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Day 17

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They May Vote for You, But They Won't Have Lunch With You

The Dynamics of Racial Politics in California

by J.L. CHESTNUT, Jr.

LOS ANGELES.

Believe it or not, friends, blacks of my generation who are also natives of this really sprawling and tropical metropolis did, more often than not, attend integrated grammar and high schools. Their neighborhoods were black or mostly all black, but their early school experiences were usually integrated, and that is quite unusual. Also, unlike other college bound blacks everywhere else most did not attend one of the prominent historic black colleges such as Howard, Fisk, Spelman, Morehouse and Dillard. They attended predominantly white California state universities, and that is also quite unusual.     

Californians are a different breed. California is not Alabama, Indiana or Iowa. In law school one learns early that progressive changes in the law invariably originate in California or Massachusetts and the most repressive measures almost always come out of Alabama and Mississippi.   

However, blacks in Los Angeles and virtually everywhere had their own half-white elite caste of snobbish black doctors, lawyers and other professionals, a misguided and brainwashed group that really wanted to be white.  Survivors and their proud descendents reside in three upscale suburban areas within the city: View Park, Ladera Heights and Baldwin Hills. My oldest daughter, Gerald and her family reside in Ladera Heights along with college sorority and fraternity friends and the color conscious, old-line elites and they are today’s black socialites in L.A.   

To this day, elites do not typically accept even light-skinned black entertainers with money or "people who are tied to the music or film industry." Gerald’ father has been proudly tied to jazz and night people for more than half a century. I am hardly half-white and neither is she, and it is an utterly fascinating disconnect that I could unintentionally provide her a social boost when I lack "societal legitimacy" myself, and could only help because of some national exposure as a so-called hotshot lawyer and a published autobiography. That is how incomprehensible such nonsense is, but it always seems to have a life of its own.     

Tavis Smiley lives within walking distance of my daughter and a young lady, Denise, who manages his office and Gerald, are very close friends. Tavis recently remodeled a building in the Crenshaw District (the ghetto) and operates from an office in that building. He said he wanted to be near his people. Good for him. Tavis started out as an ambitious and smart young staffer with the late Tom Bradley, the first and only black mayor of Los Angeles.

I came out here in 1990 on a book tour and met with Bradley. The late P.L. Lindsey of Selma had a brother who was one of Bradley’s closest political associates. P. L. was a leader in Alabama church and educational circles for decades. His brother followed a similar course out here, ventured into politics and was elected to the city council. Councilman Lindsey was a key mover in delivering a massive and energized black vote without which Bradley would not have been elected mayor.

Bradley was smart, ambitious, sensitive and 100% black middle class. He was also a committed integrationist and like Colin Powell specialized in making powerful white males comfortable. Accordingly, Bradley rose through the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department (one of the most racist in the country) to the rank of lieutenant. His rise was unprecedented, and only a black man such as he could have pulled it off.       

When I met with Bradley he was secretly and to my surprise disturbed over several racist experiences he had suffered as mayor. He anxiously said, "J.L., I read your book cover-to-cover and it is more revealing about this racial thing than even Councilman Lindsey claimed. Let’s talk. We can have lunch brought in here."

He mentioned his honorary membership in the Friars Club, a group of successful show biz millionaires such as Bob Hope, George Burns and Frank Sinatra. Bradley was the only black member, and his status was honorary. The only other blacks seen inside the club’s exclusive Beverly Hills clubhouse were waiters and kitchen workers. Sammy Davis and Nat Cole would become members later.

Bradley became involved on a regular basis only because of the actor Gregory Peck (who incidentally starred in both Gentlemen’s Agreement and To Kill a Mockingbird) pressured him almost daily and wouldn’t take no as an answer. Bradley began to stop by the club for lunch once or twice a week and not just for special occasions. Soon, he began to notice little subtle signs of unwelcome. Finally, no one would sit at his table, and some would not even speak to the mayor of the city.

Bradley asked, "Now, what do you make of that from otherwise intelligent people, my friend from Alabama, many of whom voted for me and continue to support me and the city administration openly?"

Because he asked and was very serious I said, "You come from Texas, and I don’t really understand how you expected otherwise. I also would think that years in the LA police department would have provided intimate preparation for dealing with racism by so-called fair-minded white men at the top. Hollywood liberals didn’t vote for you because they considered you their equal, but because it made them feel better about their own racism, and they assumed they could control you. On the other hand, in no other city, except perhaps San Francisco, would an important group of rich and influential white males have helped elect the first black male mayor. Peck is probably sincere but naïve, and apparently learned from his two socially controversial films."

Bradley was quiet for a moment and appeared to be experiencing some hurt but responded with the signature, non-threatening black middle class proclamation that there are good and bad people of every kind, black and white. Who can disagree with the obvious, so I merely pointed out that whites are brainwashed into believing they are superior and special and blacks are brainwashed into believing the same nonsense. I also said that the voting public is hardly a model of perception and rationality. Ignorance does cut across all racial, ethnic and economic lines. Bradley agreed with a thoughtful but silent nod.

If Bradley were alive and we were having a conversation today I would point to the dumb recall gubernatorial election out here and the Hollywood liberals who appear excited over a muscle-bound actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man with no ideas, no plans and no platform. I would contrast that with the rightwing Republican racists and the Fox TV cable news network that despise Hollywood and liberals but contradictorily support the know-nothing candidacy of this actor.  

Some of that same Hollywood crowd helped vote Bradley into office twice, but were too racist to have lunch with him and they are now supporting Schwarzenegger. These people were ignorant hypocrites then and are no better now. After all, they and Schwarzenegger are also actors, and the public even in California is oh, well.

J.L. CHESTNUT, Jr. is a civil rights attorney in Selma, Alabama. He is the founder of Chestnut, Sanders and Sanders which is the largest black law firm in Alabama. Born in Selma and, after graduating from Howard University Law School, he began practicing law in Selma in 1958. He started as the only black lawyer in the town and has been challenging the establishment since then. His law firm now owns two radio stations in Selma and Mr. Chestnut hosts a radio talk show three days a week touted as the most popular radio show in south and central Alabama. He is the author of "Black in Selma" with Julia Cass (1989 Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and writes a weekly column called the "Hard Cold Truth". He can be reached at tmarshall@csspca.com.