Enough of the Great Melodrama of Race Relations in Los Angeles

Reliance on color codes to explain the inner city rests on a system of neat racial categories, but something about Latinos undermines it.

The recent flurry of newspaper articles and TV news retrospectives on Los Angeles six months after the riots shared a common story line. Whether victim, bystander or hero, they were all actors in the great melodrama of "race relations." For audience convenience, it seemed, the cast was color-coded.

But racial strife did not create the L.A. communities that went up in flames. Over and over again, citizens interviewed in the aftermath stories said as much: The riots were principally the result of economic inequalities. Still, the journalists pushed racial conflict as a principal force behind the April unrest.

This emphasis on "race relations” is perplexing. Taken at face value, it suggests that if only the city's various racial and ethnic groups could just "get along, recovery would be just around the comer. No wonder much of the post-riot coverage reads like a morality tale.

But the media's proclivity toward symptom-cause confusion masks a deeper problem: The race taxonomy reporters largely rely on to describe inner-city life rests on a system of dubious racial categories. Fortunately, there is something about Latinos that undermines this system. That something is mestizaje - Latin America's unfinished business of racial and cultural crossbreeding. Despite racist injunctions to forestall the consequences of five centuries of genetic and cultural dialogue between the descendants of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the hemisphere's indigenous peoples, mestizaje insinuates itself in every aspect of Latin American life.

In the United States, mestizaje expresses itself in the Latino's refusal to choose one language over another, or one culture or national heritage over another. Latinos prefer to juggle them all, even if the resulting synthesis may seem messy or dangerous. But to those conditioned to tidy racial compartments, Latino ambiguity is indeed threatening. A people who violate boundaries of race, language and culture upset myths of a nation-state based on borders and exclusion.

It's thus not surprising that the media also stumble over the mestizo's celebration of ambiguity. The clash of race language and lived reality was evident in the post-riot coverage in the nation's elite print media. The "two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal" dichotomy made famous by the Kemer Commission report was simply not big enough to contain a "multicultural" upheaval in which villains and victims defied racial typing.

Ted Koppel's foray into South-Central was one example. By largely turning "Nightline" over to interviews with African-American gang members, he fell into the black-vs.-white trap. Another variation on the black-white dichotomy, blacks vs. browns, suggests that Latinos are snatching jobs the nation owes to blacks. In its most divisive form, this thesis blames Latinos for the poverty in African-American communities.

There is no sinister conspiracy here. The media merely reflects beliefs widely held by their audiences and codified by the nation's political institutions. The Census Bureau, for example, has had an especially difficult time trying to figure out how to classify Latinos by color.

In 1940, Latinos were categorized as "black" or a "racial" non-white group. In the '50 and '60 Census, the category of "white persons of Spanish surname" was used. In '70, the classification was changed to "white person of Spanish surname and Spanish mother tongue." Then, in '80, the expansive "non-white Hispanic." Latinos were back to square one. Because the census uses a "white" and "black" paradigm to classify residents, it has shuttled Latinos back and forth between the two extremes. In each case, the principle behind the label is the perceived presence or absence of color.

Latinos pay the price each time they conform to such color-coded insanity, especially when they try to extract a few morsels of recognition from the media. They know reporters will take notes if they frame their demands in the language of racial or ethnic strife, and only perfunctorily record their economic and social complaints.

Accordingly, the Los Angeles depicted in the riots reaffirmed the image of an industrial city of the 1950s, one that upheld the corporate status quo bolstered by improved "race relations" as the only reasonable alternatives to arson and looting. The reporters barely noticed that the flames had charred a different city, one transformed by global restructuring, post-industrial manufacturing and collapse of all the mythic categories that once defined the city's social, cultural, and linguistic identity.

Still, all this provides an unusual opportunity for journalists to describe the city anew, as if seen for the first time. Latinos are key to this renaming and retelling. The authority comes from the very mestizo ambiguities they share in a more concentrated form with the citizens of the world's post-industrial cities.

But it will take courage and subtlety to tell this story. Both local and national Latino leadership, which includes Latino journalists, must find the words to continue the dialogue of inclusion that writers such as Jose Marti started more than a century ago when he redefined Latin America as "Nuestra America.”

Latin and Caribbean America has struggled to live and understand its difficult heterodoxy. English-speaking North America may be ready to join this conversation when it overcomes its disdain of mestizo impurity. Latinos can hasten this dialogue by recognizing their many ambiguities and border-crossings as strengths, and by remembering that America is moving toward a future in which its citizens will be accomplices in multiracial kinship and culture. This is the mirror Latinos hold up to America.

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Latinos & the Environment      ?õ¬?       Vol. 4 No. 3      ?õ¬?       Fall 1993