In the Los Angeles of a decade ago, race relations were so charged that the mere accusation of racism was enough to undermine a person’s credibility or send politicians scrambling for the hills. The “race card” was made famous when O.J. Simpson’s lawyers successfully accused Los Angeles police officer Mark Fuhrman of using “the ‘N’ word” thereby undermining his testimony and implying that the officer might have planted evidence against their client.
But Los Angeles – and maybe the nation – has changed for the better in recent years. We might not be a color-blind society, the “race card” is no longer a trump card.
In the last L.A. mayoral election, the white incumbent was seen as the African-Americans’ candidates, the Latino challenger was the darling of the white, liberal Westside near where I live and the African-American former police chief appealed to the sensibilities of conservative Republicans.
That election was perhaps a turning point for the L.A., once shorthand for “simmering racial tension” in recognizing that ideas, not appearances, are what matters in public discourse. Last year, we even had an African American lesbian running for the State Legislature—as a Republican!
If trends started in California are harbingers for the nation, this may well be good news for Democrat Barack Obama, who could become the first minority to win a major party’s presidential nomination in the history of the United States.
But it’s not just elected politics where cooler heads appear to be prevailing when it comes to the once white hot issue of race. Twice in the last week, the issue of race has tried to creep into the public discourse, only to be shot down vehemently by those tricky things called facts.
On Monday, when UCLA’s Latino athletic director Dan Guerrero fired the Bruin’s African-American football coach Karl Dorrell, the Associated Press immediately brought out Dorrell’s race. Merely by mentioning that, “Dorrell’s firing leaves five black coaches at 119 major college programs,” the AP suggested that the color of Dorrell’s skin – and not the 35-27 record of his football teams – had something to do with the decision.
Fortunately, no one with any sense was buying it when it came to Dorrell. Not even the head of the Black Coaches’ Association could muster up a credible argument for why Dorrell shouldn’t have been fired other than to suggest that maybe he could have gotten one more year on the job.
In this case, the race card was a joker, not a trump, just as it is across town, where it is being played under the table in the shadowy deliberations of the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission.
In its negotiations to keep playing its home games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the University of Southern California is having to deal with racial politics. Stymied in attempt to use the Coliseum, USC has entered negotiations with the Rose Bowl to play its games in tony, mostly white, Pasadena, rather than the urban, predominantly black, neighborhood surrounding its campus and the nearby coliseum.
USC is offering to invest $100 million to improve the Coliseum and is asking, in exchange for some control over the facility and access to stage events such as graduation and women’s soccer and lacrosse games and to keep the stadium open for international soccer tournaments and similar events. No dice, says the commission whose fiercest opponent, city councilman Bernard Parks, is trying to build a coalition of African-American Coliseum Commissioners to block a deal which would hand the keys over to USC.
Parks’ argument? Giving control of the Coliseum over to a private institution would deny access to the facility for the mostly-minority neighboring community. Hogwash. Parks himself has been trying to hand the keys to the coliseum over to a “private institution” – the National Football League – for years.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Vilolaraigosa – a Latino – saw through the smokescreen and declared the NFL dead to Los Angeles and has taken the lead in working out a deal for USC to stay at the Coliseum. So Parks’ success at demagogueing the issue by pitting mostly white USC against the neighborhood that surrounds the school has yet to be played out.
This isn’t just local. When Hillary Clinton’s campaign tried to play the race card against Barack Obama, reminding voters that Obama attended a kindergarten in Indonesia, plotting to be a Muslim-born Manchurian Candidate, her campaign was laughed off the cable talk shows.
As the election progresses into 2008, we will hear old notions of race and gender percolate in the questions voters – and the media – as of the candidates and themselves: Is a woman be mentally stable enough to be President? Is a Mormon a “Christian”? Can a man with a Soprano-sounding last name really not be in the mafia?
The American people will tell us whether they’ve moved beyond identifying candidates with characteristics they cannot control, and instead judge them by the content of their ideas and character. Let’s hope they do.