Blair Hamilton Taylor
“One ever feels his twoness–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
W. E. B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk
African Americans have often struggled with division–divisions manifested in both our innermost selves and our external environments. Sometimes these dichotomies play out in the public arena. And this past week, we saw such divisions on display during the recent Los Angeles redistricting process.
Over the past weeks, the emergence of a deep political schism became very apparent in the black community. The redistricting process tore open a lingering scab of disdain in the City Council chambers and the exposed wound is now forcing division and debate among our residents. What was at stake for African Americans during the city’s redistricting was nothing less than the future composition and boundaries of Council Districts 8 and 9–two of the three seats held by black members of the Council. It was a scenario with permanent implications, since the outcomes of the L.A.’s redistricting process will be in place for at least the next ten years.
In case you have not already heard, the result of the city’s redistricting process left Council District 9–Jan Perry–without most of downtown, and it left Council District 8–Bernard Parks–without Leimert Park and Baldwin Hills. Moreover, the new Districts 8 and 9 do not include the current homes of the Councilmembers, a prerequisite for maintaining the elected office.
Although some changes to the two Districts probably make sense, something else was absolutely going on here. And that something is an ongoing and very public battle or feud between the recently elected African American City Council President Herb Wesson, District 10, on one side, who apparently advocated strongly for the changes, with City Councilmembers Parks and Perry, both squarely on the other side.
There is no doubt that the shift will permanently redefine African-American politics in L.A. But regardless of any opinions about the changed district lines themselves and putting aside personalities and critiques of the participants, especially since I happen to know and genuinely like all three of the African-American Councilmembers involved, in the end there is a much bigger picture issue here that we must all pay attention to–what is most troubling is our seeming inability to work together to solve the real issues plaguing our communities.
Black on black political feuds are not new in this town. For that matter, neither are feuds between Latino representatives or Caucasian elected officials. But what most certainly is new is the black community’s growing inability to survive the divisions, especially in this era and especially here in LA.
There are only three black City Council seats on a 15-member City Council and all three are at risk of not remaining African-American seats over the next five years. And with only one black County Supervisor and only one African American on the Los Angeles Unified School Board, African-American elected officials simply lack the luxury of feuding amongst ourselves.
Our scant and likely dwindling numbers at the highest levels of leadership in this town means that we absolutely must work together, collaboratively–putting aside personality differences, and even legitimate gripes–in order to pursue and achieve outcomes that are in the best interests of our community. That is what other communities and groups are doing every single day and that is what we must do as well.
Moving past the debates regarding the efficacy and wisdom of the shifts to Districts 8 and 9, one thing is clear–totally lost in the recent decision was any deliberate discourse on what outcomes are in the best interest of the black community and the dogged pursuit of a unified approach enabling such outcomes to actually come to fruition. In the end, the black community did not win and the hard truth is that we will not win until there is minimally a united front to forcefully and collectively advocate for our constituents and our community at every possible turn.
It is very disheartening that so far in 21st Century, African-American leaders are publicly advocating on behalf of black people far too infrequently. It is as though it has become anathema for blacks to go on record regarding an unabashed commitment to fight for African American men, women and children; not to the exclusion of others, whom an elected official also represents, but simply to emphatically and intentionally develop and pursue policies and solutions that are workable for black people as the unique and fundamentally vital constituency we are. Indeed, this is the first time in our history of the nation where African-American leaders seem to be approaching black self-advocacy with trepidation and political correctness.
With unemployment rates and high school dropout rates for African Americans at the highest among any ethnic group in the city and nation, there is no question that forceful and deliberate advocacy is absolutely necessary, perhaps now more than ever before. Other groups are freely and openly advocating for their populations, as well they should. Our local and national black leaders must immediately set aside personal differences and even political concerns, and openly do the same.
As for redistricting, the process is not entirely over. Although the City Council’s lines are now drawn, there is another redistricting underway for the LAUSD Board that will have significant implications for black students and families. Some proposed changes are necessary and positive. But we must be united, civil, selfless and doggedly determined to openly discuss our community’s optimal outcomes and desired destiny. We must be willing to forcefully and unashamedly advocate for our interests, wherever necessary. And this advocacy for the black community cannot be left solely to our elected officials, either. The electorate must be heavily involved. We must all begin to pay very close attention to the decisions now being made, weighing-in forcefully when they appear to run contrary to the interests of the African-American community, our children, and our future.
Blair Hamilton Taylor is the President and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League