Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

In Compton, a case study in shifting demographics and the political landscape

Screen shot of a race and ethnicity map of the Compton area from the New York Times'
Screen shot of a race and ethnicity map of the Compton area from the New York Times' "Mapping America: Every City, Every Block" interactive project. Blue dots represent African Americans, yellow dots represent Latinos. Each dot represents 25 people.

A post yesterday explored the political impact of a shifting and growing Latino population throughout the United States, as states with some of the biggest population gains noted in last year's census pick up Congressional seats. But there's another version of the population shift story that's unfolding in Compton at the moment, a formerly African American majority city that is now two-thirds Latino.

Like other communities in a broad swath of Los Angeles County that was once predominantly African American, Compton is in the throes of a cultural and political struggle between its traditional residents and its newer ones, as both groups compete for political clout and limited resources in a community where the 2009 per-capita income was a little over $13,000.

In December, three Latinas sued the city under the 2001 California Voting Rights Act, claiming that Compton's at-large city council elections violated Latinos' civil rights by weakening their voting power. Though the city is now majority Latino, all four city council members and the mayor are African American. Since 2000, half a dozen Latino candidates have run for office and lost.

Yesterday, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge denied a request by the plaintiffs to delay Compton's city elections until a trial determined the outcome of the lawsuit. A primary election is set for April primary, with the general election in June.

The idea of the lawsuit is to change the way the city votes, moving from the at-large system to district-restricted voting, which the lawsuit alleges would give Latino candidates a better chance as voters choose candidates within a district. At the same time, only 7 percent of Compton's voting-age population turned out for a 2009 primary election, according to the Los Angeles Times. Critics of the lawsuit have pointed to this and wondered whether that's the real problem, and how much of a factor is the inability of some Latino residents to vote.

What's happening in Compton has happened to one degree or other in neighboring communities. A 2007 piece in the Los Angeles Times examined the political landscape in neighboring Lynwood, where city politics have been plagued by scandals and where, after Latinos gained political power (four of five current Lynwood council members are now Latino, the fifth white), tensions continued:

A decade ago, when blacks controlled the city's political landscape, Latinos complained that they were being denied city jobs and lucrative municipal contracts. Now Latinos dominate and African Americans complain of being frozen out.

The problem is emblematic of emerging tensions throughout Los Angeles County, where the Latino population has surged as African American numbers have dwindled.

The tensions are playing out in cities such as Carson, Compton and Inglewood, where traditional black political muscle -- concentrated largely among older working- and middle-class homeowners -- is showing signs of weakening as a generation of Latinos reaches voting age.

The situation in Compton, in a way, may also exemplify how a growing Latino population, as inferred by early 2010 census reports of population gains in states with large numbers of Latino residents, doesn't necessarily translate into more political clout, at least not yet. The polling firm Latino Decisions pointed this out in an analysis earlier this week:
The difficulty for Latinos in the reapportionment and representation process is this: states will gain legislative representation due to surges in Latino population, yet millions contributing to the net population growth are not able to vote due to age or citizenship status.

One-third of all Latino American citizens are too young to vote, and another 12.8 million Latinos are not eligible due to citizenship status.

About a third of Compton's population is under 18, and close to a quarter are non-citizens. Still, some question whether better voter outreach among eligible Latino voters in the city could be enough to gain a council seat. One man posted this comment on KPCC's website after the Patt Morrison show recently featured a segment on the Compton lawsuit:
60% Latinos with only 7% voter participation shows me that the Latino community has not used all the avenues available before going the lawsuit route. Exhaust all that and then sue.