We thought we’d investigate the circumstances under which this project was undertaken and approved, and it turned out to be quite illuminating.
First of all, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation has guidelines for signal box art, which you can read here. Most important for our purposes is this statement:
The City has the right to reject any display that contains language or images that … denigrate a specific group based on ethnicity, national origin, age, disability, religion, gender, or sexual orientation…
This policy document also states that:
Prior to installation, the proposed decorative design, locations and duration for display must be approved by the appropriate City Council Office responsible for the district area.
And on February 11, 2016, Mitch O’Farrell did approve the project, and one day later, on February 12, 2016, no doubt after a thorough investigation of whether or not any of their policies were violated, LADOT finalized their approval.
And we know that the advance exclusion of all cartoon art, whatever that means, and of all graffiti art, doesn’t violate the letter of LADOT’s policy. It’s not like having pictures of a bunch of white hipster bands on the signal boxes of the highly multicultural Sunset & Vine BID denigrates anyone. But it certainly violates the spirit of the policy.
It’s obvious that the BID couldn’t have gotten away with a statement that only white artists’ work would be considered. That would have probably been enough to forfeit even O’Farrell’s rubber-stamp.1 However, graffiti art, cartoon art, these are hallmarks of L.A. Latino art, of L.A. African-American art. Even white Los Angeles artists who work in these styles explicitly acknowledge their Latino influences. By forbidding them from their competition, the SVBID significantly increased the probability that, even if the artist was chosen on the basis of talent alone, he or she would be white and uninfluenced by Los Angeles Latino artistic traditions.
So yeah, they didn’t say that no dark-skinned artists would be considered, but they did reduce the 71% chance that the artist would be nonwhite in a fair contest to something significantly smaller than that. The effect is no different than if they’d announced that the contest would only be open to blond people. This is especially egregious and suspicious coming from a group which is explicitly on the record as stating that they don’t want dark-skinned poor people hanging out in Hollywood at night.
Of course, it’s almost certain that whoever at the BID thought up this restriction doesn’t think of herself as racist. They never do, which is what forces their racism into these covert forms, what makes this kind of racism seem acceptable when more explicit statements of essentially the same principles would not be. For that matter, it’s exactly the kind of subterranean racism that makes the BID itself be so very white. The City of Los Angeles doesn’t have to make an explicit rule stating that only white people can be on the Board of Directors. Instead they limit membership to people who own commercial property in the District. But until relatively recently, nonwhite people couldn’t legally own commercial property in Hollywood. This fact continues to have repercussions even today as commercial property is passed down in families. In particular it has the effect of making BID Boards of Directors far, far more white than is reasonable in Los Angeles, the most racially, ethnically diverse city in the country.
Thus even without explicitly racist rules, the City has set things up so that the BIDs are run by mostly white people. And it’s no coincidence that the kind of white people who will participate in this kind of white supremacy want to skew the odds so that they don’t have to fund, don’t have to be associated with, don’t have to be exposed to, art that challenges their colonialist worldview. But that doesn’t mean that the City, in the persons of Mitch O’Farrell and the LADOT, has to approve of this kind of covert hatred and cultural cleansing. We expect better of them, although really, at this point, none of us are sure why we do.
Image of graffiti art is available from the photographer A Syn’s Flickr stream and is released under the CC BY-SA 2.0. The image of the broken gun mural is ©2016 MichaelKohlhaas.org. The rest of the images are public records in California.