February is Black History Month, and we here in Los Angeles have a rich history to celebrate. Our city is founded on black pioneers – quite literally. Of the original 44 settlers of El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles, more than half were descendants of Africans slaves brought to Mexico. In fact, California’s first black governor elected in 1831, Emanuel Victoria, was a descendent.
By the 1940s, Los Angeles had more black citizens than Oakland, Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle combined, and the impact of its black citizens spanned all areas. Black artists made Los Angeles a creative mecca to rival Harlem, with famous jazz clubs like Shepp’s Playhouse drawing celebrities like Judy Garland and Count Basie. The inestimable Fatburger was founded in South Central in 1947 by a female black entrepreneur, Lovie Yancey. Paul Bunche, a native son, was the first black winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Architect Paul Revere Williams was the first black man inducted into the American Institute of Architects and designed some of our most remarkable buildings: the LAX Theme Building, the Shrine Auditorium, and the Beverly Hills Hotel. Thomas Jefferson High School graduated Alvin Ailey, Dorothy Dandridge, and Barry White. And let’s not forget our legendary black sports heroes like Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the beloved Kobe Bryant, a champion both on and off the court, who we tragically lost too early.
But what is more remarkable, is that all of this was accomplished against a backdrop of terrible discrimination. Black citizens were prohibited from being police officers and firefighters. It was illegal for them to testify in court against a white defendant. Black families were forbidden to use public pools and were even restricted from our glorious beaches. Here in Santa Monica, most beaches were “Whites Only.” Only after a hard-won fight was a small sliver designated for people of color. This beach, located where Shutters Hotel is today, is commemorated with a plaque calling it a “place of celebration and pain.”
Overt discrimination affected where people of color could live. White-owned newspapers stoked fears of integration, and homeowner associations published flyers on how to “protect your home against encroachment of non-Caucasian people.” It did not matter who you were or what you had accomplished — all that mattered was the color of your skin. Even Nat King Cole faced ferocious protests when he moved into Hancock Park.
This blatant racism was codified into law with ‘redlining’. In the 1930s, the New Deal created the Home Owners Loan Corporation which relied on local lenders to calculate investment risks so banks could determine where to give out loans. Neighborhoods were given a rating and a corresponding color: Communities with A ratings represented the best investments (green), and down the line, neighborhoods rated D were deemed the least desirable. These were colored in red, hence the term “redlining”.
Predictably, these neighborhoods were communities where non-whites lived. The stark racism of this system meant that black citizens had a hard time securing loans to buy homes in their own neighborhoods. They were left with no choice but to rent from landlords who price-gouged. Many minority neighborhoods fell into a vicious cycle of decline: Residents didn’t own the property and couldn’t get loans to repair failing housing. Without any economic stake or ability to grow wealth through property ownership, these communities were pushed further into poverty.
The unfortunate legacy of redlining is clear: Today, Los Angeles County ranks as one of the most segregated metropolitan areas, with one of the highest rent burdens for communities of color. This profound history of discrimination is one of the reasons that Black Los Angelenos make up only 9% of the population but 40% of those experiencing homelessness. The city’s long history of bias in housing, employment, and criminal justice have contributed to this sad reality.
This past year, I was honored to be a member of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s Ad Hoc Committee on Black Homelessness. We conducted a first-of-its-kind study on the reasons for the crisis of black people and homelessness, and offered solutions. The study clearly identifies institutional racism as the main driver of black homelessness as many black communities face stagnant wages and rapidly rising housing costs. For many in our city, affordable housing is simply unavailable.
This situation can bring on a sense of hopelessness. But I try to approach problems, no matter how difficult, with a problem-solving mindset. Yes, this is a real societal challenge. And yes, there is a role for all of us to play in solving it.
So how can you help? One simple word: Care. Recognize the impact of our city’s racial discrimination. Acknowledge how this history is rooted in today’s homeless crisis. View your homeless neighbors with empathy. Greet them with kindness and an understanding that there are economic forces beyond their control which might have contributed to their plight. And care. In fact, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority report on Black Homelessness found that when they asked participants “What would have kept you from becoming homeless?” many answered, in various ways: “Having someone who cared about me.”
It’s easy to be that person who cares. Support agencies and non-profits that are working to alleviate poverty and homelessness. Be an advocate for fairness by championing racially equitable policies. Help people with histories of incarceration get back on their feet by supporting legislation that restricts the use of criminal history records in employment hiring. Listen to the voices of people who are currently experiencing homelessness. Raise awareness of how racism contributes to our homeless crisis. Be a voice for tolerance and compassion.
And in a word: Care.
Va Lecia Adams Kellum, Ph.D.
President and CEO, St. Joseph Center