S.D. Glances Inward, Weighs Racial Tension

Times Staff Writer

When the San Diego Unified Port District commissioners refused last week to name the city's new $160-million bayfront convention center after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., longtime black civil-rights activist Vernon Sukumu recalled thinking, "Same old story, new chapter."

Other San Diegans of all races had similar thoughts, for the Board of Port Commissioners' rebuff of the attempt to honor the slain civil-rights leader was only the most recent in a series of racially tinged episodes in California's second-largest city.

Over the past three years, San Diego--now the nation's seventh-largest city--has suffered through divisive controversies that included the firing of the city's first black city manager, a citizen-led referendum that overturned a City Council decision to rename a major thoroughfare for King, the racially charged trial of a young black man who eventually was acquitted of killing a white policeman, and now, the Port District's refusal to endorse the council's plan to rename the new convention center after King.

Also, racial tensions in schools and the locally based national white supremacist group headed by Tom Metzger have drawn occasional headlines, and the city's decision late last year to close several beachfront parking lots overnight had racial overtones.

Sobering Question

All of this has some residents in this booming coastal city pondering a particularly sobering question: Is San Diego, which calls itself America's Finest City, experiencing a rise in racism?

Though some defend the city's racial climate while others caustically condemn it, the consensus is that San Diego's racial problems probably are comparable to those of other major American cities. What is significant, many say, is how the city has been slow to see--and reluctant to accept--that reality.

"Without suggesting that there's rampant racism in San Diego, I think it's fair to say that public officials haven't always recognized the racial significance of their policy decisions," said San Diego City Councilman Bob Filner, who was arrested in Mississippi as a Freedom Rider in the 1960s. "Sure, there are racial problems here. And the way to start solving them is to start looking at these issues through different eyes."

Dennis Rohatyn concurs. He is a professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego and an occasional radio commentator on local issues.

"The problem with San Diego is that it has big-city problems but a small-town mentality," Rohatyn said. "It prefers to think of itself as this idyllic little seaside village, where we wink our eye and pretend that typical urban problems don't exist."

Different Picture

The 1980s, however, have provided ample evidence to the contrary.

In the past five years alone, a city mayor and a councilman were forced from office by criminal charges, a nondescript madman killed 21 people at a McDonald's in the worst single-day massacre in U.S. history, and a series of 100-decibel business scandals was topped by the collapse of J. David (Jerry) Dominelli's La Jolla investment empire after he admitted bilking investors out of more than $80 million. The city faces burgeoning drug and gang problems, the same deteriorating infrastructure and financial woes that confront other big cities, and it has seen mounting friction between local residents and the area's growing population of illegal aliens.

Now, last week's Port District vote has magnified a thorny, disturbing question over race relations that some political, business and community leaders argue has been minimized for too long. However, even as they encourage a kind of civic introspection, they also take comfort from the knowledge that San Diego's racial troubles pale by comparison to those of other major cities.

"The thing to keep in mind is, whatever our problems are here, San Diego is light-years behind racially charged cities like Boston and Chicago," said Steve Erie, a political science professor at UC San Diego who specializes in ethnic politics. "If some of the things that have happened here had occurred in some other cities, you'd have seen rioting in the streets."

'Turn Other Cheek'

That is partly attributable to the relatively mild, conciliatory tone often adopted by San Diego black leaders, who, as one of them put it, "perhaps have been too willing to turn the other cheek."

Even last week's port vote appeared to leave more disappointment than anger in its wake among blacks, some of whom preferred to talk more about ongoing plans for a King memorial in Balboa Park than the convention center setback.

"We've compromised ourselves to death," said the Rev. George Stevens, a firebrand '60s street activist who, though now an aide to Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego), still is willing to throw down the gauntlet on occasion. After the Port District vote, Stevens announced plans to organize a nationwide boycott against San Diego aimed at keeping tourists and conventioneers away--a proposal that drew a lukewarm reception among other black leaders.

Last week's intense news media coverage of the port's vote and its aftermath left many leaders--white as well as black--fatigued, edgy and somewhat ashamed by the declining tenor of debate over how best to honor King. Herb Cawthorne, head of the Urban League's local office, flatly refused to comment on the matter, as did several council members and others inside and outside City Hall.

For a far greater number, however, the port's action--in which the commissioners, instead of naming the center after King, made him the first inductee in a proposed "Avenue of Honors" on the complex's terrace--spawned reflection over the status of race relations in San Diego.

Is There a Pattern?

To link the dispute over the center's name to the council's 1986 dismissal of City Manager Sylvester Murray and the controversial 1986-87 trials of police killer Sagon Penn, some argue, overlooks the disparate factors behind each and, perhaps, ascribes a commonality that is more theory than fact. Most local leaders, however, regard the surface similarity of the events as sufficient justification for treating them as a pattern, not as isolated occurrences.

"I think there clearly is a connection that shows that San Diego, like every other city, has racism," said Susan Golding, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. "That's not to say they all stemmed from racism because there were other causes, too. But the perception of racism is there, and perception is usually more important than reality."

Explanations about the causes and state of racial relations in San Diego begin with the city's demographic makeup. Blacks account for only about 9% of the city's 1.1 million population and 1869507705found in any other American city its size. By comparison, 1980 census data showed that Dallas, which has almost the same population as San Diego, had a 29% black population and Los Angeles 17%.

Though San Diego's growing Latino population, nearing twice the size of the black community, has occasionally been at loggerheads with the city's political leadership, those disputes generally have not been as emotional. And despite the continued infusion of Asian immigrants, San Diego remains, in the words of one social scientist, "the whitest border-area city in America."

Lack of Clout

The resulting lack of black political clout is compounded, blacks admit, by their historical inability to effectively organize at the polls or to push for major goals at City Hall.

In a 1987 election highlighted by two issues of particular import to blacks--the first "open" seat race in a heavily black council district in nearly two decades and an emotional initiative over whether to change the name of Martin Luther King Way back to Market Street--the turnout in largely black Southeast San Diego was 25.5%, the lowest of any neighborhood in the city and 11 percentage points below the citywide average.

"This shows a complete apathy and complacency that this community should be ashamed of," said the Rev. George Walker Smith, a former city school board president and founder of the Catfish Club, a politically potent black leaders' weekly luncheon forum. "We have only ourselves to blame for a lot of our problems."

Others, however, suggest that a greater share of that blame is attributable to the actions--or inaction--of the area's white majority, which generally hews to a conservative, Republican line in its political and business dealings.

"You can't divorce this issue from the fact that San Diego is one of the most--if not the most--conservative big cities in America," said George Mitrovich, president of the San Diego City Club and a longtime political activist.

Poor Track Record

No Democratic presidential candidate since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944 has carried San Diego County, and local Democratic or liberal causes have generally fared little better.

There is one black on the eight-member San Diego City Council and one on the five-member San Diego County Board of Supervisors--and no Latinos on either. The seven-member Board of Port Commissioners that made last week's controversial decision on the convention center consists of seven white men. Though such numbers are not totally out of line with blacks' percentage of the overall population, the paucity of black elected officials has exacerbated their other political difficulties.

Arguing that a "pattern of prejudice" has been evident in the convention center dispute and other recent controversies, Daniel Weber, a lawyer and immediate past president of the NAACP's San Diego branch, contends that the level of racism here is "well above the norm" of other major cities. San Diego leaders, he charges, often display "a plantation mentality, a paternalistic attitude of, 'We know best.' "

Added Bates aide Stevens: "San Diego is a great place to practice racism."

A diametrically opposite perspective comes from San Diego Chamber of Commerce President Lee Grissom.

"I just don't see that at all. I see so many positive contacts between the races that the instances where that doesn't happen are isolated exceptions."

As evidence, he points to the chamber's plans to help raise $250,000 for the King memorial in Balboa Park and another $500,000 for an annual scholarship fund in King's name.

Is Problem Masked?

Others, however, contend that racial disputes are neither as rare nor as inconsequential as some city boosters suggest. The relative surface calm in black-white relations, they say, masks deep underlying strains. At least one City Council member received a death threat after voting for the convention center name change, and last week's Port District hearing saw numerous speakers descend into bigotry and racial stereotypes to make their points.

Roger Hedgecock, the former San Diego mayor who now plays host to a popular phone-in radio talk show, said he was distressed by the virulence of callers on both sides of the convention center debate.

"To most white callers, King was a communist sympathizer and womanizer who doesn't deserve to have his name on any building," Hedgecock said. "Blacks, meanwhile, believe that whites will use any excuse to block any plan to honor a hero who is recognized worldwide but whose skin color prevents him from being properly recognized in San Diego."

The extremity of those attitudes illuminates the deep racial divisions in San Diego, as well as a deterioration in the dialogue between the races, according to the Rev. Ellis Casson, one of the city's most prominent black ministers.

"I'm sorry that we've reached a point in San Diego where people say, 'If you disagree with me, you're a bigot,' " Casson said. "Because that's not always the case. Blacks and whites can disagree for reasons other than racism. But it's sad that we're back at that fork in the road again."

Getting to Real Reasons

That "fork in the road" has often prompted impassioned advocates to veer off on sharply divergent rhetorical paths in debates over the recent racial controversies, with their differences being framed in acerbic us-versus-them terminology.

For instance, did a white City Council fire Murray because its members had trouble dealing with a black manager, as some suggest, or did the dismissal stem from management differences that would not have raised an eyebrow had Murray been white?

Similarly, despite Penn's acquittal in the fatal shooting of one white policeman and the wounding of another officer and a civilian, there are those who still think of him as a hot-tempered black youth who got away with killing a cop. Others, however, agree with two juries' judgment that Penn acted in self-defense while being unnecessarily beaten by a racist white policeman.

And, did the Market Street and convention center decisions stem from racism, or from legitimate concerns such as, in the former case, worries about saddling businesses with the cost and inconvenience of changing addresses?

The answers, many argue, probably fall somewhere between the two extremes--and may even be largely irrelevant.

Debates over individuals' motivations and the extent of racism in San Diego obscure the critical facet of each of the recent controversies, said Roy Brooks, a USD law professor who recently completed a book on racial relations. Instead of getting mired in that perhaps-insoluble morass, Brooks said, the focus should be on the "racial subordination" that results from those actions, not the causal mind sets or reasons.

'Blacks Have Been Hurt'

"We should look not at a person's motivations but at what happens as a result of his actions," Brooks said. "Who's helped or who's getting hurt? That's the key. It doesn't matter if discrimination is intentional or stems from prejudice. It just matters that it occurs. And in San Diego, it's pretty obvious that it's blacks who have been hurt."

As occurred after the previous disputes, last week's contretemps touched off hand-wringing among local leaders over whether such incidents might warp the city's self-image and sully its national reputation.

Wes Pratt, the city's sole black council member, said he has been embarrassed by questions in other cities about San Diego's repeated failures to honor King. Other prominent local blacks describe similar experiences.

However, even national black organizations with arguably the greatest psychic stake in the issue apparently have not followed the latest controversy closely. Spokesmen for the NAACP in Baltimore and the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta were unaware of the convention center name debate or Stevens' subsequent boycott call.

For that reason and others, concern over the city's getting a black eye appear both premature and exaggerated. Significantly, a computer check of 10 major newspapers throughout the country showed that none carried stories about this week's flap.

"San Diego isn't well-enough known nationally to get a black eye," said UCSD political scientist Sam Popkin. "The unfortunate thing is . . . maybe it deserves one."

Times staff writer Leonard Bernstein contributed to this story.

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