Saturday, June 9, 2007

L.A. Story

A recent deluge of news stories claim that Latinos are “ethnically cleansing” their African American neighbors in southern California.

“We need to go on the offensive to put an end to this idea of ethnic cleansing in L.A.,” declares Noreen McClendon, executive director of Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles. “It is not happening.”

McClendon—an African American who serves as vice president of operations for the Watts Gang Task Force—is upset about a recent deluge of news stories claiming that Latinos are “ethnically cleansing” their African American neighbors in southern California. The reports, which McClendon characterizes as dangerously misleading, have circulated widely in print, broadcast, and Web media, generating alarm in civil rights circles and unrestrained glee in those of anti-immigrant activists and white supremacists. In McClendon’s view, all this hype obscures some basic realities: “Gangs kill each other. Gangs kill innocent people.” The ethnic cleansing label, she says, “is blown so far out of proportion” with the facts on the ground.

Violent competition for control of the southern California drug trade between two prison gangs, the Mexican Mafia and the Black Guerilla Family, has been spilling onto the streets of L.A. for more than 15 years. Gangs that once included African American and Chicano youth are increasingly segregated. In neighborhoods like Harbor Gateway, racist, anti-Black graffiti has become commonplace. Last year’s trial of several Chicano gang members on murder and civil rights charges and other police investigations strongly indicate that some Mexican Mafia-connected gang members have crossed the line separating gang rivalry from deliberate, racially motivated crimes against innocent bystanders.

But the reasons for these developments, the scale of the problem, and what must be done have been largely lost amidst sensationalist media declarations that a “race war” has broken out in Los Angeles. While it is now clear that racism has indeed played a role in some gang killings, other non-lethal attacks, and in the ongoing threats faced by African American residents of certain neighborhoods, the propagation of the ethnic cleansing frame has badly distorted a story that is sobering enough without the exaggerations.

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