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Racism dries up in the desert heat

When Henry Hearns moved to Lancaster in the 1960s, the city's reputation for racism compelled him to go door to door, warning neighbors that he was black.

"I wanted them to know I love my wife, I love my children and I don't want any problem," he said.

But the prejudice he anticipated faded as the years passed, he said. Hearns, a pastor, was even, for a time, the city's only black mayor.

His experience points to a little-known distinction of this high desert city: Lancaster, population 157,000, leads Los Angeles County in black-white integration.

A Times analysis has found that Lancaster has more blocks with a "substantial" mix — meaning that at least a quarter of the residents are white and a quarter are black — than any neighborhood in the city of Los Angeles, or any other city in the county.

Some of Lancaster's integration probably came about by accident: Residents bought tracts in master-planned subdivisions without knowing who their neighbors would be. They "bought blind," as Darren Parker, head of the Antelope Valley Human Relations Task Force, put it. When housing prices slumped, no one could afford to move.

The result — block after block of integrated neighborhoods and no concentrated black "inner city" to speak of — is a rare exception in the county, where, nearly half a century after the civil rights movement, blacks and whites remain mostly segregated in terms of housing.

In Lancaster, integration has been a mixed blessing. Although many residents say it has improved understanding, tensions surface periodically: In the 1990s, skinheads' attacks on blacks drew national attention, and more recently, civil rights groups accused officials of waging "an unrelenting war" against Lancaster's Section 8 housing recipients, who are mostly black.

The current mayor, R. Rex Parris, who is white — as are nearly all of the city's elected leaders — has driven the effort to scrutinize Section 8 tenants for violations that could get them evicted. Civil rights advocates have sued, and federal authorities have launched an investigation into the role of sheriff's deputies in the program.

Parris insists his efforts are supported by all races and points to a recent survey that found Section 8 was the top issue to residents, surpassing even education. "I can't tell you how painful it is to me that I'm viewed as a racist for telling the truth about what is going on," he said.

Locals, both black and white, say the city's racial problems have at times been unfairly exaggerated. "The embrace of diversity has become something natural with those choosing to come here to live," Parker said.

They view Lancaster's mix as an asset, another reason its quality of life is superior to that "down below" — local slang for Los Angeles.

"There's no South Central, no East L.A., no Koreatown up here," said Timothy Wiley, 61, an African American member of the city's design commission who is married to a Latina.

"It's nice we have all the different varieties," said Jeannette Elsey, who is white and lives in a bungalow-style home on the city's east side.

Once nearly all white, Lancaster had become 20% black by 2010 as upwardly mobile African Americans from Los Angeles moved in.

The pattern is not unique. Lancaster is, in some ways, representative of a kind of fast-growing exurban magnet for people of all colors seeking lower-priced housing. Elsey, for example, bought her home for $106,000.

But in Los Angeles County, Lancaster's black-white integration is rivaled by only a few other locales, including Altadena, Long Beach and parts of L.A.'s mid-Wilshire area, none of which is as large or populous as the high desert city.

Wilbert Jones, who is black, said he once believed the hype that the Antelope Valley is a "racist place," but he changed his mind once he moved there. He noticed many mixed-race couples, and eventually married Lura, who is white. "The place is fantastic," he said as the newlyweds strolled through the local farmers market.

But black newcomers also described trade-offs. The city's mostly white leadership, and police practices, were of particular concern.

Johnathon Ervin, an African American Air Force reservist and a onetime mayoral candidate, said he was stopped on the street a few months ago by deputies who said he resembled someone cited in a warrant. He "laughed it off, but it was really demeaning," he said.

Some white residents lament the area's changes, although they were hesitant to speak openly of race. "Houses have sold, gone downhill and sold again," Judy Kempel, a white substitute teacher, said of the neighborhood where she has lived more than 40 years. "There are families moving in with many children. Sorry to say it, but they don't always keep their places up."

One white teenager said he thought educational standards had dropped because of the large number of African Americans attending his school. Classes are so dumbed down, he sad, that "it's a challenge to fail." His mother did not allow him to use his name.

But blacks and whites mostly downplayed the role of race in everyday affairs.

Although students at Lancaster High School on a recent weekday appeared to socialize with others of the same race, many said they didn't even notice the ethnic grouping.

"I don't think race is an issue at this school," said Shaylise Carroll, 16, an African American, as she joshed with other black students on the sidelines at a football practice. "Everybody's friends with everybody."

Some black residents did voice qualified backing for the Section 8 crackdown. But John Meade, an African American who moved to Lancaster 17 years ago, saw a different prejudice at work.

"If you're poor here, it doesn't matter what ethnic group you're from," he said.

ann.simmons@latimes.com

doug.smith@latimes.com

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