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L.A. Redistricting: Fighting for a Black Future

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The Final Map recommendation by the City of L.A. Redistricting Commission (download it here)

Black History Month is over. But how local black history will shape up in the wake of some controversial city council redistricting is about as unsettled a question as I've seen in a long time.

The long-simmering fight amongst the three black members of the council -- council president Herb Wesson, Jan Perry and Bernard Parks, who represent the 10th, 9th and 8th districts, respectively -- has reached a boiling point. These three districts together pretty much account for the black population left in the city limits, notably the 8th, which includes Leimert Park and Baldwin Hills.

It's impossible to go into all the details, but the redistricting commission, heavily influenced by Wesson, recently approved new boundaries that, among other things, would cut vote-rich Leimert Park out of the 8th and dollar-rich downtown out of the 9th. Perry and Parks are very loudly crying foul, calling the changes personally motivated and politically and historically unjustified, even racially immoral. Both say the timing of these new lines couldn't be worse for black communities that are still working toward improvement since the riots in 1992 nearly twenty years ago. In editorials that appeared today in the L.A. Sentinel, Perry declares that "South L.A. has endured decades of waiting for the vision established by Tom Bradley that investment and development in downtown L.A. would yield benefits for all, including South LA." Parks is less diplomatic; he flat-out accuses the redistricting commission -- and by extension Wesson -- of violating the Voting Rights Act, an irony so stupendous it's almost surreal.

There's a fair amount of grandstanding going on here, and nobody's hands are clean in terms of consistently doing what's best for the oft-invoked black community. But here's what's right: The black population in L.A. needs to remain intact simply because it is eroding and because residents rightfully want to maintain and protect a shrinking community of interest.

And here's the bigger, unflattering picture: the communities of interest that lie within the current district lines have not improved nearly enough over the last twenty years. Santa Barbara Plaza is still the biggest eyesore in the city, South Central of the old black Eastide/"historic" Central Avenue neighborhood is struggling. And in case you haven't noticed, it's hardly black anymore; Latinos have been remaking it for years. The demographic change is not at all an argument to cut this part of the 9th off from the vast resources of downtown -- South Central is one of the poorest areas of town and needs to prosper, whoever's living in it. But as far as bringing those resources to bear on a core black neighborhood, we've kind of missed the boat. I am not saying that nothing's happened in the 9th, or the 8th and 10th districts in the last twenty or ten years. But blacks as a group are far from where we should be, given all the promises made in '92 and decades before that.

The snail's pace of progress is the story we've all been living -- and accepting -- for a long time. The "vision" Jan Perry described has taken way too long to realize, and political reality has finally caught up to it. It's a wakeup call that blacks tend to never get, because improvement in black neighborhoods doesn't have a timeline almost by definition; we've been waiting for significant improvement/deliverance/justice at least since 1965.

Meantime, instead of waiting, many black folk have gotten the hell out (those who can afford it), and those still in Crenshaw or South Central with means and middle-class aspirations have "gotten out" by living in the hood but buying goods and services elsewhere, sending their kids to better schools outside the community. We've all learned very well to live the hypocrisy of supporting "the community" in theory, but not nearly as much in practice. It's just that during this redistricting fracas, the practice has been rearing its ugly head in full public view.

This doesn't absolve Herb Wesson's handling of all this. The very least that local black elected officials can do at this point is agree not to further dilute black political strength in L.A., but Wesson's beefs with his fellow African-American councilmembers have evidently overridden a sense of collective good. Ironic, considering that Wesson has always seemed to be the most collegiate and least prickly black pol out there -- a consummate compromiser whose resume includes being Speaker of the House of the state legislature. Turns out he's not above pettiness and retribution, which hardly makes him unique among politicans, but it's unconscionable still. And costly: we -- not just the black community, but the politicians themselves -- simply can't afford it. As history presses on, we'll all go down together.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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