The Role of Racial Politics in Los Angeles

Column: Racial coalitions define life in Los Angeles, and City Hall’s divisive politics needs to catch up

The racial dynamics of Los Angeles are the stuff of headlines, debates, and outrage. And while there is much to consider from a political perspective, it is crucial that the conversation also address the role of racial politics in helping us understand the city we inhabit, a system of governing that needs to change.

From the inception of the city as a municipality, when Los Angeles’ governing structure was established in 1849, the race of the city’s citizens was of key concern. The first Los Angeles City Council included five whites and six African Americans. The makeup of City Hall’s first governing body in the early 1900s only improved: The ratio of whites to non-whites continued to change, until in the 1970s, when the city became ethnically more homogeneous.

The racial composition of Los Angeles’ elected officials during the first half of the 20th century is as diverse as the city itself, and at the outset of the 1960s, the racial composition of City Hall was very different. At the conclusion of a national campaign in which the country faced the challenge of the civil rights and civil liberties of African Americans, Los Angeles was a city in the throes of civil rights and civil liberties campaigns, the city that, over a decade, fought for social justice with the city of San Francisco, who became the first city in the country to pass a law protecting its black citizens from racial discrimination under the auspices of the California Constitution. During this time, Los Angeles and San Francisco found themselves fighting against the disenfranchisement of African Americans, pushing for their full rights under the new state constitution, and eventually, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In the wake of passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego found themselves in the unique position of having to contend with the growing influence of African Americans in their respective cities.

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