The Los Angeles we know in the 21st century is not just some place that arrived from out of the blue one summer day, but an environment built out through specifically racist laws, designations, and customs over decades of policy, especially during the 20th century. During the 1960s, subsequent waves of civil unrest against such policies struck in several U.S. cities, among them in Watts, Newark, and Detroit.
In 1965, a traffic stop by white police officers in the community of Watts led to the arrest of two Black men, Marquette and Ronald Frye, and even their mother, Rena Frye, which angered a nearby crowd of predominantly Black residents, who witnessed the police officers roughhousing the family. When more officers arrived, who used their batons to threaten the crowd back, they fanned the flames of what would turn into six days of a war-zone in Watts, leaving 34 people dead, including at least 26 civilians killed by the LAPD and the National Guard, overwhelmingly Black but also including Latino residents, all of whose deaths were deemed by police forces as justifiable homicides.
When the people of Watts took to attacking police cars and looting storefronts over six days of unrest, was it strictly a matter of Black people protesting police violence? It was not, because police violence had a certain way of being located in a handful of neighborhoods over others. Enter the redlining practice.
In L.A., as in “sister” cities, redlining was a discriminatory practice by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, which was a federal government entity supposed to oversee housing for all Americans, that dissuaded loan services or bank assistance to African-Americans and other minorities based on how “desirable” or white their areas appeared on a racial map, shown partly in the shaded areas below.
“The Home Owners Loan Corporation designated minority neighborhoods (those shaded in black and gray in the map in this section) as being unfit for home financing, which, with racially restrictive covenants, excluded people of color from the housing boom that afforded many white households their first house.”SOUTH LOS ANGELES | SINCE THE SIXTIES BY PAUL M. ONG, ANDRE COMANDON, ALYCIA CHENG, SILVIA R. GONZÁLEZ
How were such racial maps created? As Mike Davis points out, the racial makeup of many neighborhoods in L.A. were formed by racial covenants, or Klansmen sympathizers and supporters in Los Angeles who exerted pressure on Blacks, Asians, Jews and others to keep out of what were then white neighborhoods in the city.
The absence of explicit Jim Crow segregation laws in a northern city like L.A. notwithstanding then, racial covenants were most active and effective during the early 1920s up until just before the 1950s. Thus, for African-American children born in Watts during the 1950s, the predominantly Black and under-served population of their community wasn’t spontaneously or deliberately located there, but forced to live there due to racist policies, as well as racist judges looking the other way on those policies.
The Kerner Report
In 1967, less than two years after the war-zone in Watts, a police-raid at a Black-owned night club in Detroit led to the arrest of up to 85 African-Americans, which then quickly escalated into racial rioting throughout the city. After five days, at least 43 people were killed and thousands more were injured. In response, president Lyndon B. Johnson called for action, including the formation of the Kerner commission, whose task was to examine the root cause of the rioting, as well as ways to prevent more such violence going forward. Among the commission’s findings, when it came to the issue of housing inequality in the United States, it found that:
“[C]ondemned by segregation and poverty to live in the decaying slums of our central cities, the goal of a decent home and suitable environment is as far distant as ever”U.S. National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, 1968
In our major cities, that condemnation was due precisely to redlining. Redlining concentrated home loans in predominantly white neighborhoods while restricting them from those of ethnic minorities, leaving only poverty to concentrate in the latter. Enter the resentment. Then, the rebellion.
In 2018, any Angeleno taking a walk through neighborhoods like Watts can still feel the legacy of L.A.’s redlining, and the relative lack of accountability concerning the issue, as well as the anger and frustration towards such acts of sabotage and abandon against a people and their community.
Yet with reports such as UCLA Luskin’s South L.A. Since The Sixties, examining how much “progress” the city has made in Watts and South Los Angeles since the Kerner report and other studies, the spirit of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz lives on. From there, our work continues.