Myth of the Melting Pot

America's Racial and Ethnic Divides

In L.A., a Sense of Future Conflicts

Second in a series of occasional articles

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 1998; Page A1

LOS ANGELES – Two pictures hanging in the lobby of Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Center offer silent testimony to a view shared by many blacks here that the hospital was built by and for African Americans.

King hospital rose from the ashes of the 1965 riots, a belated answer to the long-ignored complaint that the county's white-run health system neglected the black community. Before the facility opened in 1972, there was no public hospital in predominantly black South Central Los Angeles.

But the regal visages of the slain civil rights leader and black county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke now overlook a new, often disconcerting reality: Most of the patients and visitors in the hospital are Latino, not black. Many are holding conversations in Spanish. And increasingly, they are pressing the hospital to hire doctors and other top staff members who look and talk like them – a demand Latino leaders say is met largely with indifference, if not indignation, from the hospital's black managers and its political patrons.

"At King, you now have a black island in a brown sea," said Rees Lloyd, a lawyer for an Indian American doctor who alleges he was continuously passed over for promotions because he is not black. "A lot of people are uncomfortable with that."

The change rumbling through King hospital is just a fraction of the fallout from a seismic shift in the racial makeup of Los Angeles County. In 1960, four out of five people in the county were white. But a wave of immigration has transformed the jurisdiction into one where no ethnic or racial group holds the majority. The county's population of 9.5 million is now 41 percent Hispanic, 37 percent white, 11 percent Asian and 10 percent black. The Latino and Asian populations each have more than doubled in the past 20 years, dramatically altering the dynamics of race here.

Just over a decade ago, the broad swath of the county popularly known as South Central was synonymous with black Los Angeles. But now middle-class African Americans are leaving, often dispersing to communities that once were all white. Asian Americans, who once congregated in enclaves near downtown, are moving into suburban communities that ring L.A. Meanwhile, many non-Hispanic whites are often relocating to even more distant suburbs or leaving California altogether.

What is happening here represents the leading edge of racial and ethnic changes affecting communities across America. Demographers predict that by the middle of the next century the nation as a whole will look much like Los Angeles does now: a rich tapestry of people whose sheer diversity makes once familiar notions of racial interaction obsolete.

"Politicians like to say that diversity is our greatest strength," said Ron Wakabayashi, executive director of the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations. "That is b.s. Diversity simply is. The core question is how do we extract its assets while minimizing its liabilities?"

To be sure, the new immigrants have renewed old neighborhoods, created new businesses and enriched the culture of Los Angeles. But the exploding diversity also has changed the nature of racial conflict and drawn new groups into battles that once were waged almost exclusively between blacks and whites. Here, black and Latino civil servants square off over public jobs. Blacks activists and Asian store owners fight over control of local businesses. And Latino and Asian gangs battle for control of their turf.

This new reality fuels the racial isolation evident in many walks of life here. Researchers have found deep racial divisions in the Los Angeles job market – partly the result of discrimination but reinforced because people typically find jobs through personal connections that most often do not cross racial or ethnic lines. Many of the furniture factories in South Central have only Latino workers. The toy factories near downtown employ mainly Chinese. Many of the small grocery stores are owned and run by Koreans. And African Americans disproportionately work in government jobs, where they are desperately trying to hold their place in the face of fierce competition from Latinos who want in.

Biggest Bigots: Often, It's Minorities

As Los Angeles is learning, minorities are often quick to embrace negative racial stereotypes of one another. A poll by the National Conference, a nonprofit organization that promotes racial dialogue, found that minorities tend to share bitter feelings toward whites, whom they call bigoted and bossy. But the national survey found that minorities often harbored even harsher views of one another.

Nearly half of Latinos and 40 percent of African Americans agree that Asian Americans are "unscrupulous, crafty and devious in business." Only one in four whites agrees with that statement. More than two out of three Asian Americans and half of African Americans and whites believe Latinos tend to "have bigger families than they are able to support." Meanwhile, Latinos are almost three times as likely as whites to believe that blacks "aren't capable of getting ahead" even if given the opportunity, the poll found.

Those attitudes contribute to the friction that often marks racial interaction in Los Angeles. Rather than prompting people to come together, the more common reality of the new diversity is people living separate lives in often vibrant but segregated communities. In Los Angeles, there are suburban developments, such as Monterey Park, that are almost exclusively Chinese. There is a Little Saigon and enclaves of Samoans and Hmong and Russians and Iranians.

And when people from diverse backgrounds find themselves thrust together in the same neighborhoods, the same jobs or the same schools, the result can often be conflict.

Nowhere is that more vivid than in the county's South Central corridor, where the number of Latinos is overwhelming the African American population. Much as blacks demanded a fairer share of the power and resources from whites a generation ago, Latinos are now demanding that blacks and others share jobs, special school programs and political control. And like whites before them, many African Americans feel threatened by those demands.

"Latinos have their own. Blacks have their own," said Royce Esters, former president of the NAACP branch that includes Compton, a city in the South Central corridor. "It's a power play. Blacks feel like they have marched and marched and the Latinos have not marched. As a result, blacks are afraid of another race coming in and taking something they have worked so hard to get."

For much of its history, Compton was a virtually all-white suburb of Los Angeles, where segregation was enforced with racist attacks and laws that barred African Americans from buying homes. A 1948 Supreme Court decision lifted the legal barriers, but the acceptance of African Americans was slow and difficult. The first blacks who dared venture to Compton were greeted with white hostility: Paint was smeared on their homes, flower gardens were uprooted, crosses were burned on their lawns.

But blacks persevered and by the 1960s had established a racial majority. When they finally wrested political control of Compton from whites in the 1960s, that ascendancy became a source of racial pride, with residents boasting that Compton was the largest black-run city west of the Mississippi.

Blacks Face a New Challenge

Now, three decades later, an extraordinary wave of immigration has pushed Latinos into the majority in Compton, except in the corridors of power. Blacks still control the mayor's office, the city council, all but one school board seat and four out of five municipal jobs in Compton. Just as a generation ago blacks questioned that kind of white domination, blacks find themselves being challenged by Latino demands for power.

The long-simmering tension boiled over in 1994 when a black Compton police officer was caught on videotape beating Latino teenager Felipe Soltero. The incident angered Latinos in Compton much the same way as the bludgeoning of black motorist Rodney G. King by white police officers incensed African Americans. The incident pushed the city toward the edge of rioting, and resulted in a civil suit against the officer. The officer was found to have violated Soltero's rights but the youth was awarded only $1 in damages by a federal judge after a racially mixed jury refused to award anything.

"It was kind of like the first Rodney King trial," said Danilo Becerra, Soltero's lawyer. "I've never seen a more blatant example of injustice."

Latino leaders in Compton call the outcome of that case one small manifestation of the disparities that routinely go unaddressed by the city's black leadership. Nearly two-thirds of the city's 29,000 public school students are Latino but less than 10 percent of its teaching staff is. There are separate chamber of commerces, one for Latinos and one for blacks. But only the group with black members receives city funds. "As far as I can tell, everything in this city is directed to the blacks," said John Ortega, a longtime Compton resident. "Not so long ago, [school officials] even took a load of students to Africa. ... I sure don't see them going to Mexico."

In few places has the tension between blacks and Latinos emerged more vividly than in the pitched racial battle occurring at King hospital, a linchpin in the nation's second largest public health care system.

From the beginning, King was more than a medical center for many blacks in South Central, who felt their forebears had fought – and died – to see it built.

A Flurry of Activism

It was what many saw as the unnecessary death of a black man that brought the need for the hospital into sharp focus. In 1966, Leonard Deadwyler ran several lights as he sped his pregnant wife toward the closest county hospital 20 miles away. He was stopped by police and a confrontation ensued. Deadwyler was shot and killed. Police said Deadwyler was drunk and acting irrationally, a claim refuted by his widow and her attorney, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.

Many in South Central were convinced that Deadwyler would not have died that day if the neighborhood had had its own hospital. That galvanized a flurry of protest and activism that culminated in the construction of King and the adjoining Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science.

Los Angles County may have built King, but for much of its history it has been run largely by blacks who view it as the fruit of their protest and subsequent empowerment. Now, to many others attempting to gain a foothold in the new South Central, that pride often resembles the racial bias that blacks so vigorously fought when it was being dished out by whites.

'Let Us Get Our Fair Share'

Dr. Subramaniam Balasubramaniam began working as acting head of King's busy emergency room two decades ago, passing up other jobs to follow what he saw as his calling to work in a poor community. After six years in an acting role, he was offered the job permanently, under the condition that he appoint a black doctor to be his eventual successor.

Balasubramaniam, who is from India, said his African American bosses explained that he had to hire a black vice chair because King is a "black hospital." But Balasubramaniam refused, citing the inexperience of the doctor hospital officials wanted him to hire, according to a 1995 Civil Service Commission opinion.

For that, he paid. Balasubramaniam was stripped of his title, which was given to a black doctor a few months later. Balasubramaniam's duties remained the same, but he was passed over for numerous other promotions. Finally, in 1991, the hospital hired a veteran white surgeon to be its first permanent chief of emergency medicine, but only after he agreed to groom a young black doctor to eventually assume the post.

Eventually, the white chief was removed and a black doctor took his place. Balasubramaniam was never considered for the job he had held for years because hospital officials said he was "unqualified."

Balasubramaniam filed a complaint with the county's Civil Service Commission, which found that King followed an "unwritten policy of reserving leadership positions for blacks, to the exclusion of non-blacks."

This was one of a series of discrimination complaints, including several by Latinos, that eventually led a federal agency to order the county to increase its recruitment, hiring and promotion of Latinos across its health care system.

"What they found as far as Latino workers go is similar to findings you'd have found in Alabama years ago to how African Americans were treated," said Alan Clayton, a researcher for the Los Angeles County Chicano Employees Association. "We're not trying to replace anybody. We're just trying to say 'let us get our fair share' [of county jobs]."

Others have filed successful complaints against King. And many of the rulings in favor of Latinos and other non-blacks who worked at King have left some African American officials fuming. They say that Latinos finger them for discrimination but ignore similar treatment at the hands of whites. They point to statistics showing that other county hospitals, including the sprawling County-USC hospital in heavily Latino East Los Angeles, have overwhelmingly white physician and management staffs – yet that fact, they say, draws little scrutiny from Latino leaders.

"Blacks have bent over backward to accommodate Latinos, but we remain easy targets," said Clyde Johnson, president of the Los Angeles County Black Employees Association. "Blacks are open-minded, very caring and sympathetic people." But, he added, "We don't think [Latino] progress should come out of our hides."

'We Don't Understand Each Other'

Yet if blacks are clinging to health care and government as their place of employment, many immigrants are claiming their own niches while keeping blacks – and everyone else – out. Many low-skill jobs such as janitors, gardeners and light factory workers are dominated by recent immigrants, often with Mexicans, Vietnamese or Koreans claiming specific slices of the job market.

In 1990, Francisco Pinedo launched Cisco Brothers Corp., a manufacturer of upscale, upholstered furniture. The factory began in a garage and had only three employees. But as business picked up Pinedo quickly expanded, almost exclusively hiring people he knew or people referred by his employees.

After several years of stunning growth, he had a large work force, but one that was almost entirely Latino. "A lot of the hiring they did was word-of-mouth," said Yvette Nunez, director of operations for the Community Development Technologies Center in Los Angeles. "That is something we found in doing surveys with a lot of the manufacturers that have almost entirely Latino work forces. They hire through personal networks."

At the urging of economic development officials, Pinedo began advertising some of his openings in the newspaper. But, while his 15-person management team has three non-Latinos, virtually all of the 100 manufacturing jobs in his South Central plant are filled by Latinos.

"Pretty much the entire upholstery industry is 99 percent Hispanics," said Pinedo, whose firm now does $10 million a year in sales. "I put ads in, but don't get much response from African Americans. Besides, it helps to hire people who someone knows. It gives you more references. You don't have to worry about not knowing who these people are."

The tensions between racial and ethnic groups are often compounded by the fact that residents of the area do not even share the same base of information. Greater Los Angeles has more than 50 foreign language newspapers and television shows broadcast not only in Spanish but in Mandarin, Armenian, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese.

"We don't understand each other because of the cultural and language barriers," said Kapson Lee, an editor at the Korean Times, a 100,000-circulation Korean language daily. "And the mainstream press has no ongoing relationship with us. They just come here when some unfortunate incident happens and scramble for a sound bite or some piece of information out of nowhere. It is disgusting."

In 1991, when a Korean shopkeeper fatally shot a 15-year-old black girl in the back of the head during a dispute over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice, the Korean and black press handled the story in distinctly different ways. Korean papers ran a stream of stories about the daily harassment faced by Korean merchants. At one point, one Korean paper kept a running tally of the number of merchants who were assaulted in their stores.

The black press ran stories about the suspicion and general disrespect law-abiding customers often faced when they ventured into Korean-owned stores in their own neighborhoods.

And when the shop owner was convicted of manslaughter but got off with a light sentence of probation and a $500 fine, the reaction was predictable: many Koreans applauded the sentence, while many African Americans saw it as another example of the injustice that they endured for years to the benefit of whites.

"People don't see their common purpose," said Wakabayashi, of the county human relations commission. "It seems like everybody has a different bad guy."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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