Some minority leaders undercut their own people.
By David A. Lehrer and Joe R. Hicks
David A. Lehrer and Joe R. Hicks are president and vice president of Community Advocates, an L.A.-based human relations organization.
For decades, U.S. civil rights leaders were granted wide berth. Their battles against racism and bigotry, against official discrimination and in favor of voting rights and desegregation were no longer particularly controversial; everyone but the most hardened and reactionary backed them. There was no good reason to question whether civil rights leaders and other minority political leaders actually spoke for the constituencies with which they were identified.
But today, the issues confronted by minority communities are less clear-cut. As blatant racism and official discrimination have receded, the issues facing African Americans, Latinos and other minority groups have grown more subtle. Most issues — from faith-based initiatives to school vouchers to ethnic gerrymandering to race-based set-asides — are ones on which reasonable people can and do differ. Often they seem less related to bigotry and racism than to ideology. There is certainly no consensus around them.
Yet for some reason, we continue to proceed on the assumption — often false — that civil rights leaders and elected officials from the minority community are speaking for the best interests of their constituents.
The controversy surrounding Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center is a good example. Despitehorrifying stories of patient neglect and independent audits that threaten to deny the hospital accreditation, local elected officials and other community leaders have attacked the county Board of Supervisors for trying to remedy the situation by closing down the hospital's trauma unit.
One might imagine that leaders representing the neighborhoods from which the patients of the hospital are drawn would be demanding improvement in the quality of care. But if you imagined that, you would be wrong.
Instead, they have made race the subtext of the debate, attacking the supervisors and standing in the way of serious discussion. Why do we assume these leaders really speak for the people of the community — rather than for themselves and their narrow political interests? Who says they alone know what is in thebest interest of the community?
The fact is that Maxine Waters, Jesse Jackson and Steve Harvey, among others, have subtly played the race card in the King/Drew case because, historically, it has worked. And once race has been injected, it's extremely hard for opponents to fight back. At that point, asking the tough questions becomes risky; outsiders fear being accused of meddling. Whites fear being termed racist.
Yet there are plenty of instances when it is perfectly appropriate for outsiders to raise such questions.
For a brief period in late 1996, for instance, the Oakland School Board adopted a policy to teach Ebonics — black English — as if it were a foreign language to its students. It was a ridiculous idea; the board actually defined Ebonics as the "primary language" of African American students. Yet, in a case of political correctness run amok, the policy was nearly implemented; it was only after experts across the country blasted the proposal in unambiguous terms that the school board backed down.
In the 1998 campaign over Proposition 227, ending "bilingual education" in California, Ron Unz and the ballot measure's supporters were accused of "opposing the Hispanic community's quest for educational equity and excellence." It was only because he was willing to face down a campaign of personal vilification that Unz prevailed. The change has been a manifest success (reading, language and spelling scores above the 50th percentile for "limited-English" students nearly doubled over those remaining in bilingual programs). Unz succeeded because he was willing to ask who really had the interests of students at heart.
The removal of former Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Ruben Zacarias several years ago is an especially interesting case. Just as a potentially ugly inter-ethnic battle was brewing over his removal — because local Latino leaders were gearing up to fight on his behalf — a Times poll revealed that a sizable majority of Latino parents cared not one whit about the ethnicity of the new superintendent but cared enormously about the quality of education their kids received.