Posted on May 20, 2011

Compton’s Racial Divide

Jim Newton, Los Angeles Times, May 16, 2011

Imagine if today’s Los Angeles were governed by a white mayor and an all-white City Council. And then imagine if that anomaly was protected by city election rules that virtually guaranteed no Latino candidate could land a spot in elected office. The civil rights community would be apoplectic and the public justifiably enraged.

Now consider Compton, a city that’s about two-thirds Latino but in which no Latino has ever held elected office. Instead, thanks in part to the kind of voting rules that were challenged and abandoned in many cities long ago, an all-black City Council and a black mayor maintain a firm hold on public office.

In Compton, City Council members run in citywide elections, which means all voters can vote in all races. If instead, as happens in Los Angeles, council members represented specific geographic areas and were voted on only by residents of those areas, heavily Latino neighborhoods would have a better chance of electing Latino council members. And then, having cracked the city’s closed politics, a group of experienced officeholders who could vie for mayor and other citywide offices would develop.

Compton’s commitment to at-large voting, which has been challenged in a lawsuit alleging violations of the California Voting Act, is the manifestation of a particularly noxious brand of racial politics that plays out in schools, elections and even civic events. {snip}

Meanwhile, the city’s demographics are rapidly changing and apparent everywhere. Barbecue and soul-food restaurants still have their place in the 10-square-mile city of 95,000 residents, but they now stand alongside taco stands and Oaxacan cafes; Stella’s Beauty Salon caters to “hombres, mujeres y ninos.” Evangelical storefront churches draw a multiplicity of faiths, with the Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal M.E. sitting just down the block from Greater Zion Church Family. Rap music thumps from car radios, but so does ranchero. According to the census, more than half of Compton’s families speak Spanish at home.

So why hasn’t that meant an automatic transformation of Compton politics? Some of the city’s Latinos are in the country illegally and thus can’t vote; even those here legally may not be citizens or feel themselves ready to join the electorate. And many are too young to vote. Despite their demographic dominance, Latinos make up only about 44% of Compton’s voting-age population, so the city’s black leadership, by insisting on citywide elections, has been able to dilute Latino voting strength. If Compton were broken into geographic districts, voting-age Latinos would almost certainly be a majority in at least one, and perhaps more (depending on how the lines were drawn). This would give them, finally, a foothold of political influence.

In the civil rights movement of the 1950s, blacks relied on the Constitution and found an ally in the courts. Now, the black leadership of Compton is defending its system in the courts against three Latino plaintiffs seeking to replace Compton’s at-large council elections with district-by-district ballots.


Royce Esters, a businessman and civil rights leader who has lived in Compton since 1956, put it more bluntly. Blacks in Compton, he said, “kept on it until we got elected. . . . Latinos just have to get out there and vote.”

But there’s more to it. Today, the very practices once employed by Southern whites–diluting the voting power of blacks, evading media inquiries, defending their political power against demographic trends–is now the province of Compton blacks. {snip}