What Happens When 1,000 Strangers Talk Race In L.A.

Angelenos gathered at 100 dinners this week through a city-backed initiative to spark civic and civil dialogue.

LOS ANGELES, CA—As the seven diners passed the roast chicken and collards, Veronica Perez cleared her throat. “I have a tough question that’s a little bit hard for me to ask,” she said. “Do we know why it is that homeless people are disproportionately African American in this city?”It was a tough question. Los Angeles is facing a historic homelessness crisis. And in many contexts, especially in the company of strangers, bringing up race can be uncomfortable. Yet race was the main course inside Perez’s ninth-floor apartment in the downtown Arts District on Tuesday night. It’s what these seven Angelenos, who had never previously met, had gathered to talk about over a catered meal of soul food.In other dining rooms across the city this week, some 1,000 Angelenos are joining them, talking about how skin color shapes their lives in this city over 100 meals in private homes around town. It’s part of embRACE L.A., a city council initiative to open up civic and civil dialogues about race.
Anthony Foster, a coordinator at Community Coalition, a local nonprofit partnering with the city to facilitate the conversations, jumped in to field Perez’s question. Foster, who is black, cited L.A.’s growing unaffordability, which disproportionately affects people of color. Coupled with the rates of incarceration and low access to mental health care, “the system makes it hard for you to get on your feet, and stay on your feet,” he said.That led Perez, a public affairs professional, to wonder if the city should look at homelessness as a civil rights issue. “If the demographics looked different, would there have been earlier calls to action?” she wondered.“I think that’s why this is getting more attention now,” said Ernesto Hidalgo, who works in social-impact real-estate development and grew up in South Central L.A. “Yes, there are more homeless. But also the complexion of the folks we’re seeing now is a little bit different.”Launched in 2016, the first of the embRACE L.A. dinners was piloted by city council president Herb Wesson at his own home last spring, echoing the work of the chef-artist (and CityLab contributor) Tunde Wey, whose work Blackness in America brought similar dialogue-driven meals to cities around the country. This year marks L.A.’s first round of municipally sponsored dinners. The events are free to residents, who applied via an online process in March. Demand turned out to be more than double the seats available, so guests were selected by lottery. Volunteer hosts offered up dining rooms in affluent and lower-income communities alike, from majority-black neighborhoods in South L.A. to the ranch-like compounds of Topanga Canyon, which is mostly white. “That signaled to us that there’s a real hunger to talk about race in this city,” said Vanessa Rodriguez, the communications director for Wesson’s office.It was revealing, then, that the first of two hours of the conversation on Tuesday night did not focus on race explicitly, but on the record number of individuals living on L.A. streets. Perhaps that is the beauty of the “100 Dinners” concept: It is not meant to prod participants towards a particular lesson or policy idea. The goal is simply to create space for neighbors to talk frankly about race—and at this dinner, inequality, perhaps because so many participants lived in gentrifying areas downtown, where the issue of homelessness is hardest to ignore.
After all, even in one of the most liberal states in the country, in a city of kaleidoscopic diversity, L.A. is hardly inoculated against extremes of poverty, segregation, and racial conflict. On that last item, one event looms large in the city’s history—the L.A. riots, 26 years ago this month. Introducing himself to the table, Hidalgo spoke about how his memory of that violent uprising, in which the mixed-race neighborhood of Koreatown burned after the acquittal of police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King, still serves as a flashpoint for understanding the complexity of racial dynamics and economic access in L.A. “The problem back then was a lack of investment in the community,” said Hidalgo. “Fast forward to today, that still exists in a lot of L.A., with the added complexity of gentrification, displacement, and the housing crisis.”

“We’re not all having dinners together.”

But with a fraying social safety net, affordability doesn’t equal stability, said Emily Coldiron, a program manager at a nonprofit that works with children. Coldiron, who’s multiracial, drew on her experience being raised in Wichita, Kansas, by a single mother who faced multiple evictions. “I think the U.S. as a whole has this approach of, ‘Oh, you’re having a problem, this is your fault, you need to deal with this on your own,’” she said. “There’s just not a lot of support. We’re not all having dinners together.”

Coldiron’s point seemed to hit on a possible limitation of these dinners: At least for now, they’re self-selecting. A number of participants at Tuesday’s meal remarked on this, acknowledging that everyone at the table came with a range of generally progressive political views. Each participant also happened to identify as a person of color. That wasn’t on purpose, Rodriguez said, but “merely reflected L.A.’s diversity.” Most had professional backgrounds in nonprofits, mental health, medicine, and law.

In some ways, hosting a table of politically like-minded individuals was productive, Foster said when asked after the dinner ended. People tend to be open up more when they know they won’t be attacked or critiqued. On the other hand, he noted, there may have also been a benefit to having more conservative attendees, people who are less educated on racial issues, or indeed, more white people, at the table. “It would have been interesting to work through these issues with folks who aren’t already aligned with what we’re trying to do,” Foster said.

In the future, he thought that city council could do targeted outreach to bring even more diverse voices to break bread. Rodriguez said that this is a possibility for future series—and that this was just one of 100 dinners.

Still, a number of Tuesday night’s diners said afterward that they felt more empowered to talk about race with other people in their lives. Hom said that he had come to the dinner expecting to find more divisions than shared experiences. But he left feeling like he had more in common with his fellow Angelenos than not. With that knowledge, “tomorrow, I feel like I can start working on making things better,” he said. Participants had come up with many strategies for building a more cohesive, compassionate L.A.: visiting unfamiliar neighborhoods, voting in diverse political representation, speaking up when a fellow human is being harassed, volunteering for social causes, and even watching TV shows that subtly bridge social divides, like “Queer Eye.” (“That show is kind of mind-blowing,” said Tom Chang, a former mental health professional whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan.)

As the night came to a close, caterers washed dishes as Perez packed up leftover cheese and crackers to send home with willing takers, and a few diners lingered to keep chewing over dangling threads of the conversation. No, the dinner did not produce radical solutions to move more people off the streets—nothing akin to Mayor Eric Garcetti’s declaration of a “shelter crisis” the same day. But Foster felt that the conversation might have nudged some hearts and minds by talking about the how people find themselves living in homelessness, and how structural racism may play a role. He expressed hope that these participants will now feel more empowered to spark their own conversations with other people in their lives.

The next night, Foster would guide a conversation among a much larger—and whiter—group near Malibu. But no matter the racial makeup of the participants, he said, “with issues that are so huge and institutionalized, people are going to shift their views on a one-by-one basis,” he said.

The key was to keep faith in dialogue. “Whether they’re like-minded or not,” he said, “just having a conversation begins many more like it.”