A Safe Place to Face Racism

The eighth-graders in Cliff Kusaba's social studies class at Jefferson Middle School file in. OK, maybe not file. This is public school in central Long Beach, not West Point.

So the kids slink in, others strut, most amble. The important thing is they are all sitting down now, where they're supposed to, ready.

Steve Mortenson, 26 years old, a strange visitor, this white guy, starts.

"Man! Can you believe this?!" he says. "Somebody broke into my car again. Probably some damn Mexican ."

Well. What do you do with this? Oh sure, this is nothing really, not compared to what these kids hear all the time, to what they say all the time, but still. This Steve guy is a teacher type.

He's dressed from another generation, a blue chambray shirt and jeans that fit (they call them tight here) instead of this saggin' stuff.

Saggin' is when you wear your pants so loose that it looks like you could just walk right out of them without interference from a zipper. Lots of boys are saggin' in Mr. Kusaba's class.

So what the kids do with this "damn Mexican" stuff is they turn to each other and laugh, some of them anyway, mostly the ones who aren't Mexicans themselves.

Then Analisa Ridenour, 25, another visitor who has come with Steve, says, "Hey, I'm Mexican!" and she starts letting Steve have it. Steve acts kind of stunned, seeing as how Analisa doesn't look Mexican, and even if she is, she's obviously "different" than the rest of "them."

There's a message here, of course, brought to the eighth-graders courtesy of a pilot program called CAL-STAR, which stands for Students Talking About Race. It's a project of People for the American Way, which commissioned a 1992 study of racial attitudes among youth from 15 to 24 years old.

The report bills itself as "the first fully detailed portrait of the children of the civil rights era," and these children hold some strong opinions about the state of race relations today.

This state is pretty dismal, with some stereotypes and biases that truly chill, although noble sentiments are there too.

By 50% to 42%, the 1,248 respondents (including 78 who were interviewed in depth face-to-face) describe race relations in the United States as bad rather than good, with black youth taking the most negative view (57%). Among whites, 56% agreed that whites wouldn't be safe going into most black neighborhoods, and 36% of black youth agreed.

But 77% of all youth say that getting people to take more responsibility for themselves, rather than blaming others, would go a long way toward dealing with problems of race and poverty. That breaks down to 82% of blacks, 79% of Latinos and 76% of whites who responded that way.

The STAR project started in North Carolina, and today is the first day of the small pilot in California, which is co-sponsored by the California Teachers Assn.

Only the kids in Mr. Kusaba's class aren't aware of the importance of their reactions to all this.

All they know is that Steve and Analisa, both grad students from Cal State Long Beach who volunteer their time as "facilitators," have told them that today they're going to be talking about race and that it will be "safe" to say what's on their minds.

Things take off from there. I'd guess that few, if any, of these kids ever worried about being politically correct. Which is the idea.

Nearly everybody has a story to tell. A Latina says that two black guys jumped her, stealing her purse just off the school grounds, and calling her a "dirty Mexican" first.

The boy with one parent who is white and another who's black says he was told his kind didn't belong in the neighborhood and then he got beat up.

A Latino boy says he doesn't get along with whites and has made a vow never to date girls of that race.

A black girl says she heard that white trucker Reginald Denny was "talking" just before he was nearly beaten to death in the riots last year, and that he should have known enough to stay out of there.

A white boy says the riots were just an excuse to get something for nothing. Another one asks why blacks say, "Hey, white boy!" when he doesn't say, "Hey, black boy!" to them.

A Latina says people call her a "nigger-lover." This gets a lot of laughs.

Racial epithets fly, sometimes as a joke, but mostly not. Some kids get dogged. But honest questions are explored, even if you have to wade through a lot of adolescent bravado to make it there.

It is . . . a start.

Because confronting and then challenging racism is something to keep working on, instead of just hoping that the ugliness will go away. And at Jefferson, a neighborhood school where nobody's bused, there's a very vested interest in getting along.

The school's ethnic breakdown is 30% Latino, 27% black, 25% white and 17% Asian.

Plus, these kids know about one alternative to a status quo of intolerance and hate. They lived through the riots last year.

"They know it's a mess," says their teacher. "Some of them were actually involved (in the riots). Then they come back and tell you what they got."

A lot went on today.

"We have to learn to digest it and do something with it," Mr. Kusaba says.

The people from CAL-STAR will be back.

Dianne Klein's column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Readers may reach Klein by writing to her at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7406.

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