USC Price School of Public Policy

Myers’ paper focuses on shifting demographic trends 25 years after LA civil unrest

June 2, 2017


Dowell Myers presented data on L.A. County population trends during the April conference, “Forward LA: Race, Arts, and Inclusive Placemaking after the 1992 Civil Unrest.” (Photo by Tom Queally)

By Eliza Gallo

It has now been 25 years since civil unrest roiled Los Angeles, triggered by the Rodney King verdict and the shooting death of teenager Latasha Harlins. In his new paper, “From Boom Crash Injustice to the New Maturity of Los Angeles,” sponsored by the Price Center for Social Innovation, USC Price School of Public Policy Professor Dowell Myers explores the roots of those racial tensions and the demographic changes that have shaped the city since. He finds a city transformed, with new priorities to focus on in the next quarter century.

“Today, the great majority of young adults are native Californians, unlike in 1992 after a decade of frantic population growth from other states and nations. This has urgent policy significance,” Myers said. “Our new young adults are fully our responsibility from birth. Continued neglect is no longer an option. Now that the massive baby boom generation is aging into senior years, we are desperately dependent on our youth to help carry the local economy.”

Difficult conditions

Myers said that Angelenos under 50 may not remember the extreme conditions in the late 1980s and 1990s which gave birth to the riots. African American residents were reacting to accumulated court and police injustices, but they were also suffering from a sudden drop in employment that hit L.A. and black communities especially hard. In the 1980s, Los Angeles County had experienced a rise in foreign and domestic migration, and its population boom was paired with plentiful aerospace jobs as a result of the Soviet-American arms race; however, when the Soviet Union fell, many defense jobs went with it. Unemployment soared, home prices plunged and L.A. entered a recession that was particularly severe.

“The great majority of every racial or ethnic group saw life in Los Angeles turning for the worse. But it is likely that the downturn for young African Americans left them feeling most despairing and abandoned,” Myers wrote in the paper.

Also contributing to the L.A. civil unrest was a relatively new phenomenon: the power of amateur video. “The videotaped police beating of Rodney King foreshadowed by some 20 years the kinds of visual evidence that supported the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Myers wrote. “Today we have a cell phone video recorder in every pocket, but that was not the case in 1991.”

Since the civil unrest became national news in 1992, L.A. has experienced significant demographic changes that make it a much different place. Younger Angelenos “may not appreciate how tremendous a turnaround has been achieved in many respects,” Myers said.

Homegrown population

Myers’ research found that over the past two decades, L.A.’s population growth has slowed sharply, reducing population pressure on established communities. Immigration has subsided to a surprising degree, and the pace of racial change has also moderated. In addition, the majority of L.A. residents — including African Americans and Latinos — are now California-born. Since 1992, L.A. has shifted from a destination for migrants, either from other states or other countries, to a place where people live their entire lives.

Myers wrote that these trends imply “a longer period ahead in the 21st century of relative racial balance.” He also noted in the paper: “There is no one group that dominates, and multiethnic coalition politics that emerged long ago in Los Angeles will be sustained for the future.”

“It is sobering how fast 25 years go by,” Myers said. “But the changes possible in that length of time are tremendous. We have a good chance to double the improvements of the last 25 years in the next.”