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Saturday, Jan 28, 2023
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L.A. Can Steer Clear of Urban Violence

When Baltimore erupted in sometimes-violent protests last month after the death of Freddie Gray, Angelenos who remember the traumatic civil unrest of April 1992 in this city had to be concerned. Yes, we have come a long way since the era when the Daryl Gates-led Los Angeles Police Department ran roughshod over low-income communities of color with virtual impunity. But L.A. is not immune from the rash of killings of unarmed African Americans: in the last several months alone, two homeless African American men – both without weapons – have been fatally shot by LAPD officers. Equally important is the persistently high rate of poverty and the lack of real economic opportunity in communities of color across Los Angeles. As Baltimore proved once again, the combination of racially biased police violence and racialized economic desperation makes for a toxic brew. Last year’s groundbreaking study by the Social Science Research Council, which looked at incomes, educational achievement, life expectancy and other markers, found that income inequality in Los Angeles is higher than any other California metro area, with vast disparities between African Americans and Latinos, on the one hand, and whites on the other. While South L.A. and Watts had the lowest scores of any neighborhood in California, these patterns apply to the San Fernando Valley as well. The Valley’s poorest neighborhood, Van Nuys, has a disproportionately high Latino population. Other Valley neighborhoods with high concentrations of African Americans and Latinos, such as Pacoima, have below-average income and educational achievement levels. While no one is predicting that L.A. is on the verge of civil unrest, we know from Baltimore and our own history that we ignore racialized economic inequality at our own peril. As the national soul-searching over racially biased police violence continues, we would do well here in Los Angeles to also pursue a far more aggressive strategy to alleviate poverty by creating good jobs. A great place to start is raising the minimum wage, which could benefit more than 700,000 Angelenos currently struggling to make ends meet. While some business interests are pushing the City Council to water down the wage hike with numerous exemptions, other business leaders, joined by labor, community and faith activists, are rightly advocating for a solution equal to the severity of L.A.’s low-wage jobs crisis. A key element of any serious plan is eliminating wage theft. In Los Angeles, an estimated 655,000 low-wage workers a week are subject to at least one pay violation. And those wage theft incidents add up – these workers lose on average of more than $2,000 over the course of a year, totaling more than $1 billion a year. That’s why proponents of increasing L.A.’s minimum wage are insisting that the wage increase be coupled with strong wage theft protection. Another critical way to address income inequality in L.A.’s communities of color is to directly challenge mass incarceration, and in the meantime greatly expand efforts to find good jobs for the formerly incarcerated. The enormous racial disparity in incarceration rates – in California, African Americans are incarcerated at a rate of 4,367 per 100,000 compared to 488 for non-Latino whites – is a primary contributor to the racialization of poverty. This is because of the often insurmountable barriers faced by those with a criminal record in finding employment. Ban the Box rules are now challenging this situation by restricting the ability of employers to ask about criminal history. San Francisco’s Ban the Box rule applies to all employers with more than 20 employees as well as nearly all government contractors. Los Angeles should adopt similar regulation. The private sector should also take initiative – for example, Isidore Electronics Recycling, based in Chinatown, hires only the formerly incarcerated, and pays a living wage to all its employees. Other businesses can and should follow Isidore’s lead. One area where L.A. is already in the forefront is making sure that residents of disadvantaged communities have access to middle-class construction jobs. Through the various construction policies passed over the last several years, good jobs in the construction industry have become much more accessible to African Americans. L.A. has also been a national leader in responsible economic development, ensuring that large-scale projects such as downtown’s L.A. Live and North Hollywood’s NoHo Commons provide real benefits – including living wage jobs – to the people living in those communities. L.A. has made significant strides over the past two decades in tackling the economic hardships that have fueled civil unrest for decades in American cities. But just as there is a long way to go when it comes to fair policing, L.A. must keep its eyes on the prize in creating an economy that works for all Angelenos. Roxana Tynan is executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, an L.A. advocacy group

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