Fall 2006

Watching a Community Changed by Immigration

With African Americans being displaced by Latinos, news coverage of South Central Los Angeles is inflaming tensions, not informing people.

By Lester Sloan


These women, who came from Central America, are attending a festival in South Central Los Angeles that attracts people from this black and brown community. Photo and caption by Lester Sloan.


The 11th annual Central Avenue Jazz Festival in South Los Angeles got off to a smooth start as residents and nonresidents alike found a spot of shade, a patch of green or common shelter under the tent, directly across the street from the historic Dunbar Hotel. Central Avenue was the heart and soul of African-American music and entertainment from the 1920's until the late '50's, attracting white Hollywood to the Club Alabam and other after-hour joints that saw as much of Mae West as any of her leading men. On this hot July afternoon, the crowd reflected the city's much touted ethnic diversity. And there was enough fried chicken and fish, tacos and jambalaya to feed the multitudes.

The festival is an attempt to recapture some of this community's past glory and put a lasting signature on its neighborhoods that have experienced a demographic flip in a relatively short time — transitioning from being 80 percent African-American (and 20 percent Hispanic) to now having a Latino majority that is strengthening. During the festival's two days, the music reflects both an African-American and Latin culture. But for the remaining 363 days of the year, the community has a decisive Latino flavor.

Most of the businesses along Central Avenue, from barbershops to grocery stores and restaurants, reflect this demographic shift. The paper of record here is no longer the weekly Sentinel, a long-standing and influential African-American newspaper, nor the much newer daily Wave, but the Spanish- language La Opinión, along with Hoy, a free paper that the Tribune Company began publishing here recently in competition for Latino readers.

South Central, as the area is generally called, includes the communities of …with diminished numbers, many [African Americans] feel as though they are being pushed or shoved out of their community — or at least out of the life of what was once their community — by the influx of both legal and illegal immigrants.Watts and Compton, formerly African- American, now predominantly Latino. Sometimes this place is referred to as the "Ellis Island of the West" since many of its neighborhoods are end stations for immigrants not only from Mexico but also from all of Central America. To those arriving, this is the promised land of the North, and the travelers fill spaces left here by the post-1965 departure of African Americans (after the Watts riots or insurrection, depending on one's frame of reference), when families moved to communities like Baldwin Hills and Inglewood (or as some call it, "Inglewatts") and then later to places like Palmdale and the valley.

Of course, some African Americans still live and work in South Central. But with diminished numbers, many feel as though they are being pushed or shoved out of their community — or at least out of the life of what was once their community — by the influx of both legal and illegal immigrants. Even when African Americans were the majority population here, in Los Angeles their presence was never higher than 15 percent. So what mattered to them — and gave them both a sense of community and political engagement — was having this place that belonged to them.

Now these two minority groups each try to hold on to what they regard as theirs. The newcomers bring with them their businesses and cultural life, while those who have stayed behind long for a time when their shops and music and art were everywhere in evidence. Some might call what is happening a "turf war," but in reality it goes deeper than that. "South Central is one big melting pot," says Bobby Rodarte, a 30-year old Latino restaurant owner on Central Avenue. "You have everybody from everywhere. Blacks say we're invading them; we're not invading them. We're just picking up where they are leaving off. If we don't do it, the Koreans are going to come in."

Perceptions Hinder Reporting

From 1947 until the Rodney King riots in 1992, South Central has been studied, observed, sampled and poked at. In 1965 the McCone Commission's report offered recommendations regarding the news media — and the role they play too often in sharpening divisions and escalating tensions. But few (or none) of the recommendations appear to be heeded by many journalists today. The McCone Commission's advice included the following:

  • Avoid emphasizing stories on public tension while the tensions of a particular incident are developing.

  • Ask law enforcement agencies involved whether the developing incident is designated as a disturbance of the peace or otherwise. Report the official designation of the incident.

  • Public reports should not state exact locations, intersections or street names or number until authorities have sufficient personnel on hand to maintain control.

  • Immediate or direct reporting should minimize interpretation.

  • Eliminate airing of rumors and avoid using unverified statements.

Yet today, as tensions simmer among these minority populations, news coverage, when it happens at all, fails on many counts, including often the ones noted above.

Today in South Central, competition for jobs has generated as much ethnic strife as the competition for space. Until the 1970's many of the jobs in the downtown hotels and restaurants were held by African Americans; today those jobs are held mostly by Latinos. Yet instead of reporting on activities and efforts to tap down tensions that exist about this change — such as efforts by the Los Angeles branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to work closely with UNITE HERE Local 11, the Latino restaurant and hotel workers union, to bring more blacks into that organization — much that is written and broadcast about this issue and this community inflames rather than informs.

Los Angeles Council Member Jan Perry, whose 9th district includes parts of South Central, sees this as a problem of perceptions being shaped by the media: "The promotion of racial conflict by the media is just a manifestation of the inability to really dig into a relationship. There's no respect; there's no regard for history. And some of it is the business, too. It's a very fast-paced business," she says, as she observes the quick speed at which information travels on new media technologies and worries, too, about what this means for the ways in which journalists do their jobs.

In South Central preconceptions about the community or its inhabitants often influence the ways in which journalists approach their reporting. Perry, who is bilingual and black, watched recently as friends and acquaintances paid their condolences to members of the family of a young Latino man and his nephew who were killed in a drive-by shooting. Reporters there were asking people if they thought the shooting was racially motivated; but with as many blacks in attendance to support the family as there were Latinos, this was a question Perry felt was insensitive and, when it was asked, she heard from those around her a collective "sigh of disbelief." Noting that racial intermarriage is quite common in this community, Perry says, "Don't assume that you know whose relatives belong to whom based on the way they look."

That night I saw the story broadcast on a local news show; like Perry, it struck me that the question seemed out of place when the visual showed as many black as brown faces in the crowd. However, the reporter likely asked this question because there had been recent stories about Latino gang members in prison ordering hits on blacks living in the predominately Latino community of Highland Park, less than 25 miles north of South Los Angeles.

As a black journalist, I confess to being as guilty of making assumptions as some of my white colleagues. Recently, when I was working in South Los Angeles, a young Latino approached me to ask if I would take a picture of him and the young woman who accompanied him. Because of the location and the way he looked, I wrote him off as a young tough trying to impress his girl, but I took the picture, thinking I'd then be rid of him.

"If I pay you, will you send it to me?" he asked unexpectedly.

"If you live around here, I'll bring it to you tomorrow," I said, ashamed that I'd profiled him based on superficial visual cues. The next day, I stopped off at a house less than a half block from where I'd met the couple and knocked on the opened screened door.

"Hey man, you're just in time to join us for lunch," came the voice from inside.

Among the valuable lessons we can learn is how our pictures and words can tell lies unless they are informed by something more than a notion. 



Members of the L.A. Dodgers Little League team celebrate a victory at Wrigley Field in South Los Angeles. The team's coach is teaching these kids to play together so in the future they can live together. Photo and caption by Lester Sloan.

Tensions Grab the Headlines

For many reasons, it is a tragic irony that blacks and browns are having this conflict given that Los Angeles was founded in 1781 by blacks of African descent, Mexicans and Mestizo (people of mixed race). The last governor of California under Mexican rule, Pio Pico, was a Latino whose grandmother was black. But since Europeans started arriving here in the early 1800's, few of these black/brown historic roots have remained a prominent part of our history.

'In the matter of race, whether it was in Watts or Detroit, wherever there have been these explosions, people never say, "what was the cause of that anger?"'
— Murray Fromson
Tim Watkins, CEO and president of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, a 41-year-old organization that was established just before the Watts riots, thinks a lot about what it will take for blacks and browns to work out some of their differences. "We really need to have a conversation among ourselves without any outside or external influences so that we can get everything on the table and sort the shaft from the seed. We need to understand that we share far more in common than we do apart. It doesn't need to be around the precepts of amenity and good will; it needs to be about contention: You want my job, but you aren't willing to work hard for it. I want your job, but I aren't [sic] willing to work for less than a respectable wage." But Watkins knows that conflict and tension are the lifeblood of the news media, and it will likely be the moments of tension — not the quieter moments of conversation — that will continue to draw them to this place and story.

Murray Fromson, former CBS correspondent and professor emeritus at University of Southern California's School of Journalism, concurs: "In the case of covering controversial stories or provocative stories, like race in America, which I don't think we have really confronted in a serious way, people cover it when something like a riot or an uprising [happens]. In the matter of race, whether it was in Watts or Detroit, wherever there have been these explosions, people never say, 'what was the cause of that anger?'"

And there is plenty of anger — felt by both African Americans and Latinos — surrounding the impact of immigration in South Central. First and second generation Mexicans demonstrated their anger by voting in favor of former California Governor Pete Wilson's so-called anti-immigration ballot propositions. These were supported by 30 percent of the Mexican immigrant community. Yet at a time when the divide between rich and poor grows ever wider, it might be wise for working-class blacks and browns to look in the mirror and see who is staring back at them. Maybe restaurant owner Bobby Rodarte sees in the future what others fail to recognize: "Downtown, that's all going to be white land. In the next 10 years they will have their condos, office buildings, and lofts. The next thing will be the barricades (or gates) to keep the Latinos, blacks and any other minority group out."

Journalists owe the community of South Central more than infrequent scrutiny during periods of chaos. To show up only when the house is burning isn't what good journalism — with its watchful public eye — should be about. Councilwoman Perry is working to set up a free Internet corridor along Central Avenue in the hope that people in this community will start to tell their stories through blogs and podcasts. Creating "citizen" reporters might spur the news media to take a different approach in their own coverage of what goes on here, and that would be a good place to start. 


Lester Sloan, a 1976 Nieman Fellow, was a staff photographer for Newsweek for 25 years. Prior to that he worked as cameraman/reporter for the CBS affiliate in Detroit. For a period, he was a contributing editor to Emerge magazine and an essayist with NPR's "Weekend Edition." He is a freelance photographer and writer based in Los Angeles.


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