It’s Still About the Economy, Stupid

Sen. Holly Mitchell on race, law and legislating change

Back Web Only Nov 5, 2015 By Rich Ehisen

Most people look at the civil unrest recently seen in places like Ferguson and Baltimore as strictly a matter of law and order. But to California state Sen. Holly Mitchell, those events are the inevitable result of a long-simmering frustration within much of the African-American community — not only at what they see as heavy-handed treatment of young black men by police, but of a general shortage of economic opportunities available to communities of color.

“I say ‘rebellion,’ not ‘riot’ when we talk about those situations,” Mitchell says. “They are often a reaction to a set of circumstances where people feel they have nothing to lose. And it’s absolutely about economics.”

But do such uprisings actually help improve opportunities in the communities where they take place? Or does the upheaval they entail leave even greater economic and structural disparity in their wake? It’s not an easy question to answer.

The Watts riots of 1965 resulted in 34 deaths and over $40 million in property damage in Los Angeles. The unrest following the Rodney King verdict in 1992 was even more devastating, with 53 deaths, almost 2,400 injuries and at least $1 billion in property damage. But Mitchell notes the aftermath was significantly different for each event.

After the Watts riots, the McCone Commission – put together by then-Gov. Pat Brown (Gov. Jerry Brown’s father) – cited intense poverty and widespread racial discrimination as the specific seeds that sowed the violence. Mitchell says this was significant because it pushed local and state leaders to address those issues and led to the additional of community benefits like the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital and CSU Dominguez Hills.

“We saw more inclusion of minorities in the police force and more services made available in those communities to help the poor and the disenfranchised,” Mitchell says. It also helped to eventually produce the city’s first African-American mayor, Tom Bradley, who served five terms from 1973 to 1993.

In contrast, she says, the 1992 riots produced little of real human value.

“What did we get from that event? We got food deserts,” says Mitchell. “The big market chains all left. There are now major areas of LA without access to a neighborhood grocery store.”

Fifty years after Watts, some of the same issues that drove that violence still remain, Mitchell says. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost a quarter of all Californians now live in poverty, the highest rate in the nation. That disproportionately impacts women, who on average make 78 percent of the wages paid to white males for the same work. It is even worse for women of color: According to the Census, African-American women earn just 64 percent of what men make, for Hispanic women the figure is just 54 percent. And a recent report issued by California Attorney General Kamala Harris noted that while African-Americans make up just six percent of California’s population, they account for 17 percent of all arrests.

Mitchell and several of her colleagues have attempted to address issues like poverty and the relationship between police and communities of color. The results have been mixed. This year Gov. Brown signed legislation sponsored by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson aimed at closing loopholes that keep women earning less than men, which many have hailed as a model for the rest of the nation. He also signed a bill Mitchell authored to end the use of grand juries to investigate police shootings. But several other measures lawmakers considered in 2015, including those requiring police officers to wear body cameras, did not even make it to Brown’s desk.

Most are likely to return for another try in 2016. But Mitchell says there is something else as important as legislation: communication.

“We have to continue having conversations about race,” she says. “It is the hard thing to do and we don’t often have the space and opportunity to have those real conversations. But race still matters, and we still have to talk about it.”

To read Rich Ehisen’s full interview with Sen. Holly Mitchell, check back next week for our November installment of his monthly Discourse column. Sign up for our newsletter, and we’ll email you when it’s available online.