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African American political currents in LA

This is an interesting time for politics in the African American community. The names of two black elected officials are being thrown about as possible rivals to Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. And, up the hill from city hall, fears are being expressed that demographic trends threaten African American representation on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

This may sound like the most inside kind of speculation. Garcetti isn’t up for re-election until 2017, and demography won’t make itself felt until even later in the decade. Drought, earthquake or an unbelievable El Nino could make LA politics irrelevant by then. But the speculation tells something about the current state of Los Angeles.

First, there are Mayor Garcetti and the two African American officials, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and City Council President Herb Wesson.

Garcetti is receiving increasing scrutiny and criticism by the news media. While favored to win a second term, he is working hard to assure it, accumulating funds for the campaign. A fund-raising stop in Washington, reported by Peter Jamison of the Los Angeles Times, drew some of the criticism.

Wesson, whose control of the legislative body gives him clout approaching that of Garcetti, has been speaking out on major issues such as neighborhood representation, homelessness and race. Wesson, wrote the Times’ David Zahniser, “spent the last 10 days sounding like a mayor.” Just doing my job, said Wesson, who reminded Zahniser that he has already endorsed Garcetti for another term. Not so shy was Ridley-Thomas, who also sounded like a mayoral candidate at a recent event, when he spoke out about municipal failures on homelessness, excessive police force and income inequality. Has he ruled out a run for mayor in 2017? “No,” he told Zahniser.

Some African American political activists, who are concerned about a drop in the African American population, might greet a candidacy by either of them with enthusiasm. For a steady decline in African American population could mean a loss of black representation on the city council and board of supervisors.

Alan Clayton, a longtime expert on minority representation and redistricting, analyzed the demographic threat. In an article for the San Gabriel Valley Tribune and the Daily News, Clayton noted how in a recent Los Angeles City Council race an unsung Latina, Ana Cubas, finished a surprising close second to the winner, State Sen. Curren Price, an African American who was backed by elected officials, unions and other power players in the South Los Angeles 9th District. Cubas’ showing reflected the fast growing Latino population in an area that was once heavily black.

Clayton said the vote could be a sign of the difficulties African Americans may face in holding the 2nd supervisorial seat now occupied by Ridley Thomas, whose term expires in 2020.

The district, which includes South Los Angeles, Compton and Inglewood, has a declining black population. In 2011, Clayton said, 36 percent of the voting age population was black, 34 percent Latino, 17.5 percent white and 10.4 percent Asian American. By the 2020 election, Clayton said, the voting age Latino population will reach 38 percent and the black population will drop to about 32 percent.

For African Americans, a solution to this dilemma is to expand the five-member board of supervisors to seven members, as envisioned by a state constitutional amendment proposed by State Sen. Tony Mendoza, an Artesia Democrat.

But, as is the case with county supervisors around the state, the Los Angeles board has opposed it, the supervisors fearing their power would be diluted. Better, they said, to be one of five than one of seven. The white majority voted against it while Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis, a Latina, abstained.

Expansion of the board would do much to make it more representative of the county’s population, perhaps making possible the election of another Latino, retention of a black and a chance for an Asian American to be elected. Accomplishing this would likely touch off a multi-ethnic election battle but it probably would give the county a more diverse board than we have today.

dexter-thomas-twitter.jpgThe LA Times memo the other day about hiring a reporter to cover and engage with the community of active black posters on Twitter has spurred a good bit of coverage. LA Times managing editor for editorial strategy S. Mitra Kalita, who wrote the memo, says “I’ve said many times that Black Twitter has saved my career over and over and over again where it forces me to realize that a Ferguson is going on before everybody begins covering it.” The quote is from a piece by NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates for Wednesday’s “Morning Edition,” exploring the Times’ hire and introducing the concept of Black Twitter to listeners who may not be familiar with the term. Listen here. Excerpt:

GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: You cannot physically find Black Twitter. It’s not a place, although its members have a prominent online presence. Look at what’s trending on Twitter any day and many of the top trends come from Black Twitter….DEXTER THOMAS: I don’t think anyone has ever captured the depth or complexity or variety of Black Twitter.

BATES: That’s Dexter Thomas. The LA Times just hired him to cover Black Twitter and what the paper likes to call communities of interest. Thomas stresses that this community isn’t a monolith.

THOMAS: I rarely see Black Twitter agree on anything. There are a lot of conflicts within it. There are a lot of conflicts with other people.

[skip]

BATES: …Plenty of media organizations have reporters watching Black Twitter, says Jamilah Lemieux, the senior digital editor for EBONY.com. Lemieux says she welcomes the LA Times’s decision if it results in more nuanced coverage of black people in the broader media. But she doesn’t want the voices that make Black Twitter muted or changed to appeal to a broader audience.

Bates, who is based in Los Angeles, also quoted Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and Meredith D. Clark, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of North Texas who did her dissertation last year on Black Twitter. Clark writes today at Poynter’s website that mainstream newspapers should “pause before they reconfigure their social media and audience engagement strategies without considering the historical context and demographic trends that underpin such a decision. There’s no portal to Black Twitter. No special password.”

From Clark’s piece:

Some online reaction to the Times memo reflected concerns of corporate media surveillance. Users are wary of news editors watching and collecting field notes to report on Black users who are otherwise “using the Internet the way it was intended to be used,” said Sydette Harry, a cultural commentator who tweets as @BlackAmazon.
“Is this going to be an area of consistent, dynamic change? Or is this going to be another sense of ‘we’re going to have an ethnography where we look at all the Negroes?’” she asked.

Newsroom leaders watching the development with designs on changing their social media reporting strategies should take note: Assigning a reporter to cover Black Twitter only works if that person is attuned to the history, culture and issues of race, gender, identity and power that makes the community what it is.

For his part, Thomas, a freelance writer and Ph.D. candidate in East Asian studies at Cornell University hired to cover the beat, is acutely aware of the challenge. It is, in part, untangling what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “webs of significance” within this culturally linked network of communicators. But the reporting is designed to tease out news and connect with people sources outside traditional channels.

“I was skeptical about it because I don’t think that Black Twitter exists as a monolithic entity that everyone treats it as,” he said.

But the news media’s fascination has been building for years, as indicated by Choire Sicha’s 2009 musings about “What Were Black People Talking About on Twitter Last Night?” and Farhad Manjoo’s observations on “How Black People Use Twitter” in 2010. #BlackLivesMatter, created in 2012 by three Black feminists to draw attention to the killing of Trayvon Martin and so many more men, women and children memorialized via hashtag campaigns, has attracted greater visibility and better helped define some of the community’s boundaries.

Here’s what Kalita’s memo said about Thomas, the new Black Twitter reporter for the Times:

Dexter Thomas joins us today to cover Black Twitter (which really is so much more complicated than that). He will work closely with the newsroom and #EmergingUS to find communities online (Black Medium to Latino Tumblr to Line in Japan) and both create stories with and pull stories from those worlds. Dexter is from San Bernardino and is a doctoral candidate in East Asian studies at Cornell University. He has taught media studies and Japanese and is writing a book about Japanese hip-hop. He began working in digital media at UC Riverside as a student director of programming at KUCR-FM (88.3), independently producing podcasts, music and news programs. He writes regularly on social justice, Internet and youth culture, and video games.

More stories on the hire: KPCC Take Two, Washington Post, Digiday, All Digitocracy.

Thomas has also been discussing the new assignment at his Twitter account. There’s a lot of support and also a current of concern that his reporting won’t get the nuances of the existing Black Twitter community or that his presence will be disruptive. Here’s a sampling of his reply tweets since the news broke; a lot more at his feed.

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