Conversations about race are fraught with emotion, confusion and controversy. But that doesn’t mean we should avoid or sidestep the issue.
As a Latino raised in East Los Angeles, and as the elected sheriff of Los Angeles County for the last decade, I have seen many sides of the race issue. I have lived it, in fact.
So let me be very clear about one thing: We have a serious interracial violence problem in this county involving blacks and Latinos.
Some people deny it. They say that race is not a factor in L.A.’s gang crisis; the problem, they say, is not one of blacks versus Latinos and Latinos versus blacks but merely one of gang members killing other gang members (and yes, they acknowledge, sometimes the gangs are race-based).
But they’re wrong. The truth is that, in many cases, race is at the heart of the problem. Latino gang members shoot blacks not because they’re members of a rival gang but because of their skin color. Likewise, black gang members shoot Latinos because they are brown.
Just look at the facts. In February 2006, our jail system erupted into a full-scale riot involving about 2,000 black and Latino inmates at the North County Correctional Facility at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic. One black inmate died and numerous others were injured. Through extensive interviews with participants, our investigation revealed that race—not gang affiliation—was the motivating factor.
Furthermore, we have evidence linking inmates who are known as “shot callers” directly to street shootings based entirely on race. These shot callers at Pitchess and elsewhere are affiliated with gangs, to be sure, and in many cases they may give the order to kill a particular person or a member of a particular gang. But if that person or gang cannot be found, the shot caller will often order the gunman to find someone—anyone—who is black or brown and shoot them instead. Gang affiliation does not matter. Only the color of the victim’s skin matters.
I would even take this a step further and suggest that some of L.A.’s so-called gangs are really no more than loose-knit bands of blacks or Latinos roaming the streets looking for people of the other color to shoot. Our gang investigators have learned this through interviews in Compton and elsewhere throughout the county. L.A.’s gang wars have long been complicated by drugs, territory issues or money. Now, it can also be over color.