By JONATHAN TILOVE
December 8, 1996
c. 1996.Newhouse News Service
OAKLAND, CALIF. - America’s rapidly growing Latino and Asian populations are imperiling black political power and confounding notions of a rainbow coalition across the country.
Common ground notwithstanding, the more local the issue, the more black people find their political power challenged by the rise of new minority populations seeking city council and school board seats, and fighting for their share of municipal jobs and contracts.
It is a competition for a finite number of elective offices, city jobs and public housing units.
It is happening in New York, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and in any city that is a prime destination for immigrants, most of whom for the past 30 years have come from Latin America and Asia.
And it is happening nowhere more vividly than in Oakland, Calif.
“Oakland,” said Ishmael Reed, the novelist, playwright and essayist who lives there, “is the United States’ most multicultural city.”
At times, he said, it is a thing of beauty. At other times, not.
There, as elsewhere in multicultural America, black people are increasingly being cast as the moral equivalent of white people, hoarding power in the face of change, even as white people frequently prove the most successful at crafting cross-color coalitions.
“All the time I’ve been here I’ve had to work against discrimination, not by whites but by blacks,” said Richard Zamora, who leads the Hispanic city employees’ organization in Oakland known as Amigos. “Oakland is a multicultural city. It just got stuck thinking it was a black city.”
*** Enemy has changed ***
Ishmael Reed is not stuck. But, he said, as he has before, “In 20 years, African-Americans may be nostalgic for the good old days when the only racism they had to deal with was white racism.”
In fact, rare is the black political, civil rights or intellectual leader of national prominence who will cast even a sliver of blame for declining black influence on other minorities rather than on larger, whiter forces. Such a critique, evidently, is considered unworthy, unwise and ultimately futile. But at the local level, frustration finds its voice.
“The black community historically has been very kind and generous, just like the Native Americans welcoming Columbus,” said Natalie Bayton, a black member of the Oakland City Council. “We have been at the forefront of the struggle for this kind of multiculturalism.”
But Bayton said it was a redistricting designed to improve the political fortunes of Oakland’s burgeoning Latino and Asian communities that led to her defeat in November by a white woman.
“A lot of Latinos and Asians really bought into this notion that they would have greater political strength if they had these ethnic empowerment districts, as they were calling them,” Bayton said. “A lot of times these other communities are just looking out for themselves.”
Geoffrey Pete, an Oakland nightclub owner active in politics, is less polite.
“It’s our community that has been devastated in order to advance the cause of environmentalists, women, Asians and Hispanics,” Pete said.
But John Russo, who is white and represents the district crafted to accommodate more Asians, has a different take on what’s happening in Oakland.
“I don’t want to overstate this,” Russo said, “but it’s as if African-Americans now are the ones standing in the schoolhouse door.”
Whichever read is more accurate, Oakland provides a particularly poignant case study of black political power gazing over the precipice.
There, in the birthplace of the Black Panthers, the black community this past election lost its majority on the school board, and, with Bayton’s defeat, saw its onetime majority on the City Council, first realized in 1983, winnowed to a third. The council, including the mayor, will consist of four white people, three black people, a Latino, and an Asian elected at large.
“Everywhere I go now since the election I am bombarded with questions from people in the African-American community, ‘What are we going to do?’ ‘Where are we going?’ ‘How did this happen?’ ” said Dezi Woods-Jones, a black member of the City Council who did not seek re-election.
It is a distress with loud echoes in other cities.
In Chicago, a majority of white and Latino voters has elected and re-elected Richard Daley mayor against black challengers, just as in Houston, Mayor Bob Lanier, now in his third term, swept the Latino vote when he first was elected mayor over a black candidate. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is expected to face either another white person, or a Puerto Rican candidate next November.
White voters “can pick and choose among different ethnic groups to make coalitions with,” said David Bositis, an expert on black politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C. “They make coalitions by playing one ethnic group against the other.”
Daley, for example, has named Hispanics to be Chicago’s police chief, fire chief and head of the school board.
*** Hispanics group growing ***
The demographics are not going to improve for black people.
Hispanics probably outnumber black people in New York, and estimates are that Chicago could be more Hispanic than either black or white by 2005, the same year the Census Bureau estimates Hispanics will outnumber black people nationally.
In Los Angeles, nearly three of every four babies born at Martin Luther King hospital in Watts, another black-Latino battleground, are Hispanic. And according to the Los Angeles survey of urban inequality, a majority of black people surveyed believe that the more influence Latinos and Asians gain in local politics, the less influence black people will have. The next redistricting almost certainly will prove them right.
“There is an assumption that all minorities, because of their minority status, are going to have common interests, but I just don’t find very much evidence of that being the case, and a lot of evidence that it isn’t,” said political scientist Joseph Stewart, co-author of “Can We All Get Along? Racial and Ethnic Minorities in American Politics.”
In Austin, Texas, Rodolfo de la Garza, vice president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, which studies Latino issues, said there are Hispanic leaders who cannot be bothered with multiethnic politics, “because they believe they are going to win without it,” and those who like rainbow politics, but cannot find a constituency for it.
One group is growing. The other is not. Citizenship and voting may lag well behind population shifts, but eventually numbers yield power, and they don’t always have to wait on the franchise. Latinos, for example, successfully sued the Chicago Housing Authority because more than 90 percent of its tenants were black, and only 2 percent Hispanic.
“It’s competition for scarce resources, and blacks are legitimately and understandably very frightened about what this portends,” de la Garza said.
*** Interethnic prejudice ***
In Dallas and Houston, black people and Latinos have engaged in bitter battles over control of school systems that most white people deserted and where the student population is now more Latino than black.
“I think African-Americans are very intimidated by that because numbers mean power,” said Adelfa Callejo, a Latino lawyer and activist who is also vice chairman of the statewide Tejano Democrats.
“They perceive that if a Hispanic is employed as superintendent they will be left out or not treated fairly,” Callejo said. “There is a saying in Spanish: ‘El ladron juzga por su condicion,’ The thief judges by his own standards.’ They have excluded us, and they think we will exclude them. We don’t intend to exclude anybody.”
But, Callejo said, “This city appeases African-Americans on a daily basis.”
For his part, the leader of the Dallas NAACP has depicted Hispanics as “vultures” who “feast on the results of our efforts,” and members of the New Black Panthers have joined in disrupting school board meetings in protest.
The original Black Panthers first met at a clubhouse in West Oakland in 1966. The city was then more than half white and power was still securely in white hands. In the next decade, though, a growing black population, the Panthers and the broader currents of the civil rights movement transformed Oakland.
In 1973, Panther Bobby Seale ran for mayor, losing the runoff by 50,000 votes. Four years later, Lionel Wilson, with Panther help, was elected Oakland’s first black mayor,
“In the 1970s it seemed like there was black power everywhere in town,” Ishmael Reed said.
By 1980, the city was nearly half black. But it had peaked. By 1995, the black population had slipped to little better than 40 percent, non-Hispanic white people were down to 26 percent, and Latinos and Asians were 17 and 16 percent of the population respectively, and growing.
The city’s changed complexion really came home to roost with the redistricting controversy in 1993 and a year later when Mayor Elihu Harris, who is black, faced a re-election runoff against Ted Dang, an Oakland-born Asian-American businessman.
It was in the course of that campaign that Lionel Wilson, the first black mayor, complained at an African-American leadership summit, “When I see black folks tell me they’re gonna vote for a Chinese man, it makes me angry.”
“It was very disturbing to imagine somebody would say things like that,” said Dang, who lost the election. “And he had nominated me to the housing commission and his brother was one of my campaign co-chairs.”
It was part of Dang’s introduction to more than he wanted to know about every manner of interethnic prejudice.
“I began to think that our standing as the most integrated city in the country may also be one of our problems,” said Dang, who was also criticized for his campaign attacks that some thought portrayed the mayor as a “hoodlum.”
Timothy Fong, a sociologist who grew up in Oakland, said that while Oakland seems to hold it together better than most places, “The whole notion of the rainbow coalition has a lot of holes in it.”
Fong returned to teach at Holy Names College, to write a book on the city’s changing racial politics.
Isaac Taggart, who has an Afrocentric store in Oakland and helped found a new political organization, Africans United for Self-Help, said he grew up in San Francisco but always wanted to move across the Bay Bridge.
“I wanted to be in Oakland because there were more people in power that looked like me,” Taggart said.
Taggart said the black community has reached a stage in political “maturity” when it does not select candidates solely on the basis of race. But then again, he said, “we feel our struggle has to be led by us.”
“That’s what’s opened doors for everybody else, but everyone else forgets that,” Taggart said. And, he added, “We’re not trying to get in power to do what was done to us to others.”
*** New discrimination suits ***
A suit filed against the city this summer by James Lorenz Jr., a white lawyer with some history representing Mexican-American and farm-worker causes, charged that the city was constructing its employment and contracting goals in a manner designed to benefit black people at the expense of Asians and Latinos.
“When that lawsuit was filed, it was like the shot heard round the world,” said Shannon Reeves, 28, leader of the Oakland NAACP. “It was a line drawn in the sand. If that’s the way it’s going to be, let’s get it on.”
And yet, Reeves doesn’t blame other groups for black residents’ political decline in Oakland. “Things are so raggedy in the black community,” said Reeves, who just defeated the longtime NAACP president with a promise of younger, more aggressive leadership. “Black people allowed the power to slip away.”
Indeed, with Mayor Harris’ plans unclear, the two likeliest candidates for mayor in two years are former Gov. Jerry Brown, a recent drop-in to Oakland, and Ignacio De La Fuente, the only Latino on the council.
“I’m running, I’m running as we speak,” said De La Fuente, a stocky, gravel-voiced, in-your-face, Mexico City-born, natural politician whose other job is as an international representative for the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics & Allied Workers union.
*** Power struggle continues ***
Reeves considers De La Fuente an enemy of the black community. But in fact, it was a former black council member, Wilson Riles Jr., who in effect bequeathed his seat to De La Fuente.
“Wilson always said it was important for the Latino community to have that kind of empowerment,” said Natalie Bayton, who worked for Riles before she ran for the council.
Once again, said club owner Geoffrey Pete, “we orchestrated our own demise.”
Time will tell.
“We’re moving beyond politics in black and white,” said John Mollenkopf, an expert on New York City politics at the City University of New York. “But it’s still very crucial where the color line is drawn.”
Will the most common coalitions of the future be white vs. nonwhite, or black vs. nonblack?
A Harris survey two years ago found that while black people feel closest to Latinos, both Latinos and Asians feel closest to white people. Hispanic is, after all, a cultural or national origin category; most Hispanics identify themselves as racially white.
De la Garza said Latinos typically occupy a middle ground politically between black and white, but the separation from white people is exacerbated right now by the high proportion of immigrants in the Latino population. As they assimilate, their distance from non-Hispanic white people will narrow, he predicts. And, Mollenkopf said, “Asians are good candidates for being honorary whites.”
But, de la Garza said, “Blacks are never going to be indistinguishable.”