Last Sunday, April 29, was the twentieth anniversary of the start of what became known as the Los Angeles Riots -- four days of civil unrest and violence sparked by the acquittal of white LAPD officers who had been captured on video in March 1991 brutally beating Rodney King after a high-speed car chase through the San Fernando Valley. In the days that followed the verdict, Reginald Denny, a white truck driver, and a Guatemalan immigrant were brutally beaten by a mob in the South Central neighborhood, home to many of the city's low-income African Americans; buildings were torched; stores were looted; and more than fifty people lost their lives. The prevailing view at the time, as captured by New York Times reporter Don Terry, was that "the acquittal...was only a spark put to a tinderbox of anger constructed from years of deep poverty, governmental neglect, racism, charges of police abuse and high unemployment."
Twenty years later, how much has -- and has not -- changed?
According to Reparable Harm: Assessing and Addressing Disparities Faced by Boys and Men of Color in California (126 pages, PDF), a report from the RAND Corporation, African-American and Latino men and boys continue to be negatively affected by structural racism and a variety of socioeconomic, health, and education disparities. Young African-American and Latino boys are more than three times as likely, for example, to live in poverty as their white counterparts; almost seven and more than three times as likely to have HIV/AIDS; more than five and almost three times as likely to end up in prison; more than sixteen and five times as likely to be a victim of homicide; and nearly twice and almost seven times as likely to drop out of high school. Funded by the California Endowment, the report calls for a range of targeted interventions, including more effective foster care and prisoner-reentry policies; community-based zoning laws that address the social determinants of health; and mentoring and school-based programs for children traumatized by violence. The California Endowment itself has funded the National League of Cities Institute's Gang Prevention Network and the Healthy Returns Initiative.
One nonprofit that has worked with disadvantaged and at-risk youth in Los Angeles since before the riots is the PUENTE (People United to Enrich the Neighborhood Through Education) Learning Center, which offers preschool, kindergarten, tutorial, and college preparation programs as well as job and computer skills training, English as a second language, and literacy programs for adults. Of, By, and For the Community: The Story of PUENTE Learning Center (21 pages, PDF), a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, describes how the family-focused organization -- which had a thriving center in the Boyle Heights neighborhood -- was offered the site of a burned-out ARCO station by the ARCO Foundation in the wake of the riots. "The embers were still warm, and the total damage had not been tallied," recalled former ARCO Foundation president Russell Sakaguchi. "We wanted somebody to provide hope and relief to that very visible corner. We wanted an organization that wasn't going to flounder, that was sensitive to the shock in that community [and] had faith in its ability to deliver."
Starting with two trailers, PUENTE eventually built a state-of-the-art facility with ten classrooms serving a thousand students of all ages, one-third of whom are African-American and two-thirds Latino. (As of 2005, the population of South Central was 45 percent African-American, 47 percent Latino.) One of the organization's keys to success, the report notes, is its sharp focus on its educational mission, which enables it to address issues even more fundamental than racial disparities or cultural differences. "Our mission," says PUENTE vice president Luis Marquez, "is not about any particular ethnic group; it's about people. It goes way beyond ethnicity and race. It's about humanity."
Among other things, the riots highlighted the serious racial/ethnic tensions that existed between long-established African-American communities in Los Angeles and the more recently arrived Korean and Latino communities. The influx of immigrants into historically African-American neighborhoods has continued in the two decades since, and racial/ethnic tensions have become more pronounced as unemployment rates have climbed. All Together Now? African Americans, Immigrants, and California's Future (66 pages; 7.15MB; PDF), a report from the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California, examines the potential of inter-ethnic alliances to address tensions created by demographic and economic changes. But bringing the various communities together first requires a forward-looking agenda. To that end, the report notes,
- A number of community-based organizations have developed new mechanisms to both manage tensions and build toward a common ground. Leadership development is key, but the first step is creating the space for new and honest dialogue about what is shared and what is different.
- Seemingly specific issues can be effectively connected to both populations. The criminalization of black (and Latino) youth has its parallel in the excessive enforcement of a broken immigration system; the racial profiling embodied in Arizona's 2010 immigration law echoes an experience all too familiar to African Americans. If [minority groups] pursue economic opportunity and fair treatment for all residents, the [focus on] difference[s] can give way to a concert of common interest.
- A common and unifying agenda should be based on a vision of everyday social justice. "Everyday" means three things: address[ing] daily needs around education, the economy, and the social and physical environment; ensur[ing] that dialogues go beyond a more comfortable middle-class and multi-ethnic elite and reach grassroots participants; and realiz[ing] that this will require effort every day and over the long haul.
Funded by the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, James Irvine Foundation, and John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation, the report calls for an approach which recognizes that "African Americans have laid the groundwork for America's commitment to equality and fairness" and "that immigrant rights will be insecure as long as African Americans remain vulnerable to racial profiling and economic despair."
All three reports suggest that twenty years after the L.A. riots and almost fifty years after the Watts riots, the City of Los Angeles, the state of California, and the nation still have a long way to go in addressing the racial and socioeconomic disparities that made South Central such a tinderbox on the eve of the Rodney King verdict. At the same time, all three reports suggest that we have only begun to tap the potential of civic engagement, advocacy, and community organizing efforts to bring communities together and advance the cause of social justice. And, of course, funders have a role to play here. Funded by the California Endowment and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the NCRP report Strengthening Democracy, Increasing Opportunities: Impacts of Advocacy, Organizing, and Civic Engagement in Los Angeles notes that for every dollar invested in the advocacy, organizing, and civic engagement efforts of fifteen Los Angeles County nonprofits between 2004 and 2008, $91 in benefits were generated for marginalized communities.
To learn more about the factors contributing to enduring socioeconomic, health, and education disparities in Los Angeles (and across the country), the demographic shifts that sometimes exacerbate racial/ethnic tensions, and efforts to address these and other problems, see also:
Why Place & Race Matter
PolicyLink; California Endowment
State of Metropolitan America: On the Front Lines of Demographic Transformation Brookings Institution
Critical Condition: Examining the Scope of Medical Services in South Los Angeles
Restoring Prosperity: The State Role in Revitalizing America's Older Industrial Cities
What do you think? Have we made as much progress, as a country, as we should have in the twenty years since the L.A. riots? And if not, what is holding us back? Use the comments section to share your thoughts....
-- Kyoko Uchida