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Same Old Story: The State of Blacks in Los Angeles

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A mural on Crenshaw Boulevard. | Photo: waltarrrrr/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A couple of months ago, I wrote that I got a call on New's Year Day from a woman I didn't know at all but who was very eager to talk to me. Her name was Ann, she lived in the Crenshaw district, and she was in an absolute state about the state of blacks in Los Angeles. Ann is 75 and has lived in L.A. since she was a baby; she's witnessed many historical moments that culminated in the '60s, but she declared the crisis in black as we embarked on 2013 is the worst she's ever seen it.

The main problem, according to Ann, is that as black people decline in number and percentages, as the old black demographic of the central city becomes ever more Latino, blacks are becoming invisible -- politically, socially, civically. The media is unconcerned with our progress and no longer reports on happenings in the black community as part of an ongoing and largely unfinished narrative of racial justice. That's what agitated Ann the most, that our stories are not being told as part of the public record in papers like the Times, that our voices are no longer being heard. Or they're being heard, but not on the scale that they used to be; in the big picture we are simply being tuned out. With the exception of a few spectacular individual stories, notably President Obama's, modern black history has become so much background noise.

I talked to Ann again this week, the concluding week of Black History Month. She was no more optimistic than she was two months ago, though her high dudgeon hasn't diminished in the least. She was doubly indignant the February has passed without any notable black stories in the Times, our local paper of record (the manhunt for Christoper Dorner doesn't count). But she has come up with a solution of sorts: Black people need to get the hell out of town and go back South, she says.

This is not a new or untried idea. Quite a few blacks who moved here from Dixie generations ago have migrated back home in the last twenty years, either priced out of the California cost-of-living market or disillusioned by L.A.'s inhospitality to their freedom dreams. Ann says it's gotten lonely, too, as blacks followed whites out to suburbs and exurbs like Moreno Valley and began spreading themselves so thin, their edges no longer touched. "At least black have numbers there," Ann said of the South. Her own mother country is Texas. "It's very different than it is here, it always was. There's more of a sense of power and possibility. If you haven't experienced it, it's hard to describe. But we sure don't have the numbers here -- never have."

That's true. I'm one of those presumably unfortunate black people who was born here and so never experienced living in a majority-black town or city whose majority goes back generations, sometimes back before the Civil War. Although South Central where I grew up was a black monde unto itself; I knew intellectually that L.A. was largely white and substantially Latino, but I didn't live amongst either group until I went to college and eventually changed ZIP codes. L.A. is strange like that, more than the sum of its discrete parts, but those parts never get added up together; they were likely never meant to. But I never thought that the low black numbers here -- low for a large American metropolis -- meant that blacks were insignificant or that our struggles didn't resonate.

I still think that, but I agree with Ann that the significance has dwindled as other movements like immigrant rights have surged and its champions have kept their eyes trained on the prize. Blacks by every statistical and most social measures have not gotten the prize, but there's no longer any discussion about it. It's as if we've gotten as much of the prize as we're capable of getting and history is on to something else.

So why stay where the pickings are so slim? This is Ann's argument. She seems given to this kind of moving-on practicality; her family once owned a migrant camp in the central valley, virtually the only black-owned camp at the time. Her argument is hard to refute on its face, but on a slightly deeper level it makes no sense.

My family and hers came and stayed in L.A. because it's the place where you come to escape bad circumstances and seek out new and better ones. The segregated South was about a bad a circumstance as you could get, despite the fact it was home and that blacks were plenty in number. Neither fact persuaded them to stay in Dixie, and despite the reverse migration, most of us have not been persuaded to go back. I know L.A. is more ideal than anything, but that might the best thing we have going for us now. Ideals, I told Ann, are hardier than we think. She should know because she's still complaining.

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