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Asian Community In L.A. Fights To Keep Status Quo

Paresh Dave |
September 21, 2011 | 10:53 p.m. PDT


Chinatown in Los Angeles. (Creative Commons)
Chinatown in Los Angeles. (Creative Commons)

Leaders of L.A.’s Asian-American community want to preserve their racial group’s power in county politics by maintaining the status quo, pitting them against Latino and other leaders pushing for significant change in Los Angeles County’s political boundaries.

Leading the Asian community’s advocacy effort, the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council wants at least four out of five of the county supervisors to vote next week to largely keep intact the current supervisorial district boundaries. The supervisors each oversee a population of about 2 million people and collectively decide how to spend more than $23 billion a year for areas such as healthcare and public safety.

“We stand better with the current arrangements than under the proposals that would divide our modest clout,” said Mark Masaoka, the council’s policy coordinator.

There are about 1.4 million Asians and Pacific Islanders in L.A. county, and more than three times as many Latinos. People of Chinese, Filipino and Korean descent make up almost two-thirds of the Asian population. The council says about 340,000 Asians and Pacific Islanders would shift into new districts under the plans favored by Latino groups because they would deliver a second district dominated by Latinos.

The current lines essentially provide for three white-majority districts, one black-majority district and one Hispanic-majority district. Asians outnumber blacks in the county, but they are spread out from the San Gabriel Valley down to the South Bay. No Asian has ever been elected a supervisor.

“Given our dispersed geography, there’s no way we could fit all that into one district,” Masaoka said. “We’re not looking at that as something in the near future, as something that's achievable.”

Mike Woo, who became the first Asian-American L.A. city councilmember, said it’s impossible for an Asian to be elected to the county board.

“My general attitude is the current board of supervisors structure with five, large districts doesn’t provide good representation for Asians,” said Woo, who is now the dean of the environmental design school at Cal Poly Pomona.

Geography isn’t the only problem in gaining more clout.

“The challenge, among many challenges, is that the Asian community is not one community,” said Mariko Kahn, the council’s president. “It’s kind of artificial to say everyone from this one continent is one identity. They don’t identify as I’m Asian, they identify as I’m Chinese, I’m Indian. Because of that diversity, people don't have a sense of the different agendas at play.”

Masaoka said Asians have fought hard to gain substantial force in Supervisor Don Knabe’s district, which includes cities such as Torrance, Artesia and Diamond Bar.

“Knabe has become a strong voice for the Asian community,” Masaoka said. “The other two plans that are being presented cuts his district in half and would dilute and disperse Asian-Pacific influence.”

Latino groups support a plan that would create an Interstate 5 corridor with areas like Chinatown and Little Tokyo, separating those communities from the Asian-heavy western San Gabriel Valley.

Masaoka said Asians have remained somewhat competitive in the districts of Gloria Molina, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Michael Antonovich. Each of them serves in a district where one racial group is an overwhelming majority, which Masaoka says makes their seats very secure.

“Historically, we’ve been the player to be named later in the trade,” Masaoka said. “To create the Latino district (in 1991), they pushed a lot of the Asians to the margins. To keep the African-American district, we were pushed aside. As our populations have grown, we’ve made a more significant push.”

The division between racial groups is not unique or surprising, Woo said, since their priorities remain different. Political scientists Desmond King and Rogers Smith described this dilemma in a 2005 paper, writing that if a racial group seeks “somehow to opt out of American racial politics or to build orders of their own, again those choices may end up helping existing systems of racial inequality to remain largely unchanged.”

Masaoka said “the terrible erosion of important programs” due to budget cuts has placed everyone’s backs against the wall and added intensity to this year’s redistricting struggle.

“It’s really forced a much harsher competition between groups for resources and that's playing out in some of this redistricting,” he said. “That's strained some alliances and relationships.”

The council held a news conference Wednesday to further express their support for the redistricting plan that would keep most of the current boundaries in place.

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