Jail Riots Illustrate Racial Divide in California

Talking to black inmates at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic are, from left, activist Najee Ali and chaplains Julio Gonzales, Janne Shirley and John Murray.
Talking to black inmates at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic are, from left, activist Najee Ali and chaplains Julio Gonzales, Janne Shirley and John Murray. (By Ric Francis -- Associated Press)
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

LOS ANGELES -- A series of deadly racial attacks in the jails of this sprawling metropolis has cast a spotlight on long-simmering but little-discussed tensions between a shrinking black presence and an ascendant Latino one in California.

In almost every arena of public life -- schools, politics, hospitals, housing and the workplace -- African Americans and Hispanics are engaged in an edgy competition, according to interviews with teachers, students, politicians, researchers, government officials, civil rights lawyers, street cops and businesspeople.

Los Angeles's first Latino mayor since the 19th century, Antonio Villaraigosa (D), was elected last year with strong support from African Americans amid hopes of the creation of a true rainbow coalition in one of the world's most ethnically diverse metropolitan areas. But the reality, said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a black radio talk show host who directs the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, is that "the jail violence is only symptomatic of something larger."

"There is conflict and competition in all areas," Hutchinson said. "This city and this state is a caldron of racial issues. This thing is pulsating."

Fighting broke out at the Pitchess Detention Center on the northern fringes of Los Angeles County about two weeks ago when a group of Latino inmates in a two-tiered dormitory began throwing furniture down on a group of black inmates, leaving one of them dead. In the ensuing days, scores more were injured in a string of clashes between Latinos and blacks at Pitchess and other jails. On Feb. 12, a second African American was killed in a jail brawl.

Fighting continued at Pitchess on Friday night, leaving six more injured. The sheriff's department responded to the riots by firing tear gas at some participants and stripping 100 others, giving them only blankets for cover. The jail system, which houses about 21,000 people and is the nation's largest, is in lockdown, and Latino and black inmates are being segregated.

Sheriff Lee Baca said the fights were part of an "ongoing gun battle" between black and Latino gangs. "People on the outside are shot-calling to the inside to Latinos to start racial disturbances," he said. Sheriff's officials said a gang known as the Mexican Mafia is believed to have given the green light to prisoners of Mexican ancestry to go after African Americans.

The conflict has come amid a large increase of Latinos in California, said Nicolas C. Vaca, author of "The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict Between Latinos and Blacks and What It Means for America." In 1980, Latinos made up 19 percent of California's population while African Americans made up 7.7 percent. Today, almost a third of California's 36 million people are Hispanic while blacks have fallen to 6.7 percent of the state's population.

Vaca, Hutchinson and others say the competition and tension in Los Angeles highlight a nationwide issue between the two groups. Last year, after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin complained of Mexicans overrunning his city and displacing blacks. In a recent interview on CNN, Jesse L. Jackson also said he was worried about illegal Mexicans in New Orleans.

Large swaths of Los Angeles, such as Watts -- a place that Earl Paysinger, the deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, described as an "ecosystem for African American culture" -- are now increasingly Latino. The nearby city of Compton, the birthplace of gangsta rap, is now 60 percent Hispanic. "The movement of Latinos into these communities has been nothing less than a demographic earthquake," Paysinger said.

Schools that for more than a decade had been predominantly black are now predominantly Latino, and that shift has led to racial strife. In 2005, widespread fighting between Latinos and African Americans, sometimes necessitating lockdowns and the deployment of police officers, rocked 12 schools in Los Angeles County, said Marshall Wong, a member of the county's Commission on Human Relations.

Channa Cook, a teacher at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, said that even in her school, routinely regarded as one of the best in Los Angeles County, black students each year skip school on May 5 -- Cinco de Mayo -- the day when Mexicans celebrate a 19th-century military victory over France. Mexican gangs have warned in graffiti that they will shoot African Americans attending school that day.

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