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How South L.A.'s "Ethnic Sedimentation" Is Helping Residents Fight For Their Neighborhood

When black and Latino communities are bound together by a shared sense of place, they can give where they live a different path from many other lower-income neighborhoods.

How South L.A.'s "Ethnic Sedimentation" Is Helping Residents Fight For Their Neighborhood

[Photo: trekandshoot/iStock]

A South Los Angeles neighborhood is successfully resisting gentrification, as well as other threats to the community like racism, and police brutality. The key is in the mixture of residents. In South L.A., the predominantly African America population is mixed up with a more recent Latino immigrant population. And it is this literal mix, where people share the space instead of being segregated into their own sections, that gives the place a community.

This model is called "ethnic sedimentation," and results in alliances between the different ethnic groups. A new report, published by the University of Southern California, and two years in the making, suggests that this may be the future model for other cities where immigrant populations have settled in black neighborhoods.

The important aspect here is that the residents have a place-based identity, not just one based on ethnicity. This creates a strong community that can work together to fight problems and abuses typically visited on the people in these often poorer neighborhoods. They can then organize and fight not only against personal violations like police abuse, and income inequality, but also against threats to their homes—gentrification, and racism.

The report, called Roots, Raíces, looks at this integration, and it makes for a compelling story. The South L.A. "mega neighborhood" was made up of white industrial suburbs in the 1920s, and remained so until after the war. Meanwhile, "Black L.A., always a presence, grew dramatically in the war years." Riots in Watts in 1965 precipitated "white flight," and by 1970, South L.A. was 80% African American.

In the 1980s, "job loss from deindustrialization and the combination of high crime and excess policing forced many African Americans to reconsider their futures in the area," says the report. Then more riots in the 1990s finished the job, and the area opened up to immigration from Latin America. South L.A. is now two-thirds Latino.

The typical narrative of neighborhood change is one in which an incoming ethnic group "takes over" and more or less wipes away the past. [This] does not capture the shifting nature of South L.A.. The experiences of Latinos in South L.A. suggest that building on the Blackness of the area—ethnic sedimentation—is a real possibility, particularly when tied to the community-based organizations that are innovating around Black-Latino unity.

This striated mixture, where people live and mix together, leads to a pride in the area, and a sense of community based on place. The first waves of immigrants may not have mixed, but their kids have. "You know, we grew up in each other’s homes, and we grew up together," said one interviewee, a South L.A. Latino, or his African American neighbors. "So to us, it’s a similarity. They’re our people. We struggle, we consider them our people."

This is in turn leading to the Latino community taking a part in the structures, organizations, and community politics of South L.A. The result is, and will be, a strong community based not only on individual cultures, but on a shared culture of place. This makes the area strong. Instead of being fragmented, the people can stand up for their literal place in the world. Think about how a strong community pulls together in the face of outside threat—a small town, or a well-organized rich white suburb fighting against property development, for instance. Now imagine that strength in what were previously thought to be poor, broken neighborhoods. It give these places the means to fight gentrification, along with other abuses which are easier to perpetrate on anonymous individuals than on a coherent group.

The next step for South L.A. is more civic engagement, especially from Latinos, says the report. But the model is one that can work anywhere that ethnic sedimentation is happening. "The most obvious extension is to Los Angeles as a whole," says the report, but it can also spread across the entire country.

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