L.A.'s Melting Pot Simmers with Anger
Competition among diverse races
Washington Post
 LOS ANGELES -- Two pictures hanging in the lobby of Martin Luther King
Jr. Medical Center offer silent testimony to a view shared by many
blacks here that the hospital was built by and for African-Americans.
King hospital rose from the ashes of the 1965 riots, a belated answer
to the long-ignored complaint that the county's white-run health system
neglected the black community. Before the facility opened in 1972,
there was no public hospital in predominantly black South Central Los
          But the regal visages of the slain civil rights leader and
black county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke now overlook a new,
often disconcerting reality: Most of the patients and visitors in the
hospital are Latino, not black. And increasingly, they are pressing the
hospital to hire doctors and other top staff members who look and talk
like them -- a demand Latino leaders say is met largely with
indifference, if not indignation, from the hospital's black managers
and its political patrons.
          "At King, you now have a black island in a brown sea," said
Rees Lloyd, a lawyer for an Indian-American doctor who alleges he was
passed over for promotions because he is not black. "A lot of people
are uncomfortable with that."
          The change rumbling through King hospital is just a fraction
of the fallout from a seismic shift in the racial makeup of Los Angeles
County. In 1960, four out of five people in the county were white. But
a wave of immigration has transformed the county into one where no
ethnic or racial group holds the majority. The county's population of
9.5 million is now 41 percent Hispanic, 37 percent white, 11 percent
Asian and 10 percent black. The Latino and Asian populations each have
more than doubled in the past 20 years, dramatically altering the
dynamics of race.
          Just over a decade ago, the broad swath of the county
popularly known as South Central was synonymous with black Los Angeles.
But now middle- class African-Americans are leaving, often dispersing
to communities that once were all white. Asian-Americans are moving
into suburban communities that ring L.A. Meanwhile, many non-Hispanic
whites are relocating to more distant suburbs or leaving California
          What is happening here represents the leading edge of racial
and ethnic changes affecting communities across America. Demographers
predict that by the middle of the next century the nation as a whole
will look much like Los Angeles does now: a rich tapestry of people
whose sheer diversity makes once-familiar notions of racial interaction
          "Politicians like to say that diversity is our greatest
strength," said Ron Wakabayashi, director of the Los Angeles County
Commission on Human Relations. "That is b.s. Diversity simply is. The
core question is: How do we extract its assets while minimizing its
          To be sure, the new immigrants have renewed old
neighborhoods, created new businesses and enriched the culture of Los
Angeles. But the exploding diversity also has changed the nature of
racial conflict and drawn new groups into battles that once were waged
almost exclusively between blacks and whites.
          This new reality fuels the racial isolation evident in many
walks of life here. Researchers have found deep racial divisions in the
Los Angeles job market -- partly the result of discrimination but
reinforced because people typically find jobs through personal
connections that most often do not cross racial or ethnic lines.
          Many of the furniture factories in South Central have only
Latino workers. The toy factories near downtown employ mainly Chinese.
Many of the small grocery stores are owned and run by Koreans. And
African-Americans disproportionately work in government jobs, where
they are desperately trying to hold their place in the face of fierce
competition from Latinos who want in.
          As Los Angeles is learning, minorities are often quick to
embrace negative racial stereotypes of one another. A poll by the
National Conference, a nonprofit organization that promotes racial
dialogue, found that minorities tend to share bitter feelings toward
whites, whom they call bigoted and bossy. But the national survey found
that minorities often harbored even harsher views of one another.
          Nearly half of Latinos and 40 percent of African-Americans
agree that Asian-Americans are "unscrupulous, crafty and devious in
business." Only one in four whites agrees with that statement. More
than two out of three Asian-Americans and half of African-Americans and
whites believe Latinos tend to "have bigger families than they are able
to support." Meanwhile, Latinos are almost three times as likely as
whites to believe that blacks "aren't capable of getting ahead" even if
given the opportunity, the poll found.
          Rather than prompting people to come together, the more
common reality of the new diversity is people living separate lives in
often vibrant but segregated communities. In Los Angeles, there are
suburban developments that are almost exclusively Chinese. There is a
Little Saigon and enclaves of Samoans and Hmong and Russians and
          And when people from diverse backgrounds find themselves
thrust together in the same neighborhoods, the same jobs or the same
schools, the result can often be conflict.
          Nowhere is that more vivid than in the county's South Central
corridor, where the number of Latinos is overwhelming the
African-American population. Much as blacks demanded a fairer share of
the power and resources from whites a generation ago, Latinos are now
demanding that blacks and others share jobs, special school programs
and political control. And like whites before them, many
African-Americans feel threatened by those demands.
          "Blacks feel like they have marched and marched and the
Latinos have not marched. As a result, blacks are afraid of another
race coming in and taking something they have worked so hard to get,"
said Royce Esters, former leader of the NAACP branch that includes
Compton, a South Central corridor city.
          For much of its history, Compton was a virtually all-white
suburb of Los Angeles, where segregation was enforced with racist
attacks and laws that barred African-Americans from buying homes. A
1948 Supreme Court decision lifted the legal barriers, but the
acceptance of African-Americans was slow and difficult.
          But blacks persevered and by the 1960s had established a
racial majority. When they wrested political control of Compton from
whites in the 1960s, that ascendancy became a source of racial pride,
with residents boasting Compton was the largest black-run city west of
the Mississippi.
          Now, three decades later, a wave of immigration has pushed
Latinos into the majority in Compton, except in the corridors of power.
Blacks still control the mayor's office, the city council, the school
board and four out of five municipal jobs in Compton. Just as a
generation ago whites faced black questioning of that kind of
domination, blacks find themselves being challenged by Latino demands
for power.
          The long-simmering tension boiled over in 1994 when a black
Compton police officer was caught on videotape beating Latino teen-ager
Felipe Soltero. The incident angered Latinos in Compton much the same
way as the bludgeoning of black motorist Rodney King by white police
officers incensed African-Americans. The incident pushed the city
toward the edge of rioting, and resulted in a civil suit against the
officer. The officer was found to have violated Soltero's rights, but
the youth was awarded only $1 in damages by a federal judge after a
racially mixed jury refused to award anything.
          "It was kind of like the first Rodney King trial," said
Danilo Becerra, Soltero's lawyer. "I've never seen a more blatant
example of injustice."
  copyright 1998 | Houston Chronicle | April 11, 1998

Return to rants