It was a dispiriting spectacle of political theater at City Hall on Friday. Twenty years after the L.A. Riots set this city ablaze and laid bare racial animosities and economic disparities for the entire world to see, during the City Council’s discussion on redistricting, we saw the same groups pitted against one another for the benefit of the those in power, clawing for the same scant resources and begging to be heard, even as the fix was already in and the votes had long been tabulated.

The African American church leaders of the 9th and 8th districts were there in passionate defense of keeping these districts intact, one after another saying that it is a matter of public safety, economic equality and plain-old fairness. Little Tokyo, a tiny player in the district, expressed the same opinion: keep us intact and in the 9th.

On the other side, the largely Latino base of Boyle Heights saying a united downtown under Councilmember Jose Huizar will be to their benefit and the benefit of the greater community.

And where were the Asian Americans? For the first two and a half hours of public comments, wholly invisible and unheard. As Grace Yoo, the impassioned leader of the Korean American Coalition explained to me, during that time they were simply trying to get through the front door. Unmistakable in their bright yellow T-shirts, they had been blocked from entering until the proceedings were well under way.

Able to bring hundreds of seniors, residents and business owners to voice their opinions at public hearings on redistricting, in the end, Koreatown was barely able to get in, let alone have their voices heard and reflected in the decisions made. And as they have said, it’s not just about Korean Americans, it’s about empowering other low-income, limited-English communities, including Latinos, Bangladeshis, Filipinos and Mongolians. A silver lining in this mess is in the political awakening and mobilization of Asians, the fastest-growing segment of Los Angeles.

If ever there was a sad metaphor for racial politics in the City of L.A. circa 2012, this was it. You could add gender politics to that mix as well. To see Councilmember Jan Perry interrupted, dismissed and belittled during Friday’s council meeting was to get a taste of what it’s like to be the lone woman trying to be heard in the boys’ club.

In 2012, weren’t we supposed to be beyond this? Redistricting is a messy process and having those in power create and staff the commission that draws the district lines invites this kind of horse-trading and behind-the-scenes brokering. It was a bit disturbing to hear the councilmembers congratulating Tony Cardenas on his expected leap to the U.S. House of Representatives, even as there were hundreds sitting there simply asking that these same elected representatives not tear their neighborhoods apart. It’s the same tired song and dance: power begets more power.

But why is it that when the winners and losers are tabulated, it is always the less fortunate, the disenfranchised, and yes, the Asians who are not heard? Honestly, I’m still smarting from the institutional wave of support that went to new Councilmember Joe Buscaino in his lopsided victory against Warren Furutani. That no one from the Los Angeles Times editorial board to the City Council could see that an engaged, active Asian American like Furutani would be a breath of fresh air on this elected body was incredibly disheartening.

Last Friday, that none but Perry and Bernard Parks could see fit to take a breath and slow down this rushed redistricting process to fix what was wrong with the redrawn map was equally discouraging.

So what will it take? Koreatown brought out the numbers, hundreds came out and spoke last Friday and at prior redistricting meetings, but that wasn’t enough. Will a lawsuit expose the deals and open the doors of power? We’ll see.

•         •         •
USC AND NISEI DEGREES: Leave it to USC to muddle what should be a moment of celebration. Three years ago, USC was conspicuous in its refusal to grant degrees to the Nisei who were denied their degrees due to Executive Order 9066. As I said back then, of any university on the West Coast, USC has much to atone for in their treatment of the Nisei during World War II.

Under the leadership of Chancellor Rufus B. von KleinSmid, USC refused to release academic transcripts to the Japanese American students who were forced to leave in an atmosphere of racial hysteria and prejudice. No doubt this vindictive gesture affected the course of many lives.

While it’s commendable that they are granting degrees to living Nisei, I agree with Jon Kaji that the honorary alumni status to those who have passed on is simply not enough, given USC’s treatment of the Nisei during the war.

You could argue that by simply waiting several years after most other colleges conducted their ceremonies, USC has conveniently eliminated many who would have justly received their diplomas all these years later.

It’s remarkable how rigid they are in following their rules about granting degrees, but when it came to these young students, treated so unfairly, rules of equity and justice certainly didn’t apply.

To the powers that be at USC, degrees for all Nisei living and deceased would be a start. I would also add that an apology for refusing to release transcripts and an honest accounting for this disgraceful chapter in the university’s history would be a remedy that a first-class educational institution like USC must undertake.

Gwen Muranaka is Rafu English editor-in-chief and may be contacted at Ochazuke is a staff-written column. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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  1. Thanks, Gwen, for this powerful and insightful column. While the redistricting process seemed to indicate that no one was listening, I predict that these new voices of protest are not going to go away quietly. Could this be the Asian American equivalent of Prop 187 — an event that leads to political engagement and empowerment for our community?

  2. We are reminded of how vitally important the Nikkei press is to our community after reading your powerful editorial on USC’s callous treatment of its Nisei students during WWII and present day, framed by your observation of the paucity of Asian American advocates in LA city politics. Thank you for being there and giving voice to issues that concern us.

  3. Please continue to unveil these curtains of bias and favoritism. You possess the moral high ground…a force that never dissipates.