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Congresswoman Maxine Waters

Representing the 43rd District of California

Despite progress, the struggle for racial parity continues, local leaders say

July 8, 2014
In The News
America's second largest city has seen tremendous change since the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, but the fight for economic equality and racial parity are far from over, local civic and political leaders say.

U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, a longtime activist and Los Angeles resident since the early 1960s, has seen most of that change — both good and bad. Despite the changes, she says, the struggle continues.

"Certainly there has been improvement. Back then, we were fighting for basic participation in our society as human beings," Waters (D-Los Angeles) said. "The struggle has evolved to a modern day struggle; how you maintain and improve on what was fought for during the movement."
"It may not be you have to fight for public accommodations anymore," she added, "but you have to fight for jobs and access to economic opportunities."

With a population of roughly 3.9 million residents that is almost evenly divided between whites and Hispanics, 9.6 percent African-American and 11 percent Asian, L.A. is the nation's largest and most ethnically diverse city. Many scholars and demographers see the city as a precursor of an America to come — a portrait of the U.S. roughly 30 years from now when the population will no longer be predominantly white.

It is that unique mixture of races, ethnicities and cultures that has spawned the greatest change in the region, said U.S. Rep Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles).

"In the past 25 to 30 years, L.A. has become a much more diverse city than it was 50 years ago," she said. "Now we are an international city with people from all over the world with over 150 languages spoken here. Even in terms of power structure, you see diversity on every level of power; things have improved."

Bass noted, however, that while diverse coalitions have elected diverse representatives to local offices — producing a more representative government than in 1964 — racial minorities in L.A. are still disproportionately poor and marginalized.

"You have tremendous poverty in L.A. as well, but the overwhelming majority of it is concentrated in communities of color," she said. "While you have a diverse population, you still have polarization when it comes to wealth and income equality."

All of which makes people like author and social activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson skeptical whenever he hears people speak of progress in L.A. since the passage of the civil rights act.

‘A false narrative'

He said depression-era unemployment rates for some black communities in L.A. — coupled with segregated, substandard schools and tension between the community and police department — still makes life a struggle for too many black Angelenos, especially if you are poor.

"The more things change, the more things stay the same. Those challenges we had 50 years ago, we still have today. Only difference is we don't have signs like we did 50 years ago," Hutchinson said.

"It was very clear in Jackson, Mississippi, when the signs said ‘colored' and ‘whites.' The barriers are not there in the sense they are visible barriers. They are masked."

The elimination of such overt examples of racism and the election of a black president has created a false narrative among some in L.A. and across the nation that we live in a post-racial society, Hutchinson says — especially as people see the successes enjoyed by black athletes and entertainers.

"But it is an illusion," he said. "When you look underneath the surface, you'll see there are many barriers and roadblocks that still exist today."

Racial profiling, stop and frisk laws and the disproportionate number of African-Americans being arrested are among many problems black Angelenos must confront every day, Hutchinson said.

"L.A. is still a highly segregated city and the overwhelming majority of working African-Americans living in South L.A. are still racially balkanized," he said.

Riot conditions?

City Councilman Bernard Parks joined the Los Angeles Police Department as a rookie officer in February 1965 — only seven months after the signing of the Civil Rights Act and just six months before the Watts Riot in South L.A., killing 34 people and injuring more than 1,000 others.
Parks said what's happened in L.A. since then is instructive in determining how much things have changed for black Angelenos over the past 50 years.

"When you look at the 1965 riots and reports that say why they occurred, and the 1992 [Rodney King] riots and reports on why they occurred, the reports are identical," said Parks, who would eventually become chief of police.

Although many of the issues that sparked the Watts Riots 49 years ago still exist today — poverty, segregation, marginalization, poor schools and tension between the police and community — there seems to be less commitment to solving those problems in 2014 than existed in 1964, he said.

"As opposed to a 'post-racial' era, people are less concerned if the issue doesn't concern them specifically," Parks said. "It's not like the ‘60s era when people were fighting to make things right for everyone."

Waters said the region's reputation for liberalism and tolerance actually belie structural and institutional racism that continues to thwart the advancement of African-Americans, regardless of background.

"When we look at L.A. and California, it has been thought of as a more just state [with] more equality and more tolerance," she said. "But you will find contradictions. Silicon Valley has very few blacks involved in new technology. L.A. has segregated enclaves in public housing [and] racial segregation in education probably ranks highest in parts of L.A., in the Watts area.

"So the struggle continues," she said, "but in different ways