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Five Years Later: Blacks Have Been Left Behind

By Wanda Coleman
Sunday, April 20, 1997; Page C01

Around midnight, the street traffic is light on the modestly lit, palm-dotted boulevards, except for an occasional black-and-white patrol car cruising slowly past a darkened, deserted cluster of cheap stucco buildings. All seems quiet in South Central.

Well, yes, Los Angeles has recovered, according to city fathers and mothers -- even though much of the happy-face private sector bluster about healing and rebuilding ceased within two years of the 1992 uprising. Then, within minutes of O.J. Simpson's infamous June 1994 low-speed chase, the socioeconomic ills that continue to plague South Central's African American community were thoroughly forgotten.

As I write, the Quiet Riot -- the white backlash against black claims on mainstream attention -- continues to devastate South Central and its sparse landscape of marginal businesses, ethnic clubs, churches, palmists, auto repair shops, check-cashing places, public storage monoliths, liquor stores, mom-and-pop concerns and motels fueled by the sex trade. The substantial needs -- well-financed, black-owned, job-producing industries and institutions offering decent service in clean environments, more family-style restaurants catering to black tastes, major supermarket chains offering fresh, high-quality goods at fair rates -- continue to go begging, as they have for more than 30 years.

The first major coalition between concerned African American and Korean grass-roots leaders disbanded, and there has been only silence since. The judge who acquitted Korean grocer Soon Ja Du for killing 15-year-old Westchester High School student Latasha Harlins over a container of orange juice was handily re-elected by a majority white electorate.

Koreatown continues to expand, transforming bordering black and Latino mid-city 'hoods. Korean ideographs on signs and buildings in Hancock Park, one of L.A.'s wealthiest Zip codes, signal rapid displacement of whites and Jews living there. African Americans are nonplussed by the economic autonomy with which Koreans seem to operate as they exhibit the prosperity still denied blacks.

There were black-Latino artist collaborations, gang truces and public spates of good will. But qualified blacks continue to lose jobs to Hispanic bilingual applicants, as they have since the 1970s. Cultural wars over dress, music and dance styles have polarized black and Latino youth on local campuses. In the prison hierarchy, the Mexican mafia has displaced black gangs. In retaliation for their displacement, in an expression of their frustration, African American voters endorsed the anti-immigrant initiative Proposition 187.

Hollywood personalities, who had eclipsed concerned community leaders, long ago tired of groping for solutions and returned to more lucrative pursuits. New police chief Willie Williams settled in uncomfortably, and now will be unsettled and replaced in July. The local gangsta underground was combed, fruitlessly, by political leftists for the next Malcolm X, MLK or Huey P. Newton. An effective grass-roots black leadership that transcends empty rhetoric and shallow amens has yet to appear, unlike the upsurge of pride, power and activity which followed the Watts Riots.

Prosperity has continued its white flight west, in patterns familiar since the mid-1950s. The renowned arts school Otis Parsons abandoned its drug-infested 'hood to relocate within a mile of the controversial marshlands site of DreamWorks SKG (the Steven Spielberg, David Geffen et al. entertainment mega-conglomerate). But this post Reagan-era, West-moving boom has developed with a significant difference: The discontent in predominantly white enclaves has swelled. This vengeful movement of the spitefully shortsighted and the tacitly racist has come full fever in the classrooms and corporate boardrooms, where blacks feel they are being divested of earned advancements, retirement benefits, perks and scholarships as a result of anti-affirmative action hysteria. With the criminal trial jury's four-hour acquittal of Simpson for the slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, virulent white rage came to a puffy head. By this year's finding of liability in Simpson's civil trial, it had long burst. Whites cheered the civil trial verdict and the millions awarded as compensatory and punitive damages.

But for some African Americans, the dollar-per-dollar dissection of O.J. was the horrifying equivalent of Dred Scott being sold back into slavery. Exacerbated by the soft, anti-racist posture of President Clinton, who endorsed changes in the welfare system; and an even softer pro-diversity posture by incumbent Mayor Richard Riordan, re-elected less than two weeks ago in a lukewarm landslide over political activist Tom Hayden, a second groundswell of discontent has begun. Among African Americans.

"Cutoff of welfare got everybody all in an uproar now!" says Sweet Alice Harris, director of Parents of Watts, a community group that provides assistance to the students of South Central L.A. For a South Central where a 60 percent unemployment figure has been constant for young black males for more than three decades, welfare cutbacks ($565 to $594 per family of three in a city where the average one-bedroom hell hole goes for $500 a month) are viewed as genocidal. "Somewhere down the line, somebody's got to stop," Harris warns. "I see another riot comin', a civil war comin'."

In L.A.'s black community, tangible evidence of progress is limited to Magic Johnson's movie theater complex. There has been rebuilding in South Central, but not enough. A local institution, the Aquarian Spiritual Center -- destroyed during the riots when its new mini-mall location was burned -- has finally given up trying to rebuild. Until the mid-'60s, it was one of the few places carrying black literature and providing a podium for black authors and lecturers. Since then, young people have always been welcomed to gather there -- to share cultural interests, pursue spiritual quests, engage in philosophical discourse. The owners have suffered thousands of dollars of setbacks in their effort to reopen.

While the "loco" pundits scratch their heads over riot causes and myriad failures to rebuild, working class and poor residents are being crushed by relentless economic pressures. In today's L.A., you're poor on $50,000 a year. Rents are astronomical, and, as followed the Watts riots of August 1965, the promises of critical low- and middle-income housing have failed to materialize.

In South Central, real estate agents won't call back unless you speak with a Hispanic accent. White gentrification, geared toward reclaiming formerly black neighborhoods, such as West Adams or Sugar Hill, is being encouraged while black families are being run out of traditional 'hoods, public housing projects and middle-income housing complexes by Latino street gangs -- and out of upscale communities by whites.

The message from L.A. to its black citizenry seems clear: There is no place for you here. And so many black families are relocating out of the city, rebuilding their communities in far removed locales like Victorville, which was established by blacks, the Imperial Valley, and San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Visitors to South Central by day are inclined to ask why there was a riot. It looks so middle class. There are so many green trees, and all the little homes have lawns. The sky above is as beautiful as the Cote d'Azur.

In answer, locals do their best to describe the subtle devastations that inspired the 1992 riot, the toll in human expectations and lives. Visitors are invited to brave the streets after sundown, when the blight takes on a haunting quality, accented by red, green and yellow neon. Remnants of spring fog misting inland off the Pacific Ocean deepen the sensation of restlessness beneath an exhaustion-inspired stillness.

They might observe an occasional walker in ski cap and jacket, who can be seen loping along the seemingly endless sidewalk, hands rammed into pockets -- a prowler, a vagrant, a worker getting off late without bus fare to get home. A wraith-thin bronze hooker, cigarette to her smirking lips, appears suddenly at the intersection of 79th and Figueroa. And traveling west on Manchester toward the Forum, their attention will be grabbed by giant letters, done in cheap paint, that scream "Black Owned" across the coarse, charcoal-gray metallic siding designed to discourage looters of all stripes.

Wanda Coleman's "Native in a Strange Land" (Black Sparrow Press) chronicles her L.A. life and times.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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