Reviews | Los Angeles mess puts Democrats in trouble

In order to maintain this block, “a delicate dance ensued,” Meyerson continues:

Since the 1960s, three of the city’s 15 council districts in and around the heavily black South Central had been unofficially designated as black seats, and Latino political leaders agreed not to contest them, even as the black share of the city’s population had fallen from 15 percent in the 1970 census to 8 percent in the 2020 census, and even as the city’s share of Latinos rose to 48 percent in 2020.

I asked Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles, about the history of racial and ethnic politics in Los Angeles as well as the current situation. He replied by email: “Between 1900 and 1949, there was no member of the city council who was African American, Latino, Jewish or Asian American.” In 1949, Ed Roybal became the first Hispanic board member and held his seat until 1962, when he successfully ran for Congress, Sonenshein noted. But “there was then a long hiatus without Latino members until 1985, all at the height of the Bradley Black-Jewish coalition”.

Now, according to Sonenshein, “there are three African American and four Latino ‘seats’ on the board,” with the strong possibility of a fifth Hispanic seat depending on the Nov. 8 runoff result. Black Democrats have held three council seats in every cycle since 1963 despite the sharp decline in the African-American share of the city’s electorate, the result, Sonenshein wrote, “of long-term black-Latino détente and sometimes of a solid alliance”.

I asked Sonenshein about the all-or-nothing element of redistricting in Los Angeles, and he replied that the unusually strong powers wielded by the city council make competition for seats particularly intense:

The conflict is further heightened by the unique nature of the Los Angeles council. It is certainly the most powerful council of all cities with a mayor-council system. The council’s relatively small size and the council’s visibility as the most public institution of city government make each seat extremely valuable. LA’s growing stature as a key political force in California and even in national Democratic politics has state lawmakers considering giving up their seats when a council vacancy opens up. (Can you imagine this happening in New York or Chicago?)

Conversely, according to Sonenshein, there are two conflict-mitigating factors: “strong incentives in communities to build and sustain progressive interracial and interethnic coalitions on the model of Tom Bradley and cross-cutting elite political alliances that link members of different communities”.

Sonenshein described the current situation in Los Angeles as the

mirror image of the 1990s. As the Latino population grew in the 1980s and 1990s in what was then known as South Central Los Angeles, there was considerable intergroup tension at the street level. Jobs, housing, services, everything played a role. It took some time for these tensions to rise to the political level.

David Sears, professor emeritus of psychology and political science at UCLA, emailed his response to my question about racial and ethnic politics in Los Angeles:

The zero-sum nature of redistricting surely exacerbates intergroup conflict. In Los Angeles, these conflicts are barely below the surface in general. Mainly Black Brown. Latinos have moved into historically black neighborhoods in Los Angeles in large numbers and now generally outnumber blacks. Representation on city council has not adjusted to reflect this change. Black-brown political coalitions are forming, but they can be evanescent, with tensions usually sub rosa rather than publicly displayed.

In times of peace, writes Sears, “the theory of ‘common identity within a group’ holds that coalitions can form around a common superior identity. An example would be the Democratic Party in the California Legislature,” where there are “many pressures to bind the coalition — for example, maintaining a supermajority.”

Sears cautioned, however, that “subordinate group identities can sometimes fracture this common identity when subordinate group identities come into focus, such as in redistricting (or ticket dialing) decisions. The current controversy is a classic example of these dynamics.

Sears highlighted possible future developments. On the one hand, he mentioned again “a lot of pressure to bind the coalition”. At the same time, however, he noted:

Centrifugal pressures include the upward mobility of Latinos, who are rapidly becoming small entrepreneurs. The younger generation is much better educated: for example, the number of Latinos admitted to UCLA is growing rapidly. And intermarriage with whites is very common in post-immigrant generations.

“Expect more ethnic conflict,” Sears concluded,

despite the incentives to form coalitions. Fragmentation of neighborhoods leads to fragmentation of schools. Many lighter-skinned Latinos have an easier path than African Americans in terms of upward mobility. I believe broken families are still much more common in the black community, which has its costs.

Redistricting is a redistribution of political power, and political power determines the allocation of crucial resources. Cecilia Menjívar, professor of sociology at UCLA, emailed me her analysis of the role of scarcity in the struggle for power:

Ethnic conflict does not occur in a vacuum of other social forces, especially material resources such as income and especially inequality – absolute and relative – of personal income, but also resources such as housing and finance schools, etc., which vary quite a bit from place to place. , district, etc. This is important because it is not just about income and material resources, but also about increased inequality – the unequal distribution of resources that shapes perceptions of a sense of scarcity that groups (and individuals) perceive .

Income and access to resources and benefits are all key, Menjívar continued, “but inequality, unequal distribution and access to resources and benefits in society, are absolutely key to consider here because it’s about perceptions of unequal access, unequal distribution of benefits, etc., which I see more than just the distribution of income.

Along the same lines, Betina Wilkinson, a political scientist at Wake Forest University, emailed me to tell me that her survey and focus group data “reveals that for some Blacks and Latinx , social, economic and political opportunities are zero-sum because they feel that their power and socio-political struggles are comparable to those of the other minoritized group, that there are limited resources and opportunities and therefore that the another group poses a threat to them.