The Importance of Representin'

Rep. Laura Richardson and Michael Copon attend the Children Uniting Nations 4th Annual National Conference at The House Capitol Building on June 9, 2009 in Washington, DC. Credit: Getty Images

Black political representation has been slowly dwindling in L.A. and California for a while now, as blacks decrease in population while Latino populations increase and produce more registered voters. Such a decrease is inevitable and not our fault, per se, though blacks did themselves in by diffusion, moving out of core black neighborhoods like South Central and thereby shrinking their own communities of interest. But you can hardly blame anybody for practicing social mobility.

The other part, more consequential of the dwindling is the quality of black representation itself. The fact is that few of the relative handful of black electeds in office, from councilpeople to members of congress, are courageous or conscientious enough to explicitly address the needs of their black constituents.

Sure, they'll talk about education, jobs and the like -- things that more than qualify as black needs. But that's soft-focus multiculti talk and way too easy. By quality representation I'm talking about framing any number of pressing issues -- schools, imprisonment, health, jobs, gun control, even the environment -- as having a unique urgency for black people who continue to flounder in this depression. (At least, it's a depression for them and has been for quite some time.)

But in this so-called post-black era, black electeds are reluctant to even say the word "black" for fear of being called a radical a la Jeremiah Wright -- that is, for fear of losing the votes of an electorate that is increasingly non-black. There's just no political payoff in carrying an agenda for our most vulnerable population. There's something wrong with that picture, but there's something almost criminally wrong with black representatives playing along with this zero-sum game that permanently marginalizes the very people who put them in office.

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Of course, that's part of the problem -- we the black voters keep putting them in office. We've done that for years, whether times were bad or relatively good. And now that times are absolutely perilous, we're in a bind: We need to field quality candidates but don't have that luxury because we're so focused on simply maintaining the few black seats we have left. Redistricting has upped the stakes and made that focus even sharper.

So for many black folks the most important issue in upcoming elections is keeping the person in the seat black -- maintaining and claiming our space, as one local activist says. This is what representation fundamentally means. Not that nonblacks can't carry black community interests: Look at the success of supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who served South Central for 40 years. But without black faces at the table, our people perish, or at least wither. The ability of blacks to represent themselves is crucial to civil rights history and, many believe, must be preserved first and foremost.

But that gets us back to the nagging problem of quality representation. Take Laura Richardson. The congresswoman representing California's 37th district has been dogged by ethics issues since she served in the state legislature; just yesterday, Richardson was reprimanded by a House ethics panel that found her guilty of exploiting staffers and campaign workers and inappropriately spending public money for fundraising events. The bipartisan panel voted unanimously for the reprimand, and the congresswoman has not opposed it.

When Richardson first ran for the seat in 2007 to fill the term of Juanita Millender McDonald, who died in office, local black leadership rallied around her, not because of her sterling record but because she was a politically established figure who could credibly beat back the challenge of Latino candidate Jenny Oropeza and keep the black "space" open. Richardson won, and blacks breathed a sigh of relief.

But her ongoing personal and political missteps have hardly brought relief to the district she represents, and now, in a bid for reelection in a newly drawn district, Richardson faces a much bigger challenge from Janice Hahn, daughter of black community icon Kenneth Hahn. The younger Hahn may not have the specific interest in black issues as her father did, but it's hard to prove that her rival has done any better in that regard. Voters may end up choosing between one candidate who appears competent and one who does not. That's the kind of choice that can trump race in politics -- including the very legitimate need for blacks to have black representation -- altogether.

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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