Los Angeles, a city of cars, stars, and ethnic neighborhoods, rests on the edge of a continent and shimmers with the promise of dreams fulfilled. But, as the late L.A. native and journalist George Ramos publicly confided on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, in the aftermath of the 1992 race riots, "Los Angeles, you broke my heart. And I'm not sure I'll love you again." (Ramos, 1992). Three years later a graduate student working on a thesis confronted him with those words and asked whether anything had changed. After a moment of reflection he had to admit that nothing had erased the stain of that period, because "… the issue of race & #8230; tears at L.A. It divides us. It angers us. It defines us. It hurts us." (Ramos, 1995).
Although other cities have been rocked by racial riots in the past, it seems that Los Angeles works especially hard at it. Neighborhoods are still divided along racial lines and race seems to permeate the daily experiences of most residents. Race, or its taint, permeates the news and a drive across town still conjures a sense of risk if the gas tank isn't completely full. There are signs that the police department is making serious policy changes to reduce racial tensions between its officers and the communities it serves, but no one in their right mind is going to relax and assume everything is okay now. Even the mere fact that the police 'continues' to make strides towards diversity and improved race relations, reminds us of how omnipresent race issues still are.
In an ideal world, race would disappear and become a non-issue. The current atmosphere in L.A. suggests we have a long way to go before that ideal is approached, let alone attained. The persistence of racial issues suggests that for some residents their dream is to live in a city where racial divisions are respected and define the social, economic, and power structure. I guess it's up to the rest of us to prevent that dream from being realized more fully, to undo those institutions and policies that promote such a dream, and then try to mend the damage that has already been done.
Part of the problem seems to be that the issue of race is woven into the daily fabric of the city's residents. This can be seen in words of the artist Francisco Gomez, who believes that "Racism is within the system." The 'system' includes the news media by virtue of their portrayal of racial stereotypes because, according to Gomez, "they only show the bad ones because it's news." Gomez's view of race issues has a pragmatic undercurrent, one that could be expected of someone who has repeatedly come out on the 'short end of the stick' when dealing with a racist system. According to Gomez, the parties involved in the riots, the justice system, rioters, business owners, and bystanders, are simply evolving by becoming better prepared for the next time the city erupts in flames. Hope for a better, more racially tolerant, future in Los Angeles seems dim at best.
Gomez's perspective is echoed by others that were interviewed, but only if they belonged to a racial minority. This theme of systemic racism emerges again and again. What follows is a series of interviews that provides different and contrasting perspectives on the significance of a racist system and how in impacts the experience of living and working in Los Angeles. The fate of personal dreams and our ability to maintain some sense of hope for a better future seem inescapably linked to how much this racist system invades our individual lives.
Los Angeles, A Place where Hope Goes to Die
Prof. George Sanchez, Vice Dean for College Diversity, USC
The interview took place in his office on the USC campus. Dr. Sanchez is an older man, with white hair, and wearing a polo shirt and thick glasses. He is second generation Mexican-American.
When the jury acquitted the four police officers accused of beating beat Rodney King he rushed home to his son. The first thing they noticed was the city's business owners boarding up in a fruitless attempt to protect their source of income. The police and fire personnel then vacated the neighborhood, so the members of the community who were still in residence tried to keep the flames away from residences with fire hoses and bucket brigades.
In what appears to be an attempt to counter the negativity of Rodney King riots, Dr. Sanchez mentions a local Catholic festival to bless the animals living in the city. From his perspective the 'quirkiness' of this event seems to bring a moment of relief to the residents, in the form of community bonding, a festival atmosphere, and a general feeling of safety. However, Dr. Sanchez seems to feel a need to counter the dark racial undercurrents that flow just beneath the surface. Los Angeles, according to Dr. Sanchez, is a place where hope fails to flourish, because its existence in the City of Angels depends on the constant influx of immigrants seeking a better future for themselves and their loved ones.
Although Dr. Sanchez uses different words than George Ramos, Francisco Gomez, or Pjai Morris, it seems that racism is ever present in his life as well. He mentions the horrendous graduation rate for the LA Unified School District due to the magnitude of the ethnic and economic disparities. And he is after all, the Dean of Diversity at USC.
Dreams Dashed Against Systemic Racism
Bunnie Jatkowski, Apartment Manager and former Police Officer for the Washington D.C and Los Angeles Police Departments.
The interview took place in her apartment. Her appearance and demeanor were consistent with her past career as a police officer, complete with a military buzz haircut and an authoritative look in her eyes. She is African-American.
Bunnie Jatkowski met and married her husband while they were both officers working for the Washington D.C. Police Department. He is a tall Caucasian with blond hair. The dreams Bunnie carried with her when they moved to L.A. were to live in a liberal and open-minded community, where opportunities grew on trees, and people were socially active and 'did' things. This dream was quickly dashed against the realities of a deeply racist system. Racism prevented her from renting an apartment, but her husband, when alone, was eagerly welcomed by the very same apartment managers. He qualified for work with the LAPD, but when she tried to find work with the same organization she met a wall of racist, sexist resistance. Although she was prepared for some resistance, she equated the status quo in the LAPD with what was occurring 20 years ago in big city police departments on the East Coast.
Her experiences in L.A. left Bunnie Jatkowski disillusioned and probably wondering if their move to the West Coast was the wrong one. Her family represents the incoming immigrants full of hope that George Sanchez mentioned, the only source of hope in L.A. For minorities it seems. During the interview she confirmed Francisco Gomez's sentiment that racism is systemic, especially with respect to the LAPD. She further elaborated on this sentiment by stating that everyone could see the racism, but no one talked about it. The Rodney King riots seem to have at least changed the latter.
It Could Be Worse
Rabbi Susan Laemmle, Dean of Religious Life at USC
Rabbi Laemmle was interviewed in her campus office. She has a friendly smile and very bright eyes, and dresses with a shawl over her shoulders. She is an older Jewish woman.
Having been born and raised in Los Angeles, Rabbi Laemmle seems to be nurturing a dream of restoring Los Angeles to a more pedestrian and therefore livable way of life. She laments the loss of a good public transportation system that provided easy access to recreational activities. She would like to see the Los Angeles River restored so that it flows again, thus providing recreational opportunities within the city. She also laments the poor air quality that hides the beauty of the surrounding mountain ranges.
These dreams are for a Los Angeles that doesn't exist, but Rabbi Laemmle argues that it is better to hope for a better city than to let such hopes die. She also takes a moment to emphasize what she considers to be progressive trends, such as a renewed interest in a robust public transportation system and entrepreneurial spirit. She declares that she is more optimistic about L.A.'s future than the world as a whole, and that issues of racism could be worse. In a word, she considers L.A. To be 'spunky.'
Rabbi Laemmle's interview seems to provide evidence of the insularity between the different ethnic communities and their respective experiences of life lived in L.A. Racism is not a pervasive issue for her, possibly because she hasn't had to face the systemic bigotry that the other interviewees have had to face…