"The Greeks have a saying that there is no justice in Athens until the uninjured are as indignant as the injured parties."
George Regas, rector emeritus, All Saints Church in Pasadena
When I read what the racist cop Mark Fuhrman had said on those obscene tapes--"If I had my way, all niggers would be gathered together and burned"--I was revolted in the deepest places of my spirit. But I was also repulsed by Johnnie Cochran's zealous oratory in the closing arguments of the Simpson trial when he poured fuel on the racial fires by comparing Fuhrman to Adolf Hitler and urging the mostly black jury to send a message to the nation against racism and police misconduct.
My own belief is that O.J. Simpson, this football hero, brutally abused his wife, Nicole, and was guilty of murdering her and Ronald Goldman. I hoped he would be convicted. That is why my immediate reaction to Cochran's racial appeal was one of such deep disdain.
A few days of reflection have put these strong feelings into a clearer perspective.
I still believe there was more than adequate evidence to convict Simpson, yet Cochran was not entirely out of line because the Simpson case was "dripping with race" from the start. Even Time magazine shamefully darkened Simpson's mug shot on its cover. If Nicole Brown Simpson had been black and Goldman had not been white, would the tabloid media have possessed us? Race matters. Race affects every dimension of life. Here was a black man accused of brutally cutting the throats of two white people in a city that had exploded with riots 3 1/2 years ago when a white jury acquitted four white cops who bludgeoned Rodney King.
Race matters profoundly, but we of the white world continue to obfuscate this reality. Cornel West, professor of Afro American studies at Harvard, writes that the astonishing disappearance of any meaningful discussion of the earthshaking events of the riots in Los Angeles in 1992 "is testimony to just how painful and distressing a serious engagement with race is ... Either we learn a new language of empathy and compassion, or the fire next time will consume us all."
More than any other event in the last 20 years, the Simpson trial forces all of us to look into the chasm of race and see unmistakably its breadth and depth. We are so deeply polarized that no verdict could reconcile our feelings. We have pretended race isn't an issue for the last 20 years, but the Simpson trial shoves it right into our eyes.
The grotesqueries of blacks dancing in the streets with jubilation for the acquittal of a wife-beater who had never shared in the civil rights struggle, and whites insinuating that a predominantly African American jury was not intelligent or free enough to convict a black brother, both are destructive and absurd.
Outraged feelings from both sides have been expressed and the divide between us is profound. But it would be the ultimate outrage is we let this brutal murder and trial drive us further apart. The jury is still out on whether we are committed to healing the racial chasm. I would suggest some ways toward racial healing.
First, we must understand our differences. The trial didn't create this division among African Americans and white Americans--it only brought it dramatically to the surface. Healing will come only if there are places where blacks and whites take the risks to be frank and candid about race. I still recall vividly a meeting at All Saints Church some 10 years ago when an African American physician told us about the humiliation of being pulled over at midnight by the police as he drove to his house in Altadena, questioned, spread-eagled and patted down--just because he was black. The O.J. verdict makes sense to this man.
We have a Coalition for a a Non-Violent city in Pasadena, where we live in an epidemic of senseless violence and the victims are bitterly angry. It is a hard piece of work to get us at the table to be honest about race. We know it is not a colorblind society; we are deeply divided and we need healing. But we are making progress because we know we can show our differences, and if it is bruising we well be around the table struggling to reach a place of healing and health.
In one of these coalition meetings, a black woman screamed at me, "All your world knows to do with our black men is to send them to prison!" And in many ways she was right. So we had to engage the reality that one out of three black males in their 20s are now under the criminal justice system's control and half of the prison population is black men. We won't heal the division by living in segregated worlds and never sharing honestly with each other.
Second, a culture must be created that allows us to see that one person's gain means the advancement of us all. Over the last 15 years, the concept of the common good has been tragically corrupted. Children grow up in homes where individualism is preeminent and human solidarity is unknown. God has created us to be one family. We can never eradicate racism that corrodes the soul of the nation unless we affirm our membership in that one human family, brothers and sisters, all sacred. I believe this is the central issue of our time. Our lives and destinies are wrapped up together.
The Greeks have a saying that there is no justice in Athens until the uninjured are as indignant as the injured parties. Religious leaders, civil rights leaders, politicians, academics, educators, lawyers, doctors, writers, editors must be committed to creating this culture of the common good.
What an incredible gift to families raising children in these troubled days if we could create a moral vision for America where the affluent are tied to the poor, the secure ones are bound together with the homeless and the well-being of my children and grandchildren is dependent on the health of all children. If a nation could not survive half-slave and half-free, no nation will be blessed if it is half-rich and half-impoverished.
There is something decadent about a city or a nation that denies this human solidarity. There is something corrupting about the assumption that a few have the right to good health, dignified jobs, fine education and decent housing--while others live in misery. It is my deepest conviction that any hope of racial healing is found in this renewed commitment to the common good and creating a culture in which this texture is unmistakably clear.
Third, we must find a new way to love. The primary quality of divine love is its inclusive and universal dimension. So many today in churches and legislatures take pride in their exclusive claims and promote a message that divides the nation. They are the seedbeds for the culture war.
Suspicion, fear and hatred of the "other"--the one not like me--is the fundamental disease of the world today. This disease of the heart is the source of every genocide, every holocaust, every ethnic cleansing, every gay bashing, every urban riot, every skinhead outbreak. And today's political climate is playing this card of hate.
Our hope is in setting our faces against the tide of this disease, and building communities of inclusive love. These high-risk youths on the streets today from whom comes so much violence need many things--but above all they need a community of hope that will put its arms around them and love them and give them dignity.
The spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. Transformed this nation and he believed love was the only alternative to hatred and racism. Some would say he sounds sentimental before the raw emotions of race today. Yet Dr. King looked at those horrific walls of segregation and believed love put into action, love appealing to human goodness, could bring that wall tumbling down.
Racial healing is hugely complex, but if we could find ways to love we could, in Martin's words, "inject new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization." It is our overwhelming responsibility.
The jury is still out. Will we learn before it is too late? Of all Michelangelo's powerful figures, none is more poignant tan the man in the Last Judgment begin dragged down to hell by demons, his hand over one eye and in the other eye a look of dire recognition. He understood, but too late. That's our story in America. Michelangelo was right: Hell is truth seen too late.
"It's a hock for African Americans who have grown up on another coast, in a black-and-white presence, to see that there are all kinds of variations.
One thing people learn is that Los Angeles' sprawling size makes it a highly contradictory place. There are communities--Culver City, Pasadena, Silver Lake--where racial mixing is rich, and usually amicable. And then there are communities entirely cut off form one another, either by freeways or hillsides or by sheer distance. In some, segregated white enclaves, the appearance of minorities causes unease. They are watched with suspicion, followed through stores, discouraged in subtle ways from ever coming back.
"You're not treated very well," said social worker Mike Neely, who said huge segments of the black community thus never venture to beaches, art galleries or trendy hangouts. "You can ... talk to them about MOCA and they think that's a new drink," he said. "That's where the real crime of bigotry shows up."
Johnny Owens is one man who crossed those unmarked boundaries. He is an African American who lived for several years in Pacific Palisades, where his nightly walk home from work happened to take him west toward the rich white community of Malibu.
Motorist sometimes threw cans at him, Owens said. They shouted that he was going the wrong way because he was not traveling the way of black or Latino domestics who leave the Palisades, Bel-Air and Beverly Hills every night for less--affluent inland neighborhoods.
"I should be walking east, coming out of the Palisades," Owens said. "That's the bottom line."
For many, the easiest answer to L.A.'s racial tensions is to avoid contact with other groups. One Westside woman never travels east of Lincoln Boulevard; a teenager from Northeast Los Angeles seldom strays farther west than Downtown or Hollywood. Imaginary boundaries are everywhere. There are some who rarely cross Western Avenue, others who never venture north (or south) of the Santa Monica Freeway.
The great labyrinth of freeways, one of the hallmarks of L.A. life, also complicates racial relations, setting Los Angeles apart from other cities because of the great distances that people travel in the insular confines of a car. Freeway driving prevents even the most superficial interaction with other racial groups. A subway commuter in Manhattan might encounter scores of blacks, Latinos and Asians in a single five-mile trip to the office; but a white commuter from Sherman Oaks might drive 40 minutes Downtown, day in, day out, for years, and never really see people of other races except at work, or possibly the gas station.
A Times poll in 1992 found that 35% of the city's white population had never been to South-Central or Watts. And thus many have no idea that those communities are filled with stucco homes, churches, furniture stores, palm trees and families working and raising their children.
Instead, many whites tend to see those areas as a featureless shadow land, a danger zone that symbolizes black rage, gangs, drive-by shootings and welfare mothers. In the resulting climate of distrust, racial biases harden; there is less interest in bridging differences, erasing stereotypes.
South-Central and its problems have come to dominate the racial consciousness of the city. A long-running war between the black community and the largely white-run Los Angeles Police Department has touched off two of the largest outbreaks of urban violence in U.S. history. that same war also because an important backdrop of the Simpson double murder trial, a case that again polarized the city along racial lines.
More than any other single dynamic, the tension between the black community and the police represents the city's most enduring the defining racial problem. How it came to be that way involves not only the profound social problems of the city core but also the geographic and social forces that shaped Los Angeles.
Whites dominated the city's early growth, seeking out the beaches and claiming many communities just inland of those--or near Downtown--by placing restrictions on property: "Said property shall not at any time be lived upon by any person whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasion race," one typical deed read. Racial minorities were excluded from Inglewood, Glendale, Culver City and Mid-Wilshire.
Blacks found homes in inland communities, which merged during the heavy migrations of the 1940s and '50s into one of the nation's largest predominantly black centers, an area spanning close to 50 square miles. In it were doctors, offices, corner grocers, clubs--everything. There was little reason for blacks to venture outside.
"You really didn't come into contact with white people," said Ferguson, the historian. "They were just a face."
There were also plenty of industrial jobs--until the big factories began to close: Bethlehem Steel, Firestone, Goodyear. In the four-year period ending in 1982, 75,000 manufacturing jobs disappeared in greater Los Angeles, said Larry Foundation, a leader of the South-Central Organizing Committee.
"Those jobs in today's dollars would pay about $20 an hour," he said. "In other words, there's about $1.5 million an hour that once flowed into the community, and does not longer."
Economic decline heightened racial tensions. To struggling blacks, whites represented the financial power-brokers who closed u those factories and who kept blacks from gaining work elsewhere. Eventually, the Latinos who immigrated by the thousands to South-Central came to be seen as competition for the jobs that were left. Koreans were resented for owning stores that blacks could not afford for lack of loans or personal assets.
Social problems also grew out of the economic despair--notably drug dealing and gang warfare. In cracking down, LAPD officers sometimes resorted to excessive force, using race as a means to identify "criminals."
The bitterness that has come of the fight is trickling down into a new generation of blackyouths in Los Angeles, said Bakeer, the man who was handcuffed in his won home. As an exercise in a 12-th grade class he teaches at Washington Preparatory School, Bakeer asked his students to write essays about the police.
All 30 of the resulting papers expressed negative impressions, and even outright hatred: "I feel that the police is a stronger form of the KKK in AmeriKKKa," one girl wrote. Another said: "They are all the same--sneaky and [they] swear they have the authority to whup yourass."
Scholars have devoted entire careers to sifting through the complexities of race in Los Angeles without answering all of the uncertainties about what works, what fails, what spurs conflict. To some, the migration of four or five racial groups into one neighborhood represents a danger ,causing the pot to "boil more," as one researcher said; others believe it eases tensions that might exist in a biracial setting, stripping away "we" versus "them" attitudes.
L.A.'s fascination with wealth--mansions, Rolls Royces--further complicates the picture. In one school of thought, Los Angeles is more racially tolerant than more conservative large cities where tradition and family roots matter more than lifestyle.
In Boston and Chicago, for example, bigotry is rooted in social structures that were in place before the Civil War. It is expressed more openly, handed down through many successive generations.
Los Angeles is different: less wedded to old ways, more willing to embrace the new, the avant-garde. L.A. thrives as a center for sports, film and music--all fields in which minorities have excelled. That influence opens doors for blacks and other groups in Los Angeles, said J. Eugene Grigsby, director of the Center for African American Studies at UCLA.
A black film star can buy a home in Beverly Hills and not be alone, there may be a black musician down the street. And both are considered welcome-at least on the surface.
"You don't have to go through the traditional channels of being introduced to the right banker," Brigsby said, "or going to the right country club, or the right school."
Yet the percentage of minorities who achieve entree into those elite circles is still small, and other scholars believe racial relations here suffer because of the yawning chasm between rich and poor. That gulf creates enormous frustration, some experts say, especially in a city where every facet of life is chronicled by the mass media.
The endless bombardment of media messages creates racial confusion in some cases, animosity in others. Ads and TV series tout the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Hollywood movie-makers tend to paint an amicably scrappy, if not glowing, picture of race relations: "White Men Can't Jump," for example, and "Pulp Fiction." And all the while, TV and radio newscasts create the impression that gangsters, drugs and violence run rampant throughout all communities of color.
The separation and distrust are exacerbated by the fact that different groups often rely upon different media for information. When Latasha Harlins, a young black girl, was fatally shot by a Korean store owner, the black-run Sentinel reported two themes: "A history of social injustice that would put a 12-year-old at risk and ... the belief that the criminal justice system will not treat African Americans on a level fields, said Ron Wakabayashi, executive director of the county's Human Relations Commission.
Korean papers, meanwhile, talked about the "immigrant struggle--working two jobs and saving enough money ... to get a store and being ripped off ... plus the ongoing body count in terms of how many holdups there've been.
Unlike New York and Chicago, where political power is vested in a strong mayor who can step in to solve problems, Los Angeles is run mainly by its 15 City Council members, each representing a different geographic district. That, too, has implications for racial politics. elected minorities are invariably outnumbered: One scholar called it a "divide and conquer strategy."
With an uneven balance of power, critics say, minority neighborhoods suffer inferior service--potholes grow deeper, burned-out street lights remain dark.
If people in Los Angels are ever to get along, it will take considerable work, probably for a long time, some experts believe. One of the biggest difficulties is a lack of communication. Racial issues are allowed to fester; even the language of discussion--"riots," "minorities"--has become a minefield of potential conflict.
"We're so sensitive, so raw," said McCauley, the city human relations executive. "People are afraid that if they voice a concern, they'll cross a social border--and the consequences will be hellish."
Instead, they do nothing--usually. But there are exceptions, people who are sufficiently concerned by the complexity of the problem that they are breaking out of old habits, trying new things, being very L.A. in that respect. One is Carol Schulkey, a white Glendale resident who has seen immigrants bring 50 languages to the neighborhood school.
Rather than fight the way Los Angeles is changing, Schulkey took a class in race relations run by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. It taught her to see how being white shapes her world view to understand other points of view. She learned that there are still vast racial differences, but that there is a healing power in being able to listen.
"So much of the energy we spend telling the same story over and over again has to do with feelings of not being heard," Schulkey said, expressing a guarded degree of hope. "I love Los Angeles. I really do."