With Eileen Wallis, author of Earning Power: Women and Work in Los Angeles, 1880 – 1930 and professor of History at Cal Poly, Pomona.
With Eileen Wallis, author of Earning Power: Women and Work in Los Angeles, 1880 – 1930 and professor of History at Cal Poly, Pomona.
Taking space in Los Angeles has been of increasing concern for this blog and its author, making it crucial to research what the process of taking social and political space in the city has looked like in the historical periods before this one.
To this end, Black and Brown in Los Angeles: Beyond Conflict and Coalition (2013) has served as an engrossing read on the complicated ways that people have taken space from one another, alongside one another, and through one another’s influence in Los Angeles.
Edited by USC’s Josh Kun and the University of Oregon’s Laura Pulido, Black and Brown is comprised of nearly fifteen different feature-length essays which set out to establish a lasting conversation on some of the most meaningful interactions between Black and Latino Angelenos during the last seventy years; the post World War II era, the Immigration And Naturalization Act in 1965, and Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, for example, are just a few eras discussed by several featured authors.
Reviewing each essay would prove worthwhile for readers of JIMBO TIMES, but it’s also true that a moment with just one of the essays should still give readers a strong sense of what to expect from the rest of the book’s analyses. For this, I’d like to reflect briefly on a few excerpts from Gaye Theresa Johnson’s essay, entitled Spatial Entitlement: Race, Displacement, and Sonic Reclamation in Postwar Los Angeles.
Johnson discusses a period that previously seemed folkloric to The L.A. Storyteller: L.A. in the 50s. She foregrounds her discussion with an important note on the construction and destruction of housing for Black and Latino communities in the U.S. following WWII:
“Between 1949 and 1973, scores of Black and Latino communities were destroyed to make way for the postindustrial, suburban sensibilities that would characterize the modern U.S. city. Between the Housing Act of 1949 and 1967, 400,000 residential units were demolished in urban renewal areas across the nation, while only 10,760 low-rent public housing units replaced them.”
One might think of this forceful taking of space during the post WWII era as a 20th century version of gentrification. But instead of avocado toast symbolizing the inevitable modernization of urban cores housing ethnic communities, it was the dawn of the freeways that promised “overall improvement” of the city. The irony, of course, was that freeways spelled immediate and irreversible losses of housing for working class communities of color. Johnson cites an earlier L.A. historian, George Sanchez, on what displacement for the sake of modernization would suggest in historic terms:
“Sanchez has argued that local and federal officials used ‘applied social science research, fiscal policy, and direct intervention,’ to justify the evisceration of neighborhoods like Boyle Heights [for the development of the East Los Angeles Interchange] and, in the process, redefined postwar terms of racialization through the suppression of interracial spaces.”
So, just what does it matter anyway, if freeway development and car culture in L.A. were established nearly 70 years ago? As recently as 2015, nearly 70% of people who drove to work in L.A. drove there alone. This is significant because in a city where people spend so much time in a car by themselves, only to spend the next portion of the day at work, before getting back to the freeways in their insulated vehicles once again, the infrastructure steers people away from ‘the soul’ and character of its culture. Or, as Johnson’s analysis implies, the infrastructure not only disconnects us, but it actually erodes the possibility of more democratic ‘public spheres.’
“A common sphere of congregation, what Jurgen Habermas has referred to as the ‘public sphere,’ can be a crucial site of discourse among community members, where private interests are set aside and democracies are enacted in order to determine collective good.
Taking ‘social and political space’ in this context therefore entails a process of people making a claim to the environments around them by whatever means available to them. ‘Collective good,’ by extension, can be thought of as a complement to the African proverb that ‘it takes a village,’ in that it takes a village in democratized communication to determine collective good. As a result, when people are denied access to such spaces by forces of state power and its local subsidiaries, they get creative. Or, they get active.
“Scholars of working-class resistance have argued that ‘subaltern counter publics’ are sites where oppressed groups assert their humanity and refine their articulated opposition to dominant discourses about citizenship and social membership.”
Nearly eight months ago, when the Back to School Party made its way through El Gran Burrito, the ‘driving force’ of the event’s planning was the idea that for a community which was often overlooked and passed over for the city’s more vogue terrain, that community deserved to have a space, even if the space was unconventional, temporary and limited in other ways. Just as important was that it was crucial to put together the event for the neighborhood precisely because it was difficult to do under normal circumstances. Thus, when Johnson describes how L.A. city officials took both time and space from predominantly working class ethnic communities for ‘the greater good’ of the city’s freeways, it becomes clear how much of Los Angeles has always been in what might be called “space wars.”
“…In Los Angeles, the zoot suit violence of 1943, the eviction of whole communities from long-standing vibrant neighborhoods, the relocation of Japanese citizens during World War II, police repression of interracial spaces, and systematic segregation facilitated by federal mishandling of the Fair Housing Act were enduring reminders that public spaces were, at best, contested terrain. Though segregated Black and Latino communities in L.A. during this period were expanding, the symbolic place of these groups in postwar Los Angeles was diminishing. Therefore, claiming and enacting social space, both material and symbolic, was an important measure of the limits and possibilities of social membership.”
Moreover, the postwar era in Los Angeles would see Blacks, Latinos and Japanese treated as marginalized groups encroaching on the dominant order, therefore leading them to face some of the first modern waves of ‘multicultural’ institutionalized racism in modern U.S society, which was also a key shift away from the more historic Black vs White racism seen more generally across the country at the time:
“Gerald Horne has argued that L.A. displayed a ‘rainbow racism…not solely or predominantly of the typical black-white dichotomy that obtained elsewhere. In the immediate pre- and postwar era, studies revealed that in factories where Mexicans were categorized as ‘colored,’ Blacks not only worked with them but were also given positions over them. In other plants, Mexicans and whites worked together. Further research indicated that white workers often accepted Blacks and objected to Mexicans; still another pattern was found showing that white workers accepted Mexicans but objected to Japanese.”
Johnson goes on to point out that while the state sought to keep the groups contained in the workplace, the airwaves of the radio were coming into formation; as a result, despite de jure segregation in more formal settings, 50s Jazz and Blues rhythms would spark the way towards space for youth of all backgrounds to coalesce; at shows, White, Black and Brown kids danced together in some of the only instances of proximity with one another throughout The City. Strangely, the state would attempt to contain this phenomenon as well:
“…local politicians and municipal arts administrators created the Bureau of Music in order to encourage patriotic citizenship, prevent juvenile delinquency, and promote acceptable music. But it was too late: the Blendells, Willie G, the Soul-Jers, the Jaguars, Joe Liggins, Don Tosti, the Premiers, Johnny Otis, and many others had already created a soundtrack of spatial claims concomitant with the articulation of other forms of spatial entitlement. What resulted were new visions of social membership among working-class people, whose basic citizenship rights were relentlessly compromised by the repression of working-class coalitional politics and the growth of white suburbia.”
As 1950s containment gave way to the radical 60s, teenagers in Los Angeles would discover some of the first sound-waves of interracially influenced rhythms; similarly to the way Chicanos in the 40s were inspired enough by Jazz players and their Zoot suits to fashion the look into “Pachuco” suits for themselves, Chicano musicians in the 1960s would be influenced by Black soul during the decade prior. The result was Pachuco soul, which was a key achievement for both Black and Latino audiences:
“By celebrating the sociopolitical and cultural identities that both Blacks and Chicanos identified with, the creation of Pachuco soul and its performance became a means to project an alternative body of cultural and political expression that could consider the world differently from a new perspective: its emancipatory transformation. This sonic legacy reverberated in Thee Midniters’ ‘Whittier Boulevard’ in the 1960s.”
Once again, the discussion reaches close to home; I think about the creation of POC Today in 2017 as a platform for people of color to portray themselves as opposed to only being portrayed, which was also a form of celebrating these communities, or what can be thought of as self-love turned love for the collective whole. The media project has been on hiatus, but POCT’s intention will continue to take space in the days to come.
As Johnson makes clear, the process of crafting a world through the airwaves with all of these projects will follow in the legacy of similar claims of space by people in prior generations, with hopes of achieving, once again, extraordinary value for future generations to look back on.
“These articulations of spatial entitlement, sonic and symbolic, were often articulated in moments when the loss of space meant devastating losses of wealth for communities of color, wealth that was rarely regained. Considering the unrelenting efforts to keep Black and Brown people from recognizing their mutual stakes in a just future makes these spatial claims all the more remarkable.”
In that regard, Black and Brown in Los Angeles: Beyond Conflict and Coalition is an excellent read that gets the full nod from this Angeleno. Readers can order a copy through the web, or, as I do, see if the Los Angeles Public Library can lend it to you first!
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” – MLK Jr.
I: Standing with Our Teachers
This week national attention will continue following the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) over the bevy of tensions with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) called out in their five-day work stoppage at over a thousand K-12 public schools in the union’s first strike after nearly thirty years.
Demonstrations led by the union throughout the past five days have enjoyed broad support from parents, fellow union workers, and much of the public at large, but their most lasting effect will be the framing of UTLA’s struggle with LAUSD as a matter of ‘the soul of education.’ I would therefore like to consider with readers the essence of education in Los Angeles by posing the following questions:
How is it that the second largest city in the United States, which is renowned globally for its film culture, sports teams, university and star-power, is unable to successfully matriculate less than half a million kids in Los Angeles each year? By extension, how is it that the state of California, known as the fifth largest economy in the world for a gross domestic product of over $2.7 trillion as of 2018, spends just a pinch above $10,000 per student at LAUSD and similar school districts under its governance?
A stroll down the public memory lane of California’s politics can tell us quite about how we arrived to this juncture.
II: Prop 13’s Legacy on Public Education
The year was 1978, and according to state department info, California was just over half of its current size at an estimate of 22 million people within its jurisdiction.
California was also a far whiter place to be, with just over 70% of the state’s population identifying as Caucasian. Latinos in the state made up just over 18% of the population, while Black, Asian and Native Americans each made up less than ten percent of the pie.
Public data also show that in 1978, about 55% of California’s 22 million residents were homeowners. As of the fourth quarter of 2017, of the roughly 40 million people in California today, the percentage of homeownership is actually the same, with 55% of the state’s current residents being homeowners. The rate alone says much about the power dynamics held in the state over the last forty years, but we will look at it later.
For now, all we need to know is that it’s amid these circumstances in 1978 that along came a figure by the name of Howard Jarvis, a businessman and Republican who described himself as “mad as hell” at property tax rates in California. Across a barrage of television ads and interviews in support of the proposition, Jarvis rallied about “a revolution” in California tax laws.
Prop 13 was that revolution, drafted to reduce the amount of property taxes that the state would be allowed to collect from homeowners and ‘commercial property’ owners or corporations by almost 60%.
Proponents of Prop 13 argued that it was a tax relief meant to disentangle home and property owners from unfair tax burdens each year, while opponents countered that the initiative would cripple public goods such as schools, parks, libraries, public transportation and other tax-funded goods.
On June 6th, 1978, despite repeated warnings from then-governor Brown and other civic leaders regarding Prop 13’s effect on the public sector, California home and property owners overwhelmingly passed the bill with nearly 65% of the tally.
As a result, over $7 billion worth of public revenue was taken right out of the budget for the following fiscal year. Needless to say, summer school for 1978, among other programs, was immediately taken off the schedule following the bill’s passage.
If a similar tax reduction were passed in say, June 2020, it would be the equivalent of $27 billion out of the budget, or over a seventh of the $209 billion budget proposed by incoming Governor Newsom earlier this year, which allocates nearly $81 billion towards funding for public education in California.
$27 billion taken out of public education in the 2020-2021 year would wipe out funding for over a third of California’s schools, immediately leaving nearly 2.5 million students with no access to a basic education as mandated under U.S. law.
But the most noteworthy effect of Prop 13 is its hold on taxes in 2019. For example, today a Californian who bought their property in say, 1980, pays the same property tax for their home or commercial space that they paid in 1980.
They can then lease out that space to a Walgreen’s or Starbucks–and again–due to Prop 13, pay the same taxes on the property as they did when Jimmy Carter was president. While this has been good for that owner–saving them tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars a year–what they avoid in taxes is money that never goes to support local schools, libraries, public transportation, and other public goods the surrounding population depends on.
Or, as Jennifer Bestor puts it in one interview regarding Prop 13’s tax rate for a certain commercial property in her neighborhood:
“We’ve got about 15,000 square feet of space. And it’s only paying $9,337 a year in property tax. I’m not an assessor but I would expect to pay about $75,000 or more a year in property taxes. Essentially, they’re getting a $65,000 free ride…that’s six and a half kids who could be educated for the amount of money that they’re escaping.”
Prop 13 has set the tone in California for more than forty years since passage. But the property taxes saved for home and business-owners are a major part of how the fifth largest economy in the world ranks 41st in the States on per pupil spending. Now, UTLA teachers beg the question of just how much Californians values a universal education. Although it’s not an outright contest of public education versus private property, Prop 13 makes the two issues inextricably tied.
III: Charter-School Growth
Currently, LAUSD is reported to hold over $2 billion in its surplus or reserves, which the superintendent and several LAUSD board representatives insist are meant to keep the district from bankruptcy over the next three years, particularly due to a growing pension deficit. Nevertheless, UTLA is demanding of the district a significant reduction in class sizes, more resources to schools such as full-time nurses, counselors and librarians, and last but certainly not least: a cap on the growth of charter-schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed schools that “compete with” LAUSD schools for funding.
It’s a significantly different set of demands than those of the last work stoppage by the union, when in the Spring of 1989 UTLA walked out on LAUSD under the leadership of organizer Wayne Johnson. In a recent interview conducted by the L.A. Times with the union’s old organizer, Johnson commented on the difference between his union’s strike and current struggle between UTLA and the district:
“‘UTLA keeps saying it’s not about the money. With us, it was almost 90% about the money.’”
What Johnson means is that most of the tensions between his union and the district centered on wages. But one can argue that it’s still about the money, although this time in terms of LAUSD’s expenditures over the course of the next ten to twenty years. Simply put:
Under the current trend of charter-school growth in Los Angeles, which tend to be non-unionized, contracted-out or ‘freelanced’ schools, LAUSD stands to see a significant reduction in costs for running schools over the long-term. This is because a school that offers no retirement benefits or health-care coverage is far cheaper to run than a school that’s consigned to exactly those benefits.
Supposed proponents of charter schools, like the Washington Post editorial board, argue that charter schools offer “options” to low-income students like those of Los Angeles. But this is an obfuscation of the facts. While it’s true that charter schools offer an alternative for parents to LAUSD’s often outdated and overly bureaucratized system, it’s also true that charter schools are sporadically based, stripped down versions of public schools that operate like different islands to each other.
That is, there is virtually no connection between one independently run charter school and another. This means that in the case a certain charter school fails to meet the needs of a certain student, parents are left with “options” for other charter schools that could function completely differently from their first choice, and which may be similarly under-equipped to meet the needs of their child, or even less so. For the Post to argue that this amounts to “options” then, is hollow and misleading. No wonder it’s owned by Amazon.
Moreover, the argument that charter schools merely “create options” ignores the fact that privately run schools funded by public tax dollars are fundamentally a challenge to the traditional model of public education as a profession for teachers and “a right” for students and their families. There is also thus far no convincing study proving that charter schools in Los Angeles are “on average” better than traditional public schools for matriculating students and their families.
Still, should charter schools bear the total brunt of the UTLA’s ire? One can see why the union would press for more regulation of charters for fear of job security, but are the schools in fact the existential crisis they’re often made out to be?
The fact is that LAUSD’s pro-charter board representatives have thus far refused to draw a line in the sand to relieve the teachers union of their concerns with respect to the growing privatization of the district’s finances through charter-school growth. Now, UTLA has pushed the issue by bringing a national spotlight to the discussion, and whatever extra leg of support Sacramento provides LAUSD as a result of extra public pressure will be by and large thanks to the union’s mobilization.
After all, if Jarvis’s “tax revolt” of 1978 showed us anything, it’s that there’s nothing like a good ole push for ‘revolution’ to stir things up with the status quo, in this case LAUSD and Sacramento’s under-funding of the public good.
Of course, Prop 13’s legacy would ultimately prove to work merely for one sector of the electorate, with consequences for future home and property owners alike. And as Wayne Johnson himself would concede, the gains made by his teacher’s union were largely gains to the benefit of just the teacher’s union. A subsequent set of questions thus emerge:
Exactly what are negotiations between UTLA and LAUSD supposed to accomplish? That is, will the gains be solely for the union to claim as it’s been in previous struggles, or are students, parents and other members of the community in fact a part of the ‘soul of education’, and thus a part of the solution going forward?
IV: The future of Los Angeles and Other Major Cities
Information regarding the costs of the failure to adequately educate young people has long been publicly available. A study released in 2006 points out the financial losses that accrue for the state following the dropout of a single high school student. Similarly, J.T. has noted that as recently as 2008, the graduation rate at LAUSD was only 48%.
In 2019, while the district is closer to an 80% graduation rate, the fact is that the vast majority of its graduating classes are not college-ready and thus less likely to obtain four-year degrees in the six years following the receipt of their high school diplomas.
Simultaneously, today there exist endless studies documenting the disparity between how much California spends on the imprisonment of its population versus what it spends on educating that same population; by extension, the ‘school-to-prison-pipeline’ is a far better known phrase to the electorate than it was just ten years ago.
It’s therefore clear to enough of California’s electorate that there’s a problem with these and other disproportions in the state’s spending, except that since time immemorial there’s been an economy to pay attention to: rent, taxes, gas prices, Twitter and Facebook, and on.
This is not to look over the steps that voters in California have taken over the last decade to reinvest in the public interest, however:
In 2012, Californians passed Prop 30, which temporarily increased sales taxes and raised income taxes on the wealthiest to support “emergency funding” for the state’s school system.
In 2016 and 2017, Los Angeles voters passed Measure M and Measure H, respectively. Measure M increased sales taxes in the county to develop more public transportation in the city, while Measure H increased sales taxes to develop services for L.A.’s homeless population.
In 2018, California fended off Proposition 6, sold as a “gas tax repeal” that sought to reverse a voter-approved tax increase to repair roads and infrastructure throughout the state.
But problems remain looming. 2018 in California was also a year in which rent-control advocates were soundly defeated at the ballot box when nearly 60% of voters rejected Proposition 10, which sought merely to give cities authority to enact local rent-control ordinances in response to California’s growing housing crisis.
This is of concern because as it should be clear by now, the issues of housing and the right to property are fundamentally related to the issue of public education in California. In an analysis of another challenge facing the district over the next few years, that of diminishing enrollment, writer Christopher Weber points out:
“The downward trend in enrollment is due to skyrocketing housing costs that keep families with school-age kids out of the city and the growth of charters — privately operated public schools that compete for students and the funds they bring in.”
Consider one more facet of this political battleground in the Golden State. At nearly 40% of the state’s demographics, today Latinos make up the largest ethnic group in California. Whites, meanwhile, at 37% of the state population continue to shrink in numbers. What’s also true, however, is that the vast majority of Latinos in California are not home or commercial property owners. Many of them utilize public transportation, play soccer at public parks, and check out books and movies at the state’s public libraries. It comes as no surprise to anyone, then, that nearly 75% of the students at LAUSD today are Latinos.
Thus, in 2019, demographically speaking, it’s no longer Jarvis’s California. But structurally, the system he and his contemporaries left behind still holds, creating our present dilemmas with regards to the public sector. Except that if there was any doubt as to whether we’re ready to confront this past for the future of the state, the past week should make it clear: the conversation on justice through education is not going away any time soon; it’s here to stay.
Or, as one Mr. Razo, of Telfair Elementary in Pacoima, recently noted to the L.A. Times:
“We have so many entertainment companies and professional sports teams,” Razo said. “I went to a Rams-Packers game and the ticket was $350. What if just 10 cents from every sports ticket sold went to public education?