The L.A. Reality: Whether It's Public Projects or Employment, African Americans Have Been Excluded in California's Largest City

Article excerpt

THOUGH HIS VOCAL CORDS HAD NOT yet recovered from throat surgery, Gov. Pete Wilson traveled to Los Angeles in July to sound a rallying cry. He announced an executive order that rescinded affirmative-action edicts and positioned himself as the national front-runner in the anti-affirmative-action movement.

Wilson's choice of L.A. was strategic. California is spearheading the national anti-affirmative-action debate, and L.A. has come to symbolize the most ardent resistance within the Golden State.

The City of Angels has been less than angelic to African Americans, excluding their meaningful participation in everything from the 1984 Olympics to public contracting and employment. While some in Los Angeles have fought hard to exclude blacks and other minorities, the African American community has been agonizingly slow in responding. Traditional black organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League have issued statements defending affirmative action, but have done little else.

Unlike other cities--where African Americans form considerable voting blocs that keep some politicians from retreating on affirmative action--L.A.'s black population hasn't mustered any significant backlash at the polls. (The black population in Los Angeles decreased from 17% in 1980 to 14% in 1990, according to Census Bureau statistics. African Americans have also failed to form coalitions with other minority groups to protect common interests.

Joe Hicks, a former director with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, says he is troubled by the relative silence on the issue. This silence, he believes, will allow the anti-affirmative-action tide to gain a momentum that will be hard to break. "People aren't vocal enough," he says. "For us, this is a survival issue, and we have to cast it in that light. If we don't, white forces can snatch it from us."

Though in the early stages, some efforts to build a black front on affirmative action in Southern California are under way. Hicks is spearheading Californians for Affirmative Action, a statewide coalition planning educational forums, voter registration drives and other activities. State Sen. Diane Watson is heading a similar group, the Coalition for Affirmative Action. Watson says she will use L.A. as a launching pad for efforts to raise the visibility of the pro-affirmative-action movement. One goal is to produce TV spots that match the emotional energy of the Civil Rights Initiative attack. "We have to put our most compelling faces forward," Watson says. "We're going to have to put our most cogent arguments together, and convince people that affirmative action does not mean stigmas or set-asides."

While Gov. Wilson's camp has long insisted that he is simply trying to establish a color-blind society, his critics say they see nothing but political cynicism at its most blatant. "There's a right-wing rise," says Hicks, "so moderate Republicans like Wilson are taking a David Duke line just to stay in power. What we're fighting now as black people is a full-fledged assault on our rights."

A LEGACY OF NONCOMPLIANCE

The state Supreme Court ruled last year that L.A. can require firms seeking large city contracts to recruit minorities and women. But those requirements have softened on paper while the city gathers new data on diversity needs. Senior assistant city Attorney Pete Echeverria admitted that the language might get even softer in light of the recent Supreme Court Adarand ruling, which drastically limits the scope of affirmative-action programs.

Large-scale incentives for black-owned businesses in L.A. have had limited success. In 1984, the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee (LAOOC) enacted an aggressive policy in granting product licensing, contracting and employment opportunities to minorities, women and the disabled. Product licensing, which gave small businesses potentially grand opportunities for growth, promised the most long-term benefits. …