A man finishes searching through the dumpster bin for cans in Silver Lake, Los Angeles

Los Angeles is Dying in Black and Brown Shades

(Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 70)

It’s now being recorded in history that in the state of California, “reopening” business and houses of worship comes largely on the heels of white protesters in Sacramento and coastal communities such as Huntington Beach even as a second wave of COVID-19 increasingly places Black and Brown bodies at bedsides in intensive care units across South, East, Central L.A., and more.

Many of the bodies in Los Angeles belong to mothers, fathers, grand-mothers and grandmothers, and form no insignificant part of the more than 100,000 people who have lost their lives across the U.S. in less than four months since news of the coronavirus first became headlines.

They look like the man in this column’s photograph, who is sifting for cans through dumpsters along the famed Silver Lake neighborhood, trying to gain something–anything–by which to live to fight another day.

They took their bodies to work each day, and looked past discrimination and second-class citizenship for decades to still “play by the rules” pursuing an American dream they may have once actually believed in.

But history will show this is not an unlikely about-face for the state of California. One only has to recall that for nearly fifty years the golden state has also been the Golden Gulag, to quote Ruth Wilson Gilmore, with its elected officials voting as recently as 2018 to spend over $15 billion of taxpayers’ money to maintain the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which as of last year housed less than 127,000 inmates. A little bit of math will show that that’s over $118,000 to house just one inmate.

By contrast, what did the state spend for more than 6.1 million students at its K – 12 schools, even before the pandemic? A pinch above $12,000.

The state’s expenditures do not get better across the rest of its educational institutions. To quote David Crane, a lecturer in Public Policy at Stanford University, California’s $15 billion allotment to incarcerate its population entails:

7x, 9x, 13x and 39x the amounts they’ll spend per K-12, UC, CSU and CCC student.

All we have to do then is remember which students depend most on under-funded public school districts like LAUSD across the state: Black, Brown, Asian, Native, as well as working-class white children. Indeed, the grandchildren of the many bodies now being prepared for the ground in California.

If long before the pandemic we were funding these childrens’ incarceration as adults more than we were funding their education, it says all one needs to know about why Los Angeles is losing its Black & Brown family members so disproportionately right now.

J.T.

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Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 65

This weekend is another that will go by without meaningful action from the city’s elected officials to address the crisis posed by tens of thousands of unhoused people lingering on the streets while COVID-19 continues battering our communities.

It’s also a weekend that will go by with Jose Huizar retaining his seat at L.A. City Council even as the world can see that his commitment to Chinese real estate tycoons disqualifies him from being able to meaningfully serve his constituents in the 14th district.

The weekend is also one in which Jose Huizar’s successor, Kevin de Leon, will once again fail to make a meaningful statement condemning the Huizar case’s embarrassing exposure of the L.A. City Council during this critical moment for Los Angeles. De Leon is seen by many as likely running for mayor when Garcetti is termed out in 2022, and so it’s probable that the future candidate doesn’t want to stir the pot regarding real estate’s endemic connections to decision-making at L.A. City Hall.

Is this the best that Los Angeles can do?

A few years ago, during an LAUSD board race for the 5th district, a panel was held at LACC featuring the various candidates vying to represent the area’s constituents at the board. For the panel’s moderator, a high school student who couldn’t have been more than 17 years old was chosen. We can call her Monica.

The candidates seated for the panel were adults of various walks of life and credentials, and thus people with much to say. As a moderator, especially one still in high school, Monica would have been forgiven for being overly polite, or for making a few too many mistakes in her facilitation of the discussion, but that was not the case at all.

Monica read each question for the candidates clearly, and stood at the podium facing the candidates emitting nothing but confidence. Most of all, when it came to the strict time limits for each candidate to make their statement, while even another adult might show some flexibility for the limits out of respect for the candidates, or simply to let them finish what they had to say, Monica, by contrast, was fearless.

At every indication that their time was up, it didn’t matter that most of the candidates making their statements were more than twice her age. And it didn’t matter if they spoke with conviction or if they spoke with experience.

Fair was fair, and Monica stuck to her moderation of each statement so consistently that by the end of the discussion, it was clear she had upstaged the candidates for the evening and left many people wondering when she would run for public office.

That panel was held a little over three years ago, which means that soon, probably as early as next year, Monica should be graduating from college. As I look around at Los Angeles, I know that the city will benefit greatly from leadership like hers and that of her peers, but also that such things are easier said than done. 

Even with all her talents, Monica and other young professionals like her cannot reshape the city’s politics alone, and much less so if they only inherit those politics in their current form, which, as so many of our current elected officials make clear: are not only antithetical to fairness, but steeped in loyalty to foreign capital and the interests of the more powerful.

As Monica demonstrated in her moderation, fair is fair no matter whose name it is, but it will take something special before Los Angeles can reach such fairness under the current circumstances. We the people have to demand it.

J.T.

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Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 20

Rainy days at school were my favorite because of the way they swept over the whole environment. It would seem like every feeling became more urgent as an audience of raindrops fell to stir them from within.

Today, I just hoped the rain was enough to keep more people home. It’s as if the weather was trying to smile upon Los Angeles, urging it to rest and be dormant during this time. But I also know that not far away at all, conditions were not as sparing. I thought of those people still resting their backs underneath the 101 freeway, and how the winds surely pelted them with droplets showing no relent.

I also learned today of the Chicago Tribune report showing that Black patients for COVID-19 in Chicago are dying at nearly six times the rate of white patients.

Indeed, some of the hardest hit communities on the South and West sides have struggled with unemployment and health care access for generations. As a result, residents have higher baseline rates of diabetes, heart disease, lung disease and high blood pressure — the chronic conditions that make the coronavirus even more deadly.

In Los Angeles, metrics for the 173 deaths from coronavirus reported so far are still preliminary, but so far do appear to show consistency with what’s been seen in Chigago, Milwaukee, Detroit and Washington D.C.: that Black Americans are disproportionately dying from COVID-19 compared with other groups.

I know that this brings great sadness, as well as great anger to Black people across the nation. I also know that if this is to change for future generations, it is imperative for the immigrant community in cities like Los Angeles to learn about how we are inextricably connected with the African-American community in almost every walk of life.

I think of the Metro Blue Line, which was the first modern rail line in L.A., running from Long Beach through South Central and onto downtown L.A. at Figueroa and 7th street. L.A. Metro now has seven such railways spanning towards every main thoroughfare in the city, and its services are lifelines for my mother and millions of other humble travelers like herself. Black people in South Los Angeles played no small part in making these services accessible, just as Rosa Parks in Montgomery not only freed bus seats all over the south but also cleared the way for the civil rights movement.

Across America, hundreds of years before the word “immigrant” was used to describe people from other lands here, there were Black people lifting, nursing, farming and raising America to be carried into the arms of the next generation.

Today, as the coronavirus exposes further a racial wealth gap that our public discourse nearly forgot about between Obama’s final days in office and Trump’s first, it’s clear we’re only a few passages removed from these pages of history.

In the coming days, as conversations continue over how to respond to these reports, immigrant communities, along with every ally in America, need to voice unequivocal support for the Black community in outrage at this discrimination in our health-care system and everywhere else where segregation and complacency still undercut America in half: one where its children deserve a future, and another where children are left to die under the overpass.

Immigration rights advocates cannot expect an end to attacks from ICE or a closing of all immigrant detention facilities based on merit and hard work alone; success in these movements requires recognizing the interests our communities share with prison abolitionists and other current civil rights leaders in the African-American community, particularly at this moment looming over all of us.

I do believe that 52 years ago, it’s what the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and his contemporaries sought to teach all of our communities before yet more innocent lives were unnecessarily lost. Now, when is it time, Los Angeles?

J.T.

Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California (2010)

The first time we analyzed an election in California was in 2017, when we reviewed data from a Special Election in Los Angeles. Data for that election showed a yawning gap between the voting rates for white and non-white voters; at the close of the special election, in a city where less than 50% of the population identified as white, over 64% of ballots turned in belonged to white voters. As we noted in our article:

“Although non-white registered voters make for a combined total of 52% of votes eligible to be cast, post-election day only 37% of ballots turned in belonged to non-white voters.”

As it turns out, the rate of return for that Special Election in L.A. was not an anomaly, or some new and strange phenomenon, but actually just consistent with the history of voting in ‘liberal’ California.

In Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California, Daniel HoSang takes an analysis of California’s voting patterns one step further, exploring the way the predominantly white electorate of the state has voted negatively or against a handful of ballot issues dealing closely with racial or progressive issues in the state during a sixty year period from just after 1945 to the early 2000s.

And why–the student may ask–should we care about a handful of ‘old’ voting issues in California? HoSang explains that ballot measures are especially useful for thinking about the state’s role in the inequalities found between its public schools, healthcare, employment and other areas ‘separating’ people of color from wealthier whites due to the way that voting publicizes a particular type of conversation on these issues:

Ballot measures…especially those that receive widespread public attention, create public spectacles where competing political interests necessarily seek to shape public consciousness and meaning.

Put another way: materials like campaign rhetoric, opinion articles, television commercials and other instruments used to support the passage or defeat of certain ballot issues can show the way voting doesn’t ‘just express‘ the will of an electorate, but how the process leading up to election day can actually create and develop certain perspectives about what a place like California is, and more importantly, about who California is and who it belongs to.

Because the instruments of direct democracy by definition are intended to advance the will of “the people,”…organized groups and interests must always make their claim in populist rather than partisan terms, thereby defining the very meaning of the common good.

In other words, for HoSang, as anyone familiar with the 2016 Presidential Election should be able to recall, voting issues have a very particular–at times even “nasty”–way of telling voters about “who we are,” what our values are–or what they should be–and how we should act on those values with our votes.

HoSang further contends that the “sensibilities” or logic which the voting issues of Racial Propositions make their appeals to are voters’ “political whiteness.” The phrase “political whiteness” has layered meanings, but essentially, throughout his book it means a degree of privilege and status for white voters that’s not only maintained but also expounded on by voting issues:

[Racial Propositions] draws from and extends both George Lipsitz’s observations about the ‘possessive investment in whiteness’ and Cheryl Harris’s critical account of ‘whiteness as property.’ Whiteness, Lipsitz argues is ‘possessed’ both literally in the form of material rewards and resources afforded to those recognized as white as well as figuratively through the ‘psychological wages’ of status and social recognition detailed by W.E.B. Du Bois.

Stated more simply, HoSang claims that “whiteness” in the United States isn’t simply a “fixed” identity, where if you’re white you view yourself as white in a “static” or “unchanging” way, but that “whiteness” is highly impressionable, that is, capable of transforming due to external factors like advertising, propagandizing, and voting.

As HoSang takes readers through the first dozen or so pages of Racial Propositions, then, rather than simply restating the term, the author arrests and interrogates scores of materials left by different voting issues in California. The campaigns for Fair Employment, Fair Housing, or the effort to Desegregate Public Schools in California are just a few of the voting issues he discusses, in which he exposes the logic of “political whiteness” at play in the efforts by organizations like the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Realtors Association (CREA), the Parents Associations and other groups that come together to defeat these measures.

That’s right. Did you know that in 1946, voters in California decided against protections for workers facing discrimination in hiring? Or, did you know that in 1964, voters in California decided against protections for non-white residents looking for a home in the state? Did you know that in 1979, California voters decided against racial integration at our schools when they canceled the state’s busing program?

In Los Angeles alone, parents voted by a margin of 73% to put an end to school busing in the city, which was only instituted in 1977 and thus barely getting off the ground.

The vote against desegregating schools was passed through an ordinance known as Proposition 1, and put an end to “mandatory” busing in 1980 (which, of course, was just a few years before my parents would arrive from Latin-America alongside many other Central-American and Asian people. Can anyone say, awkward?).

On the issue of school integration, HoSang points out that placing an end to a program whose stated goal was the integration of the races in the state’s public classrooms was not easy; it required a sophisticated deployment of a language of “racial innocence” which sought to ‘pass the buck’ or responsibility of “fixing” racism onto the desks of the state and away from the children of ‘innocent’ [white] parents:

[Supporters of Proposition 1] held that because white parents and students did not intentionally create the second-class schools to which most racial minorities were consigned nor explicitly support segregated schools as a matter of principle, they could not be compelled to participate in the schools’ improvement.

In other words, in the same way that today the Trump administration likes to argue that the refugee crisis in Central-America should be some other state’s–perhaps Mexico’s–problem, opponents of the school-busing program in late seventies California argued that mixing their white children with Black and Brown kids was unfairly burdening them with a job that was supposed to be the state or federal government’s to do. That is, whenever the state or federal government would get to it. Perhaps never, even, but the point being the same: it was not the parents’ responsibility to account for or address inequality at public schools. They were “the innocent ones.”

But the gift of Racial Propositions is that no matter what the reader may make of the author’s argument on political whiteness, the book is an exhilarating page-turner for anyone interested in a political history of “The Golden State.” This is due in no small part to HoSang’s unsparingly sharp, saber-like writing skills. For his part, the author recognizes none other than James Baldwin as a key influence on his analytical framework:

Whiteness was for Baldwin “absolutely, a moral choice,” an identity derived from and constructed through a set of political convictions. It was by inhabiting a particular political subjectivity—one that rested upon a series of destructive assumptions—that one became white. To embrace the myth of whiteness, he argued, was to “believe, as no child believes, in the dream of safety”; that one could insist on an inalienable and permanent protection from vulnerability.

By the closing pages of Racial Propositions, HoSang’s analysis also makes clear why our political discussions today need to abate a conception of ‘liberal’ California which still dominates the vox populi leading up to 2020: that because California is already a “minority majority” state, it offers a glimpse into the “progressive” future of America through, since the country’s “browning” is supposed to ‘liberalize’ it.

HoSang notes that if the “majority minority” or “browning” scenario, which became the case in California nearly two decades ago, is what progressives are hinging their hopes on for a more liberal future in the United States, they better look at the numbers:

…in 2000, as California became the first large “majority minority” state in the nation, white voters still constituted 72 percent of the electorate.

And so, as one blogger put it to his fellow readers and historians following another election where that same “majority minority” was hardly seen throughout election day:

…the current inequality between white voters rates and those of people of color when considering the larger voter eligibility pool of the latter group in Los Angeles and California is more than just unfortunate, it’s something of a public safety concern.

So let’s get on it, Los Angeles. Find and read Daniel HoSang’s book, which has full approval from The L.A. Storyteller. Then, send me your book recommendation to see if I can review it next!

J.T.

Merging Lanes

I hope this greeting finds readers well. In the grandest journey that is the discovery of ourselves, I’ve found that sometimes there’s no greater validation than in someone else’s eyes, when the fragments of each perspective make up for a greater whole; views that reflect our own but which are also different enough to be apart allow us to reach farther into the universe and see into life’s endlessness. There, we discover not just reflections, but whole troves of new dimensions for us to plant seeds in.

Through the course of reading and researching for POC Today, I’ve been fortunate enough to find this validation again and again. On this day, the reading is on infrastructure and policy, and the story is from Eric Avila, in his Folklore of the Freeway (2014):

“In the context of urban history, infrastructure can make or break a community. In the United States, the historical development of urban infrastructure has both formed and followed the inscriptions of race, class, and gender on the urban landscape. Ample in more affluent communities, usually absent or minimal in historic concentrations of urban poverty, infrastructure does not serve its public equally. Some cities have a more equitable distribution of infrastructure than others, but many urban neighborhoods remain woefully underserved.”

For P.O.C.Today and with more soon,

J.T.