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Gary Horton: If not in intent, it’s racist in deed

Full Speed to Port!

Posted: March 9, 2010 10:09 p.m.
Updated: March 10, 2010 4:55 a.m.
I think back to a personal story told to me by a friend who works in the financial industry. Intrinsic to this story is that my financier friend is black and grew up in South Los Angeles. That makes his life experience much different than the majority of the Santa Clarita Valley.

My friend had recently graduated in finance at a Cal State university and was working at an office close to his campus. One rainy night after closing, my friend stopped by a 7-Eleven on the way home to buy milk. Milk procured, my clean-cut, suit-and-tie, black minority financier drove two rainy blocks to his apartment.

Exiting his car, he was approached by two Los Angeles police officers. “Stop! Don’t move,” came the demand. Out came the guns and before he knew it, my suit-and-tie, black financier friend was thrown to the wet driveway, face in a puddle, police boots on his back, gun pointed at his head.

No protest would release him. Eventually, a neighbor on the second-floor balcony called down to the officers, corroborating his story.

Yes, he really was whom he said. Yes, he did work at a local finance office. Yes, he did live at that apartment. Yes, he just stopped by the 7-Eleven for milk, not for a robbery. And no, just because he was black didn’t automatically make him the guy the police had heard had just robbed a nearby building.

This event occurred back in the ’70s and my black financier friend has rightly never forgotten it.

I have a Japanese business associate whose parents and grandparents owned land and grew vegetables in Palos Verdes. They’d immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s and worked, saved and eventually bought their own farms on what is now nearly priceless real estate.

They would be rich today, save that shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, government men came to their door and took my Japanese friend’s parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents to internment camps.

Their beautiful Palos Verdes farms were force-sold for pennies on the dollar. They were incarcerated in the camps for years and had virtually nothing left when they finally got out. The crime? Being Japanese vegetable growers.  

I grew up in a neighborhood that had no black families. Our area was “red-lined” — it was almost impossible for blacks to buy in these white neighborhoods.

Anti-discrimination laws finally took hold, and one day a black family moved in. “There goes the neighborhood,” some of our louder racists protested.  

Turns out the black sheriff who bought the house was also a skilled gardener. Within months the man had the most attractive home on the block. People quieted down after that, but the family still had a tough road on our bigoted street.

While our local elementary school was wedged between white and Mexican areas, it had mostly white enrollment. We white kids were merciless in our taunting of our Mexican schoolmates. Bigoted, racial slurs and degrading accusations. We didn’t know better — we were taught by our parents.

Today, most of us have friends with experiences like these. For them, memories of racial injustice don’t fade quickly, nor should they. Nearly anything of a racist tone lights up their radar and sets off alarms. Of course it would. Vigilance today protects the abuses of the past from creeping back into acceptance.

So when a prominent civic leader proclaims in any context, however blithely or innocently, “I’m a proud racist,” it’s easy to understand that our minority community snaps to attention, aghast at the words.

“Proud” and “racist” don’t belong together in any legitimate or public setting. For minorities who’ve suffered long histories of racial abuse, “proud racist” quickly raises images of cross burnings, degradation, incarceration, land confiscations and worse.

So are the defenders of SCV’s now-infamous “proud racist” remarks overtly racist? No, surely they are not. Today our community is blessedly open.

Still, in digging in and ignoring the offensive weight of what was said, these people show a remarkable lack of empathy for the 35 percent of SCV residents who rightfully recoil at images of racism. Those two words have split our community along racial lines and opened old wounds. While the words may have not been intended as racist, the real world impact is that, indeed, they were.

What “proud racist” defenders are missing is a proper empathy and respect for those with histories much different than the SCV racial majority.

Public servants and public commentators must possess a wider social and racial empathy reflective of all of us — not just most of us.

Remember, if it was you thrown to the driveway with a gun at your head, or your family’s fortune and land confiscated, or you abused and taunted for the color of your skin — you’d be reactive against all forms of racism, whether intended or not. Of course you would. The wounds of your past would still be healing.

We can all learn something from SCV’s monthlong social-studies lesson. We need to walk a long mile in the other guy’s shoes before getting behind a megaphone and letting ’er rip. And we apologize quickly when we screw up.

Of course we do.

Gary Horton lives in Valencia. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Full Speed to Port!” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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