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End of the Rainbow

South Central Los Angeles ushers in a new era of racial tension—this time between blacks and Hispanics.

Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition has a ways to go in Los Angeles, where Mexicans and blacks are killing each other at record rates. The action is particularly hot in South Central Los Angeles and in nearby Compton, two areas that have undergone a dramatic shift during the last two decades from virtually all black to half or more Hispanic.

Most of the schools in these areas are now majority Latino, something I could not possibly have imagined when I was in high school in the early 1960s. By that time South Central and Compton had made a transition from virtually all white during the 1930s to virtually all black. They remained that way into the late 1970s, when the effects of illegal immigration from Mexico first began to be felt. By the 1990s, entire neighborhoods had been transformed. Terry Anderson, a black auto mechanic from South Central, describes what it was like at the end of the decade:

    Today, teenagers can’t get after-school or entry-level jobs—something to put on a resume. When I was 16 and 17, I had jobs at McDonald’s, Burger King, Jack in the Box. Now these jobs in L.A. are held by 30- or 40-year-old immigrants—100% Spanish-speaking and probably 90% from Mexico.

    We have schools here that used to be 80% to 90% black and now, after a period of 10 years, are 80% to 90% Latino. As this trend spreads, blacks either can move to other neighborhoods or watch their children stuck in schools listening to Spanish all day. Yet nobody speaks up for our children the way pro-immigrant organizations do for immigrant children. As a result, our children are getting the equivalent of half a day of school. Why should our children be deprived?

    My two-bedroom house near the Coliseum is worth about $100,000. A comparable house two doors away sold for $135,000 and the buyers put five immigrant families in it. A black family can’t pay that and can’t live like that. In the American culture, we have one family to a house. Each of my immigrant neighbors has seven or eight children, while we Americans have two or three. Before long, all these children are going to need a place of their own. Does a black homeowner have to put four families in the house and a fifth in the garage in order to survive? A for-sale sign in our neighborhood causes panic. We know who will get that house. There will be 20 to 30 people living in it, they will keep goats, they will grow corn in the front yard, they will hang their wash on the front fence. It’s a culture clash.

Since the 1990s, the changes described by Anderson have intensified. The demographic statistics are startling. The two high schools nearest the Los Angeles Coliseum—presumably the schools Anderson’s children would have attended—are Jefferson, two miles to the east, and Manual Arts, a half mile to the southwest. During the 1960s and ’70s, the schools were nearly 100 percent black—and Jefferson had been since the 1940s. Today Jefferson is 7 percent black and 92 percent Hispanic, and Manual Arts 20 percent black and 79.5 percent Hispanic.

The story is similar for the rest of South Central. Fremont High School, virtually 100 percent black during the 1960s and ’70s, is now 12 percent black and 88 percent Hispanic. Crenshaw and Locke, two high schools built after the Watts riots and nearly all black during their first 20 years, are now 32 percent and 63 percent Hispanic. Dorsey and Washington high schools, which went from white to black during the ’50s and early ’60s, are each now 45 percent Hispanic. Unchecked illegal immigration will ensure Hispanic majorities at the two schools within a few years.

The most stunning change of all, though, has occurred at Jordan High School. Lying six miles to the southeast of the Coliseum, Jordan is in the heart of Watts, a portion of Los Angeles that had the unique distinction of becoming predominately black prior to World War II. During the war, the federal government built Jordan Downs, Nickerson Gardens, and Imperial Courts, three housing projects for southern blacks who had come to Los Angeles to replace white workers then serving overseas. When other high schools in South Central were still white in the 1940s, Jordan was solidly black. Jordan High School and black were synonymous. Watts and black were synonymous.

Crossing into Watts, as I did in 1962 to play a football game against the Jordan High Bulldogs, was like being transported to another country. Except for cops and firemen, whites were nowhere to be seen—and that was at a time when the population of Los Angeles County was 80 percent white. When our team bus stopped at lights, men and boys, loitering at the street corners, gesticulated at us and shouted epithets. We didn’t exactly feel welcomed. After we won 20-7, a security force had to escort us to our bus behind chain-link fences and gates to protect us from a mob that had gathered in the street next to the school’s parking lot.

Jordan remained virtually all black throughout the ’60s and ’70s, and I would have bet that Watts and Jordan High would have remained so for my lifetime and more. Today, the school is 20 percent black and 79 percent Hispanic, and Spanish is the language most commonly heard on campus.

Such dramatic shifts have not come without violence. Fighting is common and racial brawls not unusual. Jefferson High School was the scene of three such brawls during the spring semester alone. Like Jordan, Jefferson High was predominately—almost exclusively—black from the early 1940s until the 1980s. Today, there are only 300 blacks and more than 3,500 Hispanics at the school. Of the Hispanics, 1,741 are listed as “English learners.” Better than half of the school’s students were born in Mexico, and nearly all Latino students, whether native or foreign born, converse with each other in Spanish. Blacks have complained about it, saying the “Mexicans” are “disrespecting” them by speaking in Spanish. Latinos have responded by saying they are not going to stop speaking Spanish just because blacks don’t like it.

A brawl involving more than a hundred students erupted on April 14. During lunch, two black girls began fighting over a cell phone. A crowd surrounded them immediately, jeering and heckling. A group of black football players pushed through the crowd to see the action. A milk cartoon arced through the air and hit one of them. “Who threw the carton?” the victim yelled at some Latinos. “Go back to Africa,” came the response.

Fighting erupted, spread quickly, and continued for 20 minutes before campus security guards and LAPD officers restored order. Blacks got the worst of it, and it seems they regularly do. “I’m scared even to go to class,” said Keiana Scott, speaking to a Los Angeles Times reporter and glancing nervously at nearby Latino students. “I’ve got to look over my shoulder every five minutes to see if somebody’s about to whup me.” Another black girl was escorted to her class by a teacher. When asked by other students what happened, she replied, “I was jumped by a bunch of f—–g Mexicans.” While some Latinas tried to console her, several others confronted her and one asked, “Why are you disrespecting me?” The teacher and Scott’s Latina friends managed to get the other girls to back off but not before they taunted their fellow Latinas for having “no pride in your own people.”

Writing for the May-June issue of LA Youth, a newspaper that includes a staff of some 70 high-school students, an anonymous Latino student described his participation in the Jefferson High brawl. His version of events suggests that the fight was planned and that both black and brown students knew it was coming on April 14. The anonymous writer said that he had told a black student he knew that he was not going to get involved. “But on the day of the fight,” he said, “when another friend called me and said I needed to back up my Mexican friends, I just wanted to defend my pride. I know that was a stupid reason to miss a day of school. But I wanted to stand up for my family, my Mexican ancestors, and the people who worked hard so I could be here—my heritage that I’m really proud of. … During the fight I felt good defending my race. I was hitting anybody I could get my hands on.”

Another brawl, this time involving more than 200 students, erupted four days later at Jefferson. Again, it took security guards and cops to quell the disturbance. On April 29, it was Jordan High’s turn when about 100 black and brown students fought. Rumors then had it that any black going to school on May 5—Cinco de Mayo—would be beaten to a pulp. The Los Angeles Unified School District reported that 51,000 students were absent from its middle and high schools that day, an absentee rate of 20 percent. On May 26, another brawl erupted at Jefferson only 24 hours before a scheduled “Day of Dialogue” to discuss the earlier racial brawls. On the Day of Dialogue all but a few of the school’s 300 black students stayed home.

School authorities made all their usual inane comments. Jefferson High principal Norm Morrow claimed he had no idea racial tensions were running so high. “This thing happened so quickly,” he said, “it caught us off guard. Had we seen signs of intolerance … damn right I would have done some things differently.” A campus security guard said, “It’s a handful of knuckleheads causing the problem.” The cures suggested were also standard: troublemakers would be transferred, new security cameras installed, more campus police assigned to the school, the lunch period divided, and community meetings held regularly. Other actions were taken by local residents themselves. Determined to protect their black brothers, members of the Nation of Islam patrolled the streets around the school.

Other racial brawls have occurred at Washington and Locke high schools and individual fights between blacks and browns at every high school in South Central. Although dozens of students have been injured in the brawls, no one has been killed. Yet.

Out on the streets the violence between blacks and browns has turned deadly. During the ’70s and ’80s, black gangs—essentially the many versions of the Bloods and Crips—ruled the streets in South Central. During the ’90s they began to be challenged by Hispanic gangs, mainly Mexicans but some Salvadorans as well. Police tell me that the black gangs are now on the defensive, having had many of their members killed in Blood-Crip warfare and many others imprisoned.

Meanwhile, Latino gangs have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of recruits south of the border. Mexico has 105 million people, and 42 million of them live below the poverty line. Crime and corruption are rampant. Mexican nationals can kill in California and then slip into Mexico. Even if apprehended, which is the rarest of scenarios, they cannot be extradited to the United States for trial. The Mexican constitution prohibits the extradition of any citizen facing a sentence of death or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. More than a hundred Mexican nationals are wanted for murder in Los Angeles County. Gang members wanted for a whole host of crimes often flee to Mexico for a year or two only to return with a new identity, allowing them to resume their criminal activities.

During the last five years, more than 3,000 murders in Los Angeles County have been attributed to gangs. Fifteen or 20 years ago the majority of the murders would have been committed by members of black gangs. Today, most of the murders are committed by Latino gang members, many of them illegal aliens. Latino gangs now outnumber black gangs, 209 to 152, and have more than double the number of gang members. The 18th Street gang has more than 10,000 members and is the bloodiest criminal organization in Los Angeles. Police estimate that nearly two-thirds of its members are illegal aliens from south of the border. The Lil’ Cycos gang has a similar composition and, although smaller in numbers, proportionately commits as many murders. Year by year, these Latino gangs and others are taking control of turf once ruled by black gangs.

The conflict between Latino gangs and black gangs is especially pronounced at the housing projects in Watts. At Jordan Downs alone, there have been 14 murders since 2000 and an average of a violent crime every day and a half, the highest rate of crime of any public housing project in Los Angeles. In an effort to stop the flow of blood, the LAPD has plans to install surveillance cameras throughout the 700-unit complex. The project’s 2,400 residents are not thrilled with the idea. “I wouldn’t want the LAPD to watch me day to day,” offered resident David Valencia. “Mexicans and blacks don’t usually agree on anything. But none of us want to be watched.” “This isn’t about Big Brother,” said Police Commission Vice President Alan Skobin. Added the LAPD’s George Gascon, “Cameras are as much a part of policing now as handcuffs.”

When black and brown criminals are incarcerated, they take their racial conflict with them into California’s prisons. Racial riots occur with disturbing frequency. Blacks and Latinos have been routinely segregated, although a recent court decision may force integration. The results are bound to cause more violent eruptions if reception centers at the prisons are any example. The centers serve as temporary homes for processing inmates from county jails before they are assigned to a regular housing unit in the prison. Regardless of race, inmates live together at the centers. Fights are common. In late September, eight inmates were seriously injured in a racial brawl at the reception center at the California Institution for Men at Chino. According to a prison spokesman, more than 200 blacks and Latinos not only fought but tore up the center “pretty good, with broken windows and doors.”

More ominous, perhaps, is the daily conflict among the general black and brown populations in South Central. Occasionally, the conflict turns deadly. On a Sunday night in late September, 23-year-old William Armistead and 17-year-old Courtney Whaley walked into Robidio Espana’s Super Discount Store on San Pedro Street, a short distance from Fremont High. While in the store, Armistead and Whaley grew irritated at employees speaking to each other in Spanish and assumed themselves to be the objects of derogatory remarks. In response, the two young blacks began harassing a female clerk, gesturing and making offensive sexual remarks. Espana intervened, precipitating a heated verbal exchange with Armistead and Whaley. They left but on their way out the door threatened to return and get Espana.

When they did return to the store, Espana was waiting for them with a gun. He opened fire with deadly accuracy. Hit several times, Armistead dropped to the floor. Rounds also tore into Whaley, but he managed to stagger to the street. Both men were rushed to a nearby hospital where they died. In the meantime, Espana fled the scene. His family later persuaded him to surrender to police, who charged him with two counts of murder and with being a felon in possession of a handgun. (He had once been convicted of grand theft auto.)

Espana’s wife Lorena said that black gangs had come to the store several times demanding protection money. Her husband had steadfastly refused to pay but was left fearing for his life. Police confirmed that is what she told them but could not corroborate the claim. Ironically, police said that Latino gangs had been extorting money from businesses in the area. Only a year ago, the city had filed an injunction against the Latino 38th Street gang for its extortion racket.

Within days of the shooting, “187 Mexicans” appeared on the front wall of Espana’s store—187 referring to the section in California’s criminal code for murder. The concise graffiti soon began appearing elsewhere in South Central. Also within days of the shooting, a black woman, who was friends with the Whaleys, was shot by what witnesses described as “Mexicans” while she stood in front of the Whaley home. She is expected to recover.

California’s Victim Assistance Program provided money for Courtney Whaley’s burial but not for that of William Armistead, who was on probation when he died. (State regulations prohibit funds from the victim program going to anyone on probation.) Lorena Espana was less than sympathetic. “The families of the two people who died know well what happened. They don’t want to recognize that they were to blame.”

Meanwhile, in the incorporated city of Compton, just over the line from South Central Los Angeles, several blacks were killed in October in what may have been racially motivated shootings, bringing the city’s total murders thus far in the year to 54. With only 93,000 people, Compton has become one of the murder capitals of the United States. During the last two decades, the town has gone from predominately black to nearly 60 percent Hispanic. Compton’s two high schools, Centennial and Compton—more than 90 percent black in the ’60s and ’70s—are now 54 percent and 66 percent Hispanic. At Centennial, 41 percent of the students are English learners, and at Compton 50 percent, meaning that 80-90 percent of the Latino students at each school fall into the category. They speak Spanish with each other and have little to do with black students.

Despite a majority of Latino students, six of the eight members of school board are black. More striking, though, is the exclusively black city government, including the mayor, the city attorney, the city treasurer, the city clerk, and all members of the city council. Four of five city jobs are held by blacks. Thus far, Latino demands for jobs and a role in government have gone nowhere, principally because most of Compton’s Latinos are illegal aliens and don’t vote.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, whose deputies patrol Compton, attributes the spike in murders to drugs, gangs, and racial tension. Drugs and gangs, however, were very much a part of Compton during the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, leaving racial conflict between blacks and Latinos as the new factor—the elephant in the living room that few want to discuss publicly. Baca was right about drugs and gangs, though, except instead of black gang members killing each other as in the past in Compton, it is now more likely black-on-brown or brown-on-black.

There is a war at the moment between the Latino Compton Tortilla Flats gang and the black Fruit Town Pirus. Their combined efforts just might make this a record year for murder in Compton.

It’s clear that the Rainbow Coalition’s colors are running, and they’re running blood red.


Roger D. McGrath is an historian in California and the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen and Vigilantes.