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Los Angeles Reflects on Race Relations

Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities in the United States, where groups that are minorities in other parts of the country form the majority. Recent instances of racial tension have forced residents to confront questions of race and ethnicity.

Local leaders say Los Angeles is like other places where people of many backgrounds live and work together. It is more often than not peaceful. But as the city grows and becomes more diverse, its problems are getting more difficult.

Local demographics are shifting as immigrants come from Latin America, raising concerns among African Americans that immigrant workers are driving down wages and taking their jobs.

Thousands of immigrants have taken to the streets in recent weeks, demanding a resolution to the status of those who entered the country illegally. The protests have prompted a backlash. African American activist Ted Hayes appeared at a recent rally to demand an end to the flow of illegal immigrants into the country. "They are working for what we will not work for. We're not going to work for slave wages. We were slaves once before," he said.

Low-paying jobs in Los Angeles pay well by Mexican standards, and continue to serve as lure for those heading northward. Hispanic immigrants, together with other Latinos who have been here for generations, now make up nearly half of the city's people.

The tensions among ethnic minorities were graphically shown in last year's Oscar-winning film Crash, about a sudden coming-together of people from different Los Angeles neighborhoods in a traffic accident.

Robin Toma of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission says this is one of the world's most diverse places, and there are going to be problems. "Yes, from time to time there are tensions and there will be clashes, and we've seen that in the jails, we've seen that in schools. We see that in the workplace from time to time. And we are trying to track hate crimes and we know they exist. At the same time, we know there are literally thousands if not millions of daily interactions that occur where people get along perfectly well across racial and ethnic and cultural boundaries," he said.

Toma's commission tries to defuse tensions before they erupt into conflicts. Human relations consultant Sikivu Hutchinson works in a suburban neighborhood where black and Latino teenagers say they are subject to special scrutiny by police, solely on the basis of their race and ethnicity. She meets on a regular basis with students, parents, teachers, and school administrators. "I've been helping them try to reach out to law enforcement and talk to law enforcement about more pro-active, more culturally sensitive policing procedures," she said.

Tensions are high in overcrowded local jails, which bring black and Latino inmates, some of them gang members, face to face in a closed environment. Race-based brawls and riots have broken out this year.

Eleanor Montano, who chairs a citizen committee that inspects Los Angeles jails, says the prison environment heightens existing tensions between black and Latino gangs. She says gang leaders force other inmates to fight. "They have no choice. They have no choice, or else they might get beat up themselves. Sometimes they're thrown into a situation that they don't want to be involved in," he said.

But outside, in the community, there are more positive encounters between people of different races, says Chinese-American civil rights attorney Cathay Feng. She chairs the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. "I think that we, in our workplaces, in the places that we live, in our day-to-day interactions in shops that we walk into or grocery stores, interact with people of a whole variety of backgrounds - different races, different religions, different walks of life," she said.

She says most of the city's residents take pride in their positive inter-ethnic relationships.

Los Angeles was rocked by race riots in 1965 and 1992, and community workers say some of the tensions that led to the riots still lie beneath the surface.

Sociologists say ethnic and racial tensions must be dealt with proactively by teachers, employers, religious groups and trained counselors, but that in multi-ethnic Los Angeles, despite what you see in the movies, more often than not, people do get along.