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Reflections in Black and White

Part I

In 1987 me, Gary and his father, Dikes, moved from Gary’s boyhood home in South L.A. on Flower near Slauson to the house that we have occupied for the past nearly 30 years. At that time to reference the neighborhood it went by the main intersections of “Pico and Fairfax” or “Pico and Hauser” because its actual name “Mid-City” didn’t mean much to people. We moved there because it was central, had great homes, and because, for decades, the neighborhood was able to maintain a population of homeowners that was, for the most part, half black and half white. This was neither the result of design or happenstance, but rather, determination.

In 1960s Los Angeles, as fair housing laws opened opportunities and restrictive covenants were outlawed, there was a lot of push-back from those who preferred the way things had been. Some of that was violent, as you can read in Andrea’s post and even more in her dissertation. Some of that was opportunist, as in the case of the fear-mongering real estate practice known as blockbusting; and some deeply institutional, as the aligned practice of “redlining” by assessors, banks, and insurance agencies.

Other efforts were legislative, as in the case of California’s Proposition 14 (1964) , a state-wide ballot measure that amended the California State Constitution, nullifying the Rumford Fair Housing Act (California 1963) which prohibited racial discrimination in housing in California. Prop 14 was ultimately declared unconstitutional in 1966, but the sting of its impact was in no small part responsible for the Watts Riots of 1965.

But in Mid-City there was a united front of white and black homeowners who hung together to produce and maintain an integrated neighborhood. Many worked in public sector, unionized jobs where they had come accustomed to working and being together.  Now neighbors, together they fought to integrate L.A.’s shamefully segregated schools and helped get Tom Bradley, the first and only black mayor of Los Angeles, elected in 1973.

And so it was, black and white together, when we moved there.   Soon our household expanded to include two children who benefited from the local Community Magnet School, organized by those same folks, maintaining those shared values and intentions.

Like parents of black youth everywhere in this country, the challenges of raising a black boy in Los Angeles could not be erased or ignored simply by changing our zip code. When a black 17-year-old boy was killed by a drive-by at the very bus stop bench where our son Miles sat every morning to catch a school bus, it prompted Gary to write an article entitled “Uncertain Territory: the Promise and Peril of Raising a Young Man in Los Angeles”.  As true now as then, its one of my favorites for its authentic and personal account of the way things are.

Fast forward 14 years. Rising real estate values have changed the complexion of the neighborhood population; it is still mixed, but no longer half black and half white. The new wave of neighborhood organizations revived the names of the original development tracts, so we no longer live in “Mid-City” (actually we do), but rather, “Wilshire Vista”. The neighborhood seems safer to me, but not to my now grown black son and his friends who never know when they may be “stopped and frisked.”

On this particular day, I’m in Millbrook, New York, visiting Brook Lehman at the Watershed Center, when I get an email from Gary:

Subject line: Exciting morning:

Your son calls me outside and there’s a platoon of uniformed cops waiting there – one has his gun drawn but puts it away when I pop out.  The he “fits the description” bit — though admittedly there have been burglaries in our area and the descriptions have generally been young black men.  The detectives show up, even the chopper swoops overhead for a few passes.  They try to tell me to wait inside but I wasn’t having it.  I stood close as they handcuffed Miles and ran him for warrants.  One cop, Hopkins, in civvies (as I think they’ve been canvassing the neighborhood on the lookout for the burglars) a kind of a TV-looking dude with shades and a bucket hat chats me up.  Says he recognized my name from L.A. Noir.  Hilarious.  Another cop says “is it okay to search your backyard?”…I tell him as long as you have a search warrant.  Jeez.

 They let him go. Whew.

Part II

Now fast forward to August of last year, when the horribly common-place death of a young black man by police fire in Ferguson becomes a tipping point for righteous rage and then much more expansive consideration summarized in a phrase that says it all in what it negates: “Black Lives Matter”.

And it was within that still-moving moment that Gary and I recently made a trip to the South. The impetus was Gary’s role as guest of honor at Shadowcon, which took place in West Memphis (on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River) and kind of reminded me of the earlier, humbler Comic-Con of about thirty years ago when we first met. It was the first time I had ever met Southern geeks. Not so different than Southern California geeks, with less flash and a more family atmosphere to their costume contest. When Gary wasn’t performing his duties on a panel or judging a costume contest, we visited the Stax Museum and ate soul food.

With no responsibilities to speak of, I was able to spend the better part of that Saturday at the National Civil Rights Museum, which surrounds the preserved Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. It is a magnificent place for learning and reflecting about the nature of our nation, tracing the history of the civil rights movement from the 17th century to today. The visit was a fantastic complement to that month’s reading choice of our friends’ book club, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist  (highly recommended), and my perpetual musings on how best to teach an economic development class (currently, “Sustainable Urban Economies” at Antioch University).

Visiting a museum alone provides a lot of musing space and inevitably results in conversations with strangers. In one of the exhibit rooms where a video of one of Martin Luther King’s speeches was playing, a young black man was almost ecstatically reciting along, word for word, in unison with King. As I watched the man, an older, very tall African-American man approached me to explain, “He’s visiting from France. He’s reciting what he learned in school.” As we continued the conversation, I learned that my new acquaintance had lived in L.A. for many years, we talked about some of the L.A. folks like James M. Lawson  who kept appearing throughout the exhibits, and talked about how difficult it was to engage in useful dialogue about race (or economics or policy and many other things) in America without the historical framework contained in this museum. “The problem is,” he concluded, “that too many people think the civil rights movement happened 300 years ago.”

But not everyone. Last week, during a round of check-in’s on a Board call, friend and colleague Gopal Dayeneni told us that when his kids went to the MLK march and rally holding various versions of “Black Lives Matter” signs, they ended up interviewed on the local TV news. Here’s 10-year-old Ila’s interview:

Reporter: Why you are here?

Ila: Because even though slavery ended a long time ago, black people still are not free.

6 Comments

  • Claire Hirsch says:

    Excellent and very moving!
    Claire

  • Gilda Haas says:

    Thanks Claire!

  • Peter D. says:

    Nicely done. Elegant, as you say.

  • Cynthia says:

    Gilda, this is a very powerful and moving piece–on many levels. Reading about Miles gave me chills.

  • Jorge H. Rodriguez says:

    Gilda I sat here reading your article. It stopped me in my tracks to reflect on some things have not changed. How we need to keep educating people about injustice in America and still protest in the streets. Because that is one of the way we have made changes over the decades of resistance. But is was inspirational thinking about the young man from France being excited about reciting along with the video about MLK. And the young boy the sone of Gopal knowing exactly why he was at the rally and being so articulate about his convictions. Thanks so much for the article. It inspires me to do more and not give up.

    PAZ ! Jorge

  • Peter Olney says:

    Gilda,

    What a stunning and disturbing story. Thanks for sharing your experience and your perspective.

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