By Marcus Anthony Hunter and Zandria F. Robinson, authors of Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life
A man is dragged from his seat. A group of police officers congregate around him as the recording continues. By the end of the ordeal the man, hospitalized and humiliated, becomes a siren song for resistance and uprising. A half-hearted apology is issued by those responsible. Sounds familiar? You may be thinking of the recent United Airlines ordeal. Yet twenty-five years ago, the scene was a traffic stop in Los Angeles. The man, not a doctor and not of Asian descent but instead is a black resident of Los Angeles named Rodney King.
The verdict “not guilty,” rang out across the Los Angeles’s Black belt like acid on old wounds. By 1992, black migration from the American South had over the 20th Century manifested into a entire Black region, South Central Los Angeles. Neighborhoods like Leimert Park and Baldwin Hills were built on a history of black artists and entertainers great enough to make millions but too black for Beverly Hills and Bel-Air. Separate water fountains and bathrooms had been replaced with separate communities and regions of the city. So when the brutal beating of Rodney King hit the television and airwaves, the graphic images and tale were an all too familiar reminder that black migrants hadn’t escape the chokehold of the Jim Crow South. The South followed them to California, refracted back in a video of a Black man savagely beaten by police officers. Never before had a recording so captured the experience. Never before had there been such clear indisputable evidence of the tendency for police officers to be forgetful of the humanity of black citizens. Even still, hearts would be crushed, tears shed and storefronts damaged after word of the verdict spread through South-Central.
From late April until early May ‘the Rodney King verdict’ reverberated across the city and nation in waves of protests, unrest and heavy police presence. Stores and buildings burned with the fury of a population that had escaped the South only physically. The commonly unheard voices of the city’s Black and Latino residents roared just beyond the gates and palm tree-lined campus of the University of Southern California.
More Than 25 Years Later
More than 25 years later many things have changed. On the site of the 1992 uprisings now sits a construction site accompanied by the noise and scaffolding of light rail construction. Built on the future of Los Angeles, the site—packed with steel and concrete, will create a vast transportation intersection between South Central and the rest of the city by 2020. As predominantly white runners clubs jog along the blocks that burned after the verdict, the spectacle of 25 years ago is merely a distant memory.
The name of the region of the city has changed too. No longer ‘South Central’, the area is called ‘South LA’ and ‘Mid-City’ now. Trolley cars shuttle back and forth between downtown and the Santa Monica promenade, as young white families and residents have discovered how convenient the area is. Where there was once an isolated set of black neighborhoods, there are gentrifying blocks. Many displaced black residents have gone back to the South to states like Texas and Louisiana and cities like Atlanta and Houston. Those who are poor, homeless and unemployed move about the city’s shrinking residential choices, as the cost of living continues to price them out.
More than 25 years later many things remain deeply consistent too. Tinsel town continues to draw Black people West in search of fame, fortune and freedom. Los Angeles still reflects the unrealized aspirations of the some of the oldest Americans, Black people. Indeed, UCLA’s recent reports confirm that diversity in Hollywood remains relatively non-existent. Hollywood, like the famous sign affixed to Laurel Canyon, is still white. Black actresses, like most all the black LA workforce, are forced to live out their dreams in a highly segmented and segregated labor industry. Although the median household income of black households in Los Angeles has historically outpaced the national average, black homeownership and black employment levels remain low and are declining.
Historically Black neighborhoods are contracting. New all white residential zones are forming. Police helicopters fly above. And shiny new trains traverse old gang boundaries. The city emerges from the ashes of the uprising, while long-standing Black residents fend for themselves. The makings of a classic movie about the South or country western, this, however is just a slice of black life in LaLa Land 25 years after the verdict. #BlackHistoryMonth #BHM
Marcus Anthony Hunter is Chair of the Department of African American Studies, Associate Professor of Sociology, and he holds the Scott Waugh Endowed Chair in the Division of the Social Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Black Citymakers: How the Philadelphia Negro Changed Urban America and the president of the Association of Black Sociologists.
Zandria F. Robinson is Associate Professor in Rhodes College’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. She is the author of This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South and coeditor of Repositioning Race: Prophetic Research in a Postracial Obama Age. See Zandria’s website New South Negress.