OPINION: Years after segregation, south Phoenix Latinos and African-Americans both fight for representation on the City Council.

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A lot has changed since African-Americans and Latinos weren’t allowed to live north of the Salt River, segregating them to the slums of south Phoenix.

Thankfully, nobody can legally stop them from renting or buying a home anywhere they want in a city that has grown to 1.6 million people – the nation’s fifth most populous.

But having the legal right to integrate with the rest of their fellow Phoenicians isn’t the same as having the economic and political means to do so.

So, south Phoenix remains largely the same as it was during segregationist days, made up of Latinos and African-Americans, a number of them who continue to live in poverty-stricken pockets.

This year, African-Americans and Latinos are facing each other in the race to represent District 8, the south Phoenix City Council seat held by an African-American for 40 years until Kate Gallego broke that streak.

Gallego, who was married to Rep. Ruben Gallego, was the first non-Black candidate to represent the district since 1971 when Calvin Goode first joined the council. She resigned last year for the mayoral bid.

African-Americans seeking south Phoenix council seat 

African-Americans now see the March 12 city election as their chance to retake the seat, which Goode once said belonged to them.

Let’s forgive Goode for that sense of entitlement because he’s of a different an era – one when apparent backroom deals were made to give the district covering most of south Phoenix and downtown to African-Americans.

Goode served on the council from 1971 to 1994. Two other African-American candidates, Cody Williams and Michael Johnson, succeeded him and served from 1994 through 2013.

Now, Johnson is attempting a comeback. Three other African-American candidates - Roosevelt elementary school district board member Lawrence Robinson, Pastor Warren Stewart, Jr., and businessman Onesimus A. Strachan - are also vying for that seat.

African-Americans make up roughly 15 percent of the district’s 183,000 population. Latinos? A whopping 60 percent.  

No doubt, Latinos also see an opportunity. Enter area-native Gilbert Arvizu and activist Carlos García. Another aspirant, media strategist Camaron Stevenson, rounds out the long list of candidates.

The race may be a yawner for the rest of Phoenicians, but it is one heck of a contest given the area's historical context.

The political fight offers a glimpse of modern-day segregation. It really reflects how the racial marginalization of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s still is playing out in 2019.

Why do African-Americans feel entitled to the District 8 seat? Because the majority of them have remained in south Phoenix despite the city’s lifting its legal restriction of them being able to move elsewhere.

Call it a sense of a pride, a cultural defiance to remain in the place they were forced to live. But it is also an economic reality.

South Phoenix has experienced a housing boom near South Mountain, but a huge swath between downtown and the mountain features mostly aging – some of them ramshackle – homes.

The residents squeezed between downtown’s posh high-rises and half-million-dollars mountain homes can’t afford to buy elsewhere. They’re left with struggling public schools, failing infrastructure, barren public parks, and for dining options, mostly fast-food joints.

You get the point.

You can’t blame African-Americans who live there wanting to have a voice on the council about the future of the only area they’ve called home.

But you can’t blame Latinos, either, who feel they’re the majority and thus deserve to have a voice, too.

Ultimately, forget about the sense of entitlement. That won’t cut it in modern-day Phoenix. Whoever gets the most votes, wins. Period.

The victor carries the burdens – no, the hopes and aspirations – of generations of Phoenicians who have long been economically oppressed and isolated from the rest of the city. In that regard, the District 8 office carries heavy weight.

Elvia Díaz is an editorial columnist for The Republic and azcentral. Reach her at 602-444-8606 or elvia.diaz@arizonarepublic.com. Follow her on Twitter, @elviadiaz1.

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