Racial/ethnic collaboration, for Blacks, is increasingly necessary but arguably, more difficult than ever. It requires agendas built on unity and mutual respect which Black leadership (and the Black community itself) has lacked for many years. Therefore, Blacks generally have been unable to successfully collaborate with other racial and ethnic groups as equals.
Sadly, the 21st century finds Blacks unable, or unwilling, to build political agendas that serve their own best interests. To paraphrase Malcolm X: A person, or group, cannot be acceptable to others if they are not acceptable to themselves. This means effective collaboration requires relating to other groups from a position of confidence and strength, not weakness, traits which are barely discernible among Black leadership these days.
Successful collaboration also requires honesty and explicit agreement among participants regarding the nature and scope of the particular undertaking. Claims that Black-Latino relations have improved are now fairly common, but such “collaboration” usually consist mostly of sound bites and photo ops, not mutually beneficial efforts.
At the founding convention of LA Metro (2004), some 1,200 community activists met to create “a single, powerful community organizing body” to influence major issues like public education, healthcare and immigrant rights in Los Angeles. The group mirrored the complex problems inherent in all efforts at racial/ethnic collaboration. LA Metro was modeled after the previously influential Los Angeles affiliates of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF): The United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) and the South Central Organizing Committee (SCOC). The founding convention decided on a set of target issues to address as one group.
The groups joining LA Metro were to abide by its “power before program” slogan, which meant they had to first have a large membership before focusing on specific issues. Neither SCOC nor UNO really involved African Americans. Their memberships were overwhelmingly Latino and initially, Catholic; little effort was made to work with Black community groups whose culture, priorities and numbers apparently did not fit within the IAF model.
Cross racial/ethnic collaboration has been, at best, a mixed bag for African Americans. Formal collaboration attempts began early in the 20th century, accelerating during the 1960s when whites joined ‘Blacks in the civil rights movement. Subsequently, most whites left the movement presumably disgruntled because they felt they could no longer influence the civil rights agenda.
There have been numerous attempts at cross-racial/ethnic collaboration in Los Angeles around school integration, housing discrimination and police abuse and to a much lesser extent, such attempts continue today. Government’s chief response to these, and related issues was to create advisory groups such as human relations commissions and civic engagement bodies that are advisory only and lack any enforcement power. Further, they are often appointed by elected officials known to resist anything resembling real change. These advisory groups exist by crafting politically safe programs that do not address the under systemic barriers to civil and human rights.
Several racial/ethnic coalitions formed in Los Angeles during the 1980s and early 1990s, mostly around Black/Latino and Black/Korean conflict in South Central Los Angeles, proceeding, and following, the Rodney King verdict that led to the 1992 uprising. The Latino Black Roundtable, the Black Korean Alliance and later, the Multicultural Collaborative—all unsuccessfully attempted sustainable cross racial/ethnic collaboration. Local government’s failure to address causal factors fueled racial/ethnic tension and confrontation, particularly in South Central Los Angeles.
As mentioned, the benefits of cross racial collaboration for African Americans in recent years have been little and none. A major factor was Black leadership’s inability to develop consensus on goals and/or effective political strategies. This made collaboration with others virtually impossible. The main point is, unless Blacks are equal players, others will control the collaboration agenda; “unequal” collaboration makes matters worse by creating the impression that Blacks’ interests are being met when just the opposite is the case. Until African Americans again develop strategic, self-interest strategies, they will remain lesser players and pawns in decisions made by others.
There are exceptions. Wal-Mart’s Initiative to build a super store in Inglewood (2004) did involve racial/ethnic collaboration and, defeating Wal-Mart was a tremendous victory. (The voters rejected the giant corporation’s attempt to circumvent environmental and other regulatory safeguards.) The Coalition for a Better Inglewood led the fight to defeat the Initiative. The Coalition included Inglewood residents, local community groups, several labor unions, Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) and Metro L A.
Even so, most organizing came from outside the community. LAANE was the major organizing force although the campaign did include Inglewood’s Black and Latino residents. It is important to understand, however, residents did not drive the campaign. Obviously, Inglewood’s voters were ultimately the deciding factor by defeating the Initiative at the polls. But had there been greater leadership and consensus among Blacks, the benefits would have been far sweeter than a victory they did not orchestrate.
Since the 1960s, the minuses of racial/ethnic collaboration, for Blacks, outweigh the pluses. This is due largely because Blacks did not, and are not, operating from unified positions of clarity and strength. Successful collaboration is a product of shared objectives, effective communication and equal power of all participants backed by the support of constituents and stakeholders.
For Blacks, racial/ethnic collaboration is increasingly necessary, but we will only fully benefit when participating from positions of strength. Doing so, we can again play a significant role in collaborative decision-making, and even,more important, in determining our own destiny.