Cultural Diversity in Local Politics


Overview

This paper explores the limits and potentials of ethnic and racial coalition
building in Los Angeles. The demographic changes that have occurred in Los
Angeles during the past twenty years have been extraordinary, both in scope and
diversity.

The area has witnessed a literal boom in population growth, increasing from 7
million in 1970 to 8.8 million in 1990. (US Bureau of the Census) However, it is
the dramatic change in ethnic and racial diversity of the population which has
caught most observers attention.

Los Angeles has taken on a new form in terms of its racial diversity, moving
from a biracial to a multiethnic setting. The non-Hispanic White population has
declined from its 71 percent share in 1970 to a narrow numerical plurality of 41
percent of the county's population in 1990.

Meanwhile, the Latino and Asian Pacific population witnessed a doubling -- from
15% to 39% -- and near quadrupling – from 3% to 11% of their population shares
respectively. Meanwhile, African Americans, while slightly growing numerically,
were a constant share of the county population (11%) during this period. (Oliver
and Johnson:57-94) Thus, on the eve of the twenty-first century, Los Angeles
has one of the most ethnically diverse populations of any metropolitan area in
the country.

What does this ethnic diversity mean for multiethnic coalition building in the
politics of Los Angeles County? Does the changing demography increase the
opportunity for ethnic cooperation? Or, has the ethnic changes increased rather
than decreased the prospects of interethnic conflict?

Introduction

After the 1992 riots, a clarion call was issued from all corners for the
emerging multiethnic majority to take its rightful place in the politics and
leadership of the city. A multiethnic coalition, it ws suggested, could lead the
city to a new multicultural future.

This call was clearly built on the assumption that three divers groups – African
Americans, Asian Pacific Islanders and Latinos – could come together and pursue
a coalition built on their common interests.

But what do we do know about the prospects of multiethnic coalitions? There is
voluminous literature on urban politics. However, this literature has been
shaped principally by the question of racial politics. (Browning, Marshall and
Tabb) That is, how have traditional urban politics, read White politics, been
affected or impacted by the role of Blacks on the urban scene.

Probably the most influential work on Black/White urban political coalitions was
Carmichael and Hamilton's Black Power. (Carmichael and Hamilton) In this work,
as in most of the literature, the foundation of coalitions were based on common
interests.

They argued that all political relations are based on common self interest –
benefits to be gained and losses to be avoided. From this perspective,
Carmichael and Hamilton argued, there were no permanent friends or enemies for
Blacks in their struggle for freedom and power – only temporary alliances when
self interests coincide.

Thus, they rejected the notion that White liberals, whose ideological
orientation was favorable to Black aspirations, should be viewed as reliable and
enduring allies. Rather, they were perceived as one among many which could be
either potential allies or potential adversaries on the road to power.

Carmichael and Hamilton's emphasis on interests and ideology alone, when
extended to the multiethnic scene of Los Angeles, portends a rather bleak future
for multiethnic coalitions.

Alliances forging common interests are not readily evident or clear among the
diversity of racial and ethnic groups in Los Angeles. Moreover, class and ethnic
divisions between and within ethnic and racial groups have structured competing
and cross-cutting interests that, on the face, appear to be overwhelming.

Ethnic groups, for example, have diverse interests based on such factors as
citizenship, ethnicity and class. Latinos are divided by the diverse interest of
an immigrant noncitizen population and citizen native population. This became
evident in the aftermath of the riots when the mostly Mexican Americans,
citizen-based East Los Angeles leadership attempted to disassociate themselves
from the more Central-American and recent Mexican immigrant-based residents of
South Central Los Angeles. (Ramos and Wilkinson)

This division expressed a long standing concern that the Latinoization of Los
Angeles politics was in fact being ushered in under Mexican hegemony. Likewise,
diverse interests are apparent on the basis of national origin.

Among Asian Pacific Islanders, long standing historical divisions between
Koreans, Japanese, and Chines cause, in some critical cases, group enmity as
opposed to unity. And even African Americans have strong class cleavages that,
despite the concerted attempts of some middle class Blacks to reach out to the
needs and the concerns of their less advantaged brethren, show increasing signs
of developing into two separate communities.

Thus, in the context of Los Angeles, it is increasingly