Change in Majority Minority

June 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: One movie this summer has gone way beyond intergalactic travel. In the recently released “Crash,” the polyglot city of Los Angeles is depicted in a state of auto thrombosis, a city of smash and slur and off-the-chart blood pressure.

Los Angeles was once in such a hurry it couldn’t stop long enough to give its full name. Post-war L.A. was never a city in a conventional sense. It was defined more by its extremities than by its center. L.A. had a vast and inclusive idea of itself, an idea orbited by speeding automobiles. And then, L.A. became America’s premier global city, the deplorable idea, the prophetic idea, with freeway exits leading to separate languages. It worked as long as traffic kept moving. But the city in a hurry is now at a crawl.

Even as “Crash” was packing the multiplex, L.A. elected its first Hispanic mayor in over a century. Antonio Villaraigosa won a decisive victory by coursing a coalition among the many racial and ethnic groups and freeway exits in America’s most complicated city.

Four years ago, Villaraigosa’s campaign derailed when a majority of African-American voters endorsed the white candidate. Many in L.A. saw that black vote as a vote against the Hispanic descendants, a vote that exposed a rivalry that had passed largely unremarked in public celebrations of multicultural California.

Compton, South Central, Watts, in Los Angeles — as elsewhere in the United States, the African-American neighborhoods are becoming Spanish-speaking.

It has not helped black-Hispanic relations that the U.S. Census Bureau has persistently described the numerical ascendancy of Hispanics as a diminishment of African Americans.

For years, the bureau predicted that Hispanics were destined to replace — that is the word the census bureau used — Hispanics were destined to replace African Americans as the countries largest minority, this despite the fact that the two groups are not comparable. African Americans constitute a racial group. Hispanics constitute a cultural or an ethnic group.

It did not help black and Hispanic relations when Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox, someone who should and does know about American social politics, said that Mexican immigrants are willing to do the work that not even blacks want to do.

Villaraigosa did not cast himself as the Hispanic candidate in Los Angeles. He won by insisting that he would be mayor of the entire city. Villaraigosa did not win the Asian vote. He won the African-American vote.

In the movie “Crash,” the only scene of erotic union is between two police officers, an African American and a Latino. The fragmented city even intrudes upon their bedroom. Cultural stereotype is foreplay.

JENNIFER ESPOSITO: You want a lesson? I’ll give you a lesson. How about a geography lesson? My father’s Puerto Rican. My mother’s from El Salvador. Neither one of those is Mexico.

DON CHEADLE: Well, then, I guess the big mystery is, who gathered all those remarkably different cultures together and taught them all how to park their cars on their lawns?

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: L.A. can possibly represent either a new global civilization with races and cultures meeting, or, as in “Crash,” a defeated ideal. As a Californian, I refuse to give up my optimism about Los Angeles. L.A. is connected by blood and by memory and phone cards and Western Union and drugs and saints in the shape of eyes, to every city and history of the world. If you want to know what it is like to be alive in 2005, what better place to be than L.A.? I’m Richard Rodriguez.