The fantasy of L.A.'s ‘race war’

Get this: A new study by three UC Irvine criminologists has concluded that Los Angeles is not on the brink of a major interracial crime wave. Surprised? That’s understandable. Because for the last several years, the media have been increasingly fixated on the specter of black-versus-brown violence.

Last January, a CNN anchorwoman asked a visibly perturbed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa whether Los Angeles was “in the middle of a race war.” That same month, this newspaper published an opinion piece claiming that “Latino ethnic cleansing of African Americans from multiracial neighborhoods” was an “increasingly common trend.”

Yes, there have been high-profile incidents of Latino-black violence (mostly involving gang members in and outside of prison), but, as the new study’s authors suggest, those stories tend to be sensationalized in the media to make those crimes seem like the rule rather than the exception. Furthermore, whereas the antics of white thugs are generally treated as unreflective of the opinions of whites at large, the media often interpret the actions of black and Latino criminals as the logical extension of the sentiments of the majority of their law-abiding ethnic brethren.

Granted, the study’s findings are nothing to brag about. A murder is a murder is a murder. But other than “a blip” in black-on-Latino homicides in 2005 and another in Latino-on-black killings in 2006, the study’s authors conclude that there is no upward trend in interracial violent crime.

According to the study, which focused on six years of data from four precincts in the Los Angeles Police Department’s South Bureau, street violence has been overwhelmingly intra-racial rather than interracial. According to scholars John R. Hipp, George E. Tita and Lindsay N. Boggess, “blacks are about 500% more likely to assault a fellow black than a Latino and about 650% more likely to murder a fellow black.” For their part, Latino offenders are also much more likely to assault or murder a fellow Latino than an African American.


So why has the media been so quick to embrace the specter of full-scale black-Latino warfare?

Well, let’s face it, newspapers and other media are not above playing on readers’ fears (or maybe even their wishes). In this paper, a January story titled “Racial attacks by gangs rising, L.A. officials fear” ran on the front page, whereas the article on the new study of racial crime was published on the fourth page in Section B.

Still, I suspect there’s more at play than just the mere selling of newspapers. A nationwide Gallup poll in August on race relations may hold some clues. When pollsters inquired about the state of black-white relations, 75% of Anglo respondents said they were either very good or somewhat good. But when asked about black-Hispanic relations, Anglo respondents were much less upbeat, with only 46% describing them positively. The low opinion whites have of Latino-black relations is particularly interesting given that 68% of blacks and 59% of Latinos considered black-Latino relations generally good.

Call me cynical, but I suspect that Anglo race fatigue may be involved in this negative view of the situation. You know what I’m talking about. Over the last generation, a growing number of white Americans have expressed their exasperation with the seeming intractability of racial issues in the U.S.

Does that make whites who feel this way racist? No, not necessarily. But I imagine that plenty of them are eager to consign the issue of race to a new set of players and, indeed, may be relieved that the media’s preoccupation with black versus brown has eclipsed that of white versus black. “They want to say, ‘Look at them. It’s not just us,’ ” said essayist Debra Dickerson. “They’re not the guilty ones.”

But contemporary black-Latino tensions don’t somehow erase -- or render routine -- the historical divisions between white and black in America. To pretend the two relationships are equivalent is to downplay the official role and legacy of white supremacy in American history. Racial violence committed on society’s edges by marginal black and Latino thugs is not the same as that which was condoned by white elected officials and respected citizens not so very long ago. Correct me if I’m wrong, but large groups of Latino and black family men have not been known to form lynch mobs, and our Mexican American mayor has not barred black students from the city’s schools.

I can’t help thinking that there is some sort of wish fulfillment in the black-versus-brown fixation. But all the wishes in the world won’t erase the legacy of our nation’s painful racial past.