LOS ANGELES (Feb. 23)
Most leaders of the Jewish and other minority communities are out of touch with their constituents and try to rally them with constant warnings that the sky is falling. The leaders keep looking in the rearview mirror, refighting long-resolved battles and failing to spot the real issues ahead.
Their default position is to complain about how bad things are for the members of their own group, consigning them to a state of perpetual victimhood.
These stinging criticisms come from two seasoned veterans of decades of anti-racist and anti-anti-Semitic battles who believe that their struggles on behalf of Jews, blacks and gays largely have been won. They believe it’s time to move on.
One of these veterans is David Lehrer, who worked for the Anti-Defamation League for 27 years, mostly as Pacific-Southwest regional director in Los Angeles. During his tenure, he helped draft some of California’s early hate-crime statutes.
The other is Joe Hicks, who has evolved from a fiery black nationalist in the 1960s to past executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Committee.
In late 2002, the two men formed Community Advocates Inc, online at www.cai-la.org. Hicks describes the group as “an unorthodox human relations agency, which challenges old assumptions.”
The two set up their organization using $5,000 of their own money to rent a modest office in downtown Los Angeles. Lehrer, a liberal Democrat, is president, and Hicks, a centrist Republican, is vice president.
Though their political, religious and ethnic backgrounds are different, the two men share the conviction that since the 1960s American society generally has overcome the unvarnished racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia of the past.
They believe that the gathering and classification of hate crimes has become a cottage industry, which has blown the problem out of proportion — and that well-meant, high-minded dialogues among Jewish, African-American and Latino officials are passe.
They are not naive enough to think that all prejudice and hatred have vanished magically, but they believe that civil rights groups’ tendency to focus on the grievances of the past obscures the real problems facing America in the 21st century.
The media-savvy duo have advanced their criticisms through Op-Ed articles in the Los Angeles Times and other publications, TV and radio appearances, speeches and panel discussions.
Although the concrete cases to illustrate their points have been drawn mainly from their observations of multiethnic and far-flung Los Angeles, Lehrer and Hicks assert that the same misguided approaches and leadership failures hold for the rest of the country.
The two men have been more successful in making the case for the failures of politically correct ethnic leaders than in convincing journalists and politicians of the real problems on their group’s agenda.
To Lehrer, continuous involvement in the daily problems facing the cities in which Jews live should top the communal agenda, instead of the constant preoccupation with Holocaust remembrance, anti-Semitism and Israel.
“Too many Jews who live in gated residential enclaves and send their kids to private schools never cross the boundaries to other parts of the metropolis,” he says. “The problem is particularly acute in sprawling Los Angeles, but it also exists everywhere else.”
Hicks argues that the African American community must assume responsibility for its own failures, including pervasive black-on-black violence, instead of blaming white racism.
Even in integrated middle-class neighborhoods, black students are four years behind their white and Asian counterparts by the time they finish high school, Hicks says.
He puts the blame on lack of parental interest, too much TV watching, too little reading, and a culture that ridicules studious blacks as “acting white.”
“There has to be a national campaign by black politicians and clergy to deal with these root causes,” says Hicks. “Bill Cosby is talking about them, but why not Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton or the Congressional Black Caucus?”
Mel Levine, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, largely agrees with the Lehrer-Hicks criticisms, “though some may be overly broad and not entirely fair,” he says.
“David and Joe have identified what our urgent priorities should be and their comment about living in gated enclaves is quite valid,” adds Levine, a former U.S. congressman.
However, he points out: “Jewish leaders are more mindful of the priorities than they are given credit for,” noting that the Los Angeles community supports Koreh L.A., a literacy program for public schools — and there is considerable outreach to mostly Hispanic students in Catholic schools.
None of society’s real problems, even if identified, lend themselves to easy solutions, but Community Associates says it is making a start with two projects.
The Youth Leadership Academy brings together promising ninth-graders from public and private schools and from all parts of the city for 10 four-hour sessions for studies, discussions and joint projects.
Lehrer sees the academy’s graduates as the city’s “future bridge builders,” who will continue to speak to each other across ethnic and religious boundaries after they have grown up.
A second project, Big Sunday, is a city-wide volunteer day, the one day each year when youngsters and adults from every part of the diverse city go to otherwise strange neighborhoods to work for non-profit causes and organizations.
For starters, last year 5,000 turned out. An even larger number is expected for this year’s Big Sunday, set for May 15.