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Compton as the Bellwether for Urban America

When Ice Cube took his star turn as Compton roughneck Doughboy in John Singleton's "Boyz N' the Hood," few people realized the sea change in popular culture that had already begun to unfold. The oddly white cowboy/oil baron/aristocratic obsessed 1980s (See: Dallas, Dynasty, The Dukes of Hazard, Garth Brooks, and the list goes on) gave way to one of the most deeply effective cultural influences of the past thirty years. One might also point to 1988 when Ice Cube, along with fellow members of West coast rap group N.W.A., released Straight Outta Compton, an album that redefined rap and brought the troubled inner city of the late 1980s and early 1990s to popular attention. Within this constellation, Compton, CA, served as ground zero -- the modern exemplar of urban Black life.

Even today, despite a very different demographic and political reality, this image of Compton persists. Though tonally distinct from N.W.A., Kendrick Lamar's new album "good kid, m.A.A.d city", frequently references the famous suburb as both source of pride: "Ain't no city quite like mine/In the city of Compton/ain't no city quite like mine" ("Compton");and trauma: "Dope on the corner/look at the coroner/daughter is dead/mother mourning her" ("Dying of Thirst").

Yet, this vision of Compton only gets so much right. While Compton assumed the position of Black pop culture epicenter, its actual demographics demonstrated a political and racial shift that would become central to national and municipal politics. From the late 1980s to the present, Compton's Latino population skyrocketed, while its Black population declined; between 1980 and 1990, Latinos experienced a 131% increase while the city's black population declined by 21%. By 2012, Compton's now majority Latino population demanded greater political representation on the city's all-Black city council. Though Compton's shift parallels similar changes in much larger cities like Chicago over the past two decades, few locales have encapsulated the increasing importance of Brown and Black faces in American pop culture and municipal politics.


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100 Miles and Runnin' -- Shedding Light on Inner City Struggles

Compton's place at the center of late twentieth century Black life did not come easily. Although African Americans have been a presence in the city since the 1940s when whites began to move out and the typical process of "white flight" unfolded, it wasn't until the late 1960s when they finally achieved political dominance. Even then, local institutions like the L.A. Times described it insultingly "as an experiment in Negro self -government."1

As the 1980s concluded and the 1990s began, Compton found itself as the metaphorical and literal home of West Coast gangsta rap and the archetype for urban struggles nationally. Rap outfits like N.W.A. and movies like "Boyz 'N the Hood" played pivotal roles in this development.

Clearly, N.W.A. did not make pleasant records. The shock and violence that drew fans -- of all races -- also repulsed others. Granted, the group's music often seemed apolitical -- they hyped pushers, played women, murdered foes and shot police. As hip hop historian Jeff Chang points out in his book "Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation," "excess was the essence of NWA's appeal."2 Yet despite themselves, cultural productions emanating from Cube, Dr. Dre, and Easy E became veritable political statements; Compton served as a character as much as a setting.

As Felicia Viator, history lecturer at San Francisco State, noted at March's Whitsett symposium, Dre, Cube, and influential KDAY DJ Craig Mack employed a stripped down approach to getting their sound out, using a method that more directly engaged L.A. youth: mobile DJ parties located in places like middle schools and skating rinks. In this way, the Compton based rap of N.W.A. carried greater immediacy in terms of ideology -- the hyperrealism of Ice Cube and others did not traffic in nuance or nationalism, and accessibility.

When the F.B.I. issued its now legendary letter of warning to the West Coast group, it not only unwittingly boosted album sales, it sent a clear message: N.W.A. was Compton and Compton was young Black America. Compton's image both marshaled attention to the ills of urban America while nihilistically celebrating them.

Unlike N.W.A, John Singleton undoubtedly imbued "Boyz 'N the Hood" with political meaning. Though certainly not as sensationalistic, Singleton's most notable film played a role in Compton's cultural importance. Looking back twenty years later, the Atlantic contributor Sean Coons highlighted the movie's significance in drawing attention to the struggles of young Black America: "'Boyz n the Hood' also introduced a national conversation about inner-city gang violence, a subject that until then had been mostly a local urban issue."

To a large extent, N.W.A.'s consumers and "Boyz 'N the Hood" patrons hailed from predominantly white suburbs. Media controversies over violence at movie screenings, the F.B.I. warning, and the sensationalism of the albums and the films appealed to young white kids desiring illicit excitement and who perhaps did not feel so invested in Black Nationalism. This brought profits, which encouraged others to follow and the industry to invest -- hence the explosion of "hood movies" and West Coast gangsta rap. By the late 1990s, for many young white suburban hip hop fans, Compton achieved a perverse mythical status. However, despite occupying this position, the South Central municipality had begun to change in ways far different than its celebrated/demonized image suggested.

'Compton is a LA ghetto' reads the original caption to this photo, taken in Germany | Photo by Flickr user [ henning ] used under a Creative Commons license


From Black Pop Culture Icon to Latino American Political Mobilization

If Compton became the figurative pulse of Black America, its demographics presented a much different reality. From 1980 to 1990, Compton's African American population declined from 73% to 66%, while its Latino population rose from 21.6% to 30%. In the very decade that came to define Compton as a symbol for Black America -- the 1990s -- these shifts became more pronounced. By 2001, Latinos accounted for 57% of Compton's residents and Blacks only 40%. Ten years later, the African American population had dropped to 33% and its Latino residents risen to 65%.

During these decades, friction between the communities emerged. In his work "The Presumed Alliance," which examines Black Latino relations in American metropolitan communities, Nicolas Vaca identifies three main issues accounting for political and social frictions in Compton: education resources, representation on the city council and school board, and public jobs.3

By the early 1990s, Latinos emerged as the Compton school system's majority population. Unfortunately, Latinos and African Americans differed on educational priorities. For example, African American residents viewed spending educational resources on bilingual education warily, while many Latino parents supported bilingual initiatives. Who worked in the city's schools mattered as well. Despite increasing numbers of Latino students, only 3.6% of teachers and administrators were Latino, while 77% were Black.4 By 2012 75% of Compton's public school students hailed from Latino homes, though not a single Latino sat on the school board.

In terms of municipal employment, Compton's Latinos pointed out that they occupied less than 10% of Compton's 514 public positions. Perhaps more problematically, from the 1980s to the present, not a single Latino has been able to gain a seat on the city council. This inability to secure electoral representation, which in turn affects public employment and school policies, stems from three primary factors:

First, up until very recently, Compton's city council seats were all "at-large" positions, meaning neighborhoods do not select their own representatives, but rather vote for five general council members whose constituencies are not defined by geography. Ironically, at-large bids were a means, often employed by whites, in earlier decades to deprive Blacks of municipal representation.

Second, the Latino demographic growth has not translated to registered voters -- a common theme shared nationwide. In 1989, of Compton's 40,000 registered voters only 1800 identified as Latino. Even by 2010, despite numerical dominance, Latinos accounted for only 43% of the city's voters.

Finally, the Compton electorate as a whole expressed a marked ambivalence regarding city elections: only 7% of Compton's registered voters cast ballots in 2009 municipal campaigns.

Latinos form a large part of the Richland Farms community in Compton | Photo by Justin Cram

While Compton is hardly the only Los Angeles-area municipality to undergo these changes -- see Maywood or Bell Gardens -- it is the most visible and iconic. In 2010, Compton's Latino voters, under the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, sued the city, demanding a change to at-large city council elections. After two years, the city finally agreed to place a referendum on the ballot this past June, which succeeded in changing electoral procedures, thus forcing the city to institute by-district elections into its charter.

While Compton's electoral conflicts are unique to its own history, Blacks and Latinos elsewhere have engaged in similar fights. Undoubtedly, many African American residents remember the early days when they too were disenfranchised and feel no compulsion to give up political power. Even when this power was secured, Compton's 1980s and 1990s economic and social struggles -- highlighted by popular culture discussed above -- demonstrated the frailty of this political leverage.

When one adds to this the nation's historical tendency to elevate immigrant groups above native born Blacks, a certain reticence seems predictable. USC Professor Harry Pachon highlighted the fact that both groups engaged in a kind of stereotyping that observers more commonly associate with white racism. "Blacks say that Latinos don't take care of their housing, and Latinos felt that blacks don't value families as much," Pachon pointed out in 2007. One wonders if the media depictions of Black life in the 1990s facilitated by Singleton and N.W.A. didn't play a role in such developments.

Over twenty years after their last original album, Kendrick Lamar's Dr. Dre-produced new album, recalls the era of N.W.A. as both cautionary tale and ideal. "Look who's responsible for making Compton international/I makem holla!" raps Lamar, perhaps forgetting that this kind of notoriety led even Compton's most crime ridden section, East Compton, to change its name to East Rancho Dominguez in 1990 in the hopes of disassociating itself from the fame brought by popular culture works like "Straight Outta Compton."

Lamar ends the record with the voice of his mother instructing him to spread his message -- in turn providing the album's only recognition of the suburb's new demographic: "Tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton... When you do make it, give back with your words of encouragement. And that's the best way to give back to your city."


See also Departures: Richland Farms for a look at Compton's unique farming community.

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1 Josh Sides, "Straight into Compton: American Dreams, Urban Nightmares, and the Metamorphosis of a Black Suburb," in American Quarterly, Volume 56, No. 3 September 2004, 596.
2Jeff Chang, Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation, New York: Picador, 2005, 319.
3 Nicolas C. Vaca, The Presumed Alliance: The Unspoken Conflict between Latinos and Black and What it Means for America, New York: Harper Collins, 2004, 129, 132.
4 Ibid, 129. This was out of 1385 jobs.


Ryan Reft is a doctoral candidate in urban history at the University of California San Diego. His work has appeared in the journals Souls and The Sixties, as well as in the anthology Barack Obama and African American Empowerment: The Rise of Black America's New Leadership. He is co-editor of the blog Tropics of Meta.

Top: Eazy-E with trademark "Compton" cap as street art in Australia. Photo by kagemusha110 used under a Creative Commons license.

About the Author

Ryan Reft has a PhD in urban history from the University of California San Diego. He is co-editor of the blog Tropics of Meta.
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