Los Angeles, Microcosm of National Challenges

Henry Louis Gates. Jr

Our Community Spotlight series has been slowly migrating west for the last couple of years, and our latest installment brings us to California. Keenan Norris, a novelist and lecturer at California State University-East Bay, joins us as a guest editor overseeing a two-part spotlight on the area in and around Los Angeles, a city that became a popular destination for African Americans in search of new opportunities during the era of segregation. As a result of this rapid growth, the area became both a hub for black culture as well as a battleground over the perennial issues of economic disparity, fair housing policies, education reform, and equal political representation.

Surprisingly, the original settlers of the area—a few dozen settlers representing New Spain—were mostly of African descent, and the burgeoning outpost even had a mulatto mayor starting in 1793. As more settlers arrived throughout most of the nineteenth century, the black population hovered around one percent of the total, and California developed its own set of contradictory policies regarding people of African descent. On the one hand, California was admitted to the Union as a free state, and served as a destination for escaped slaves. Economic opportunities abounded, most famously because of the gold rush and the construction of railroads, but also thanks to the success of ex-slaves such as Biddy Mason, who became one of the wealthiest landowners in the state. On the other hand, black people were not allowed to vote or testify in court, and slaveholders managed to bring their servants into the state despite California's nominal status as "free".

The Jim Crow policies of the early twentieth century were directly responsible for the creation of a concentrated black neighborhood in South Los Angeles commonly known as South Central. Despite its thriving atmosphere of churches, businesses, and the arts, South Central fell victim to the economic downturn of the postwar period as well as a devastating riot in Watts in 1965, leading to a catastrophic urban decline that gained national attention. Progressives blamed predatory realtors, discriminatory housing policies, and overly aggressive policing for the rising poverty and crime rates. Meanwhile, conservatives pointed to the area as an example of failed liberal policies—specifically those of African American mayor Tom Bradley—and what they deemed to be a cultural crisis in the black community. The antagonistic relationship between the community and law enforcement proved to be an intractable problem, culminating in the 1992 riots following the not-guilty verdict in the trial of the police officers who were charged in the beating of Rodney King. The violence contributed to Bradley's decision to refrain from seeking a sixth term, and can be seen as the beginning of a decline of black influence in city hall. During this time, some of the most memorable and influential voices of the era tried to bring attention to daily life in the city. The local chapter of the Black Panther Party was among the most active in the country, and hip hop artists such as Ice-T and N.W.A. used the setting of Los Angeles to vent their frustration against a political establishment that vilified and abandoned the city. Indeed, a common theme among the protest anthems is the juxtaposition of an impoverished South Central alongside the glamorous atmosphere of Beverly Hills and other wealthy enclaves, a protest against income inequality that still resonates today.

Though the nadir of this era is considered to be over, South Central and other neighborhoods in Los Angeles face the same challenges as many other black communities in the United States: namely, gentrification, crumbling infrastructure, and a lack of economic opportunities. Though South Los Angeles in particular may be regarded as "safer" or more "developed" than it was at the height of the Bloods-and-Crips rivalry, some have argued that this newfound stability has come at the expense of the historic black neighborhood. The African American population in the neighborhood has plummeted from around eighty percent in the 1970s to around fifty percent in the early twenty-first century (though it should be noted that this demographic shift is also due in part to the growth of the Latino community). In particular, the neighborhoods of Jefferson Park, Leimert Park and West Adams have radically transformed, contributing to a housing market in which many African Americans are shut out. Thus, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world faces the same problems from generations ago, when laws openly relegated black people to segregated neighborhoods.

Looking back on the national debate regarding Los Angeles from a generation ago, one can trace a line to our current political context, which is driven by a similar conservative backlash—this time against the Obama administration and certain strands of the civil rights movement. A number of African American political leaders have tried to articulate these problems for a national audience, including U.S. Representative Maxine Waters and Mark Ridley-Thomas, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Waters in particular has used her platform to link the problems in Los Angeles with a larger political effort to undue the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. Given the challenges of the coming decade, Los Angeles will no doubt continue to be a major battleground over civil rights issues, from gentrification to immigration to a looming environmental crisis.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Editor in Chief
Oxford African American Studies Center
The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
October 2015

Featured Content

First Person Witness to the Changing Demographics in Los Angeles, Jervey Tervalon
Photo Essay: African Americans and Los Angeles

Subject Entries

Affirmative Action and Challenges to Racial Diversity in Higher Education
Afro-Belizeans in Los Angeles: Black Flight or Black Empowerment
Black LA-Based Novelists
Eastside Long Beach: Black History and Culture
History of Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens Housing Projects
Martin Luther King Jr./Charles R. Drew Medical Center, History of
Leimert Park Jazz
Tyisha Miller, Murder of
Los Angeles
Watts Riot
History of and Migration of Blacks to Inland Empire
Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities


Biddy Mason
Bontemps, Arna Wendell
Himes, Chester Bomar
Butler, Octavia E.
Higgins, Billy
Jordan, Louis
Bradley, Tom

Primary Documents

Mason v. Smith (1856)
Speech Delivered by Angela Davis at Embassy Auditorium, Los Angeles (1972)
The O.J. Simpson Trial: Closing Arguments (1995)