By Virgil Roberts* and David A. Lehrer
THE JEWISH JOURNAL OP/ED PUBLISHED May 12, 2017
Every day brings troubling headlines which justify concern and angst; from the White House to Syria to Russia, the world seems to be upended and the bad news seems to spawn more bad news.
It was in keeping with the glum times that last month’s twenty-fifth anniversary of the Los Angeles riots reminded us of the local racial and ethnic divides—from socio-economic to law enforcement strategies to educational opportunities—that plagued the city in 1992 (nearly three decades after the Watts Riots of 1965) that resonate until today.
In analyzing the media coverage of the anniversary it is clear to us that much of it focused on individual recollections of those horrid days and the issues surrounding the painfully slow economic re-development of South LA. There was relatively little coverage of the one quantitative study of which we are aware that measures today’s attitudes regarding race relations and tolerance and compares them to attitudes in the recent past.
Loyola Marymount University’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles published its Forecast LA study prior to the anniversary and it provided more insight into what is transpiring in South LA today than anecdotal recollections, however compelling the tales are.
The LMU study was sparingly cited and almost exclusively for the revelation that “more LA residents believe new riots likely…” That headline and conclusion (in both the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times) were based on the finding that “nearly 6 in 10 Angelinos think another riot is likely in the next five years.” That datum is the first time in over two decades that the fear of a repeat riot has increased, clearly not good news, but also not the whole story.
Invariably, pollsters on issues relating to race and inter-group relations ask respondents their assessment of race relations “nationally” or “what relations will be like in five years”—-opinions that respondents can only guess at based on media reports and conjecture, not their own lived experiences. Their musings can be newsworthy, but isn’t what they know about directly more relevant?
What virtually none of the media explored that was in the Forecast LA study was what the residents of Los Angeles are thinking and feeling now, not what they project into the future; the data are surprisingly positive.
Seventy six percent of Angelenos say that “racial groups in Los Angeles are getting along well.” That compares with 37% making that assertion in 1997 (five years after the riots), 48% in 2007, and 72% in 2012. Angelenos have equaled the most positive assessment of race relations than at any point in the last 25 years.
In terms of particular groups in LA, African Americans think we are getting along “well or somewhat well” at 73%, Asians at 79%, Latinos at 72% and whites at 81%.
Inter-group relations is a complex phenomenon and isn’t amenable to a single question or response, but clearly, most Angelenos think we are getting along well.
What makes that finding more startling than in other circumstances is that it comes after a bruising presidential election campaign when race and ethnicity played a significant role in both the campaign rhetoric and its media coverage.
Trump overtly disparaged the Latino community by labeling Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, and described a judge of Mexican heritage as having a conflict of interest solely because of his ethnic roots. He decried Mexican “hordes” flooding across the border bringing chaos in their wake.
He maligned an entire religion by pledging to bar all Muslim immigrants.
He described Blacks as having a “miserable life” and told the community that its neighborhoods are “war zones” where people struggle to get by on food stamps and see nothing but failure around them.
Despite Trump’s lowering of the level of discourse and civility and the media focus on those views, we in Los Angeles are getting along about as well as we ever have. It’s astonishing and reassuring that this diverse community isn’t experiencing inter-group tensions that mirror the nightly news and our raised collective anxiety.
Our conjecture is that virtually every minority group leader, and most minority group members, share a common disdain for, and concern about, bigots with power because we all know we could become the next target—there is a sense of shared fate that is generated. Most minority groups have figured out that if Trump disparages one group with simplistic stereotypes and bigotry, other groups are potential targets—we intuitively circle the wagons.
Trump has, inadvertently, become a cohesive force in a way he never intended. In him, we see a reminder of what we all fear—release of the genie of hate and the turning back of the clock on decades of progress. He has accidentally become a unifier and is, in no small measure, a reason for the common ground that minorities in LA now share despite the tenor of the times.
*Virgil Roberts is a long-time civil rights activist whose work includes representing the NAACP in the seminal Los Angeles school desegregation case Crawford v Board of Education. He was recently awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from 100 Black Men of Los Angeles. and has been honored by the Los Angeles Urban League, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the University of Southern California’s School of Education, and the UCLA Black Alumni Association.