affected by the 1992 riots. In 2005, she fell silent when a county services building went up in that neighborhood over residents’ objections; turns out Waters’ husband was a consultant on the project.

At least Waters has consistently sided with the community on crucial and sometimes unpopular issues, including saving King/Drew. Although that begs a question: Where is she now? As the most potent force behind the grass-roots “Save King/Drew” movement, Waters’ absence now is in some ways more perplexing than Burke’s.

The lesson is that blacks simply cannot expect Richardson to be any kind of savior, especially now. Without expectations articulated by black communities and enforced by their leaders, victories like Richardson’s -- and elected officials’ of any color -- will likely remain hollow.