Dispute Forces Inward Look at Racial Issues in San Diego

Times Staff Writer

When San Diego's port commission refused last week to name the city's new $160-million bay front convention center after the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., longtime civil rights activist Vernon Sukumu, a black man, recalled thinking, "Same old story, new chapter."

Other San Diegans of all races had similar thoughts, for the 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 last three years, San Diego 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 trial of a young black man who eventually was acquitted of all charges in the killing of a white policeman and now, the port's refusal to endorse the council's plan to rename the new convention center after King.

In addition, racial tensions in schools and a 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.

Basis of Concern

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

While some condemn the city's racial climate, others say it is no worse than that found in other major American cities. But what many San Diegans do agree on is that their city has been slow to see--and reluctant to accept--the racial tensions that do exist.

"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, a professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego and an occasional radio commentator on local issues, concurs with that assessment.

"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."

The 1980s, however, have provided ample evidence to the contrary. In the last five years alone, the city's mayor and a councilman were forced from office by criminal charges, a nondescript madman killed 21 people at a McDonald's restaurant, and a series of 100-decibel business scandals was topped by the collapse of J. David Dominelli's La Jolla investment empire whose founder 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 has seen mounting friction between local residents and the area's large illegal alien population.

Now, last week's vote by the San Diego Unified Port District commission has magnified a thorny, disturbing question over racial 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."

Last week's intense media coverage of the port commission vote and its aftermath left many leaders, white as well as black, fatigued, edgy and somewhat ashamed by the 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, last week's port action spawned reflection over the status of racial relations in San Diego.

Some argue against linking the King name disputes to the council's 1986 dismissal of City Manager Sylvester Murray and the controversial 1986-1987 trials of Sagon Penn, who mortally wounded a white police officer. They say such a connection overlooks the disparate factors behind each incident and, perhaps, ascribes a commonality that is more theory than fact. Most local leaders, however, regard the events' surface similarity as sufficient justification for treating them as a pattern, not 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."

Demography of City Traced

Explanations about the causes and state of racial relations in San Diego begin with the city's demographic makeup. Blacks comprise about 9% of the city's 1.1 million population and about 6% of the 2.4 million residents countywide--a much smaller percentage than that found in any other American city the size of San Diego. By comparison, Dallas, which has almost the same population as San Diego, has a 29% black population, while Los Angeles' figure is 17%, according to 1980 Census data.

Although 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 a continuing infusion of Asian immigrants, San Diego remains, in the words of one social scientist, "the whitest border-area city in America."

The resulting lack of black political clout is compounded, blacks admit, by an 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.

'Shows Complete Apathy'

"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 longtime political activist.

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 City Council and one on the five-member Board of Supervisors--and no Latinos on either. The seven-member port commission that made the decision last week on the convention center consists of seven white males. While such numbers are not totally out of line with blacks' percentage of the overall population, many blacks feel under-represented politically.

'Pattern of Prejudice'

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.' "

"San Diego is a great place to practice racism," added the Rev. George Stevens, a firebrand 1960s street activist who now is an aide to Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego).

A diametrically opposite perspective comes from San Diego Chamber of Commerce President Lee Grissom, who said: "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."

Others, however, contend that racial disputes are neither rare nor inconsequential. At least one City Council member received a death threat after voting for the convention center name change, and last week's port hearing saw numerous speakers descend into bigotry and racial stereotypes to make their points.

Distressed by Attitudes

Roger Hedgecock, a former San Diego mayor who now hosts a popular phone-in radio talk show, said that 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."

Such extreme attitudes illuminate the deep racial divisions in San Diego, 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.

Times staff writer Leonard Bernstein contributed to this story.

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