Acknowledgment, the group assembled by the city contended, is a strong first step for a community to address a past marred by racism and other prejudice.
However, as the panel tasked with discussing the past and present state of racism in our society and communities emphasized, it will take more than that to truly heal from prior transgressions, even though the people of today might not have had anything to do with them.
“This is a really painful and difficult reality that I think, of course, has to be acknowledged,” said Safiya Noble, one of three panelists brought together for Thursday’s “Racism: Past and Present” discussion sponsored by the city government. “There are so many ways in which these practices remain about who belongs and who doesn’t belong, like the way we don’t need the signs but we have the customs that exist.”
Noble and her peers were brought onto the virtual panel — a sign of our coronavirus-affected times, which themselves have had an outsize impact on black Los Angeles County residents — as part of the city’s commitment to facing its past-but-not-forgotten racial discrimination, whether formal or passive. That engagement was prompted by protests and advocacy that crystallized in May, when George Floyd, a black man, died while in Minneapolis police custody after an officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes.
Locally, Glendale’s past reputation as a sundown town — in which black men and women faced potential violence if they remained within city limits after work hours — re-entered the public conversation, as did the fact that the American Nazi Party maintained its West Coast headquarters here for a couple of decades and that a prominent Ku Klux Klan leader lived and purveyed his rhetoric here.
“With respect to sundown towns and communities that have this tortured history, certainly acknowledging that is a first step. Apologizing for it is another step,” said panelist Hannibal Johnson, a lawyer and historian with expertise on the 1921 riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a white mob attacked a black district and its residents and businesses. “I guess the really meddlesome part is the atonement, making reparations, making amends: What do we do to repair the damage imposed by those systems? Acknowledgement is not enough. Apology is not enough. You need all three steps.”
Panelist Gary Keyes, an author of local history books who previously taught at Glendale Community College, said Glendale police officers were actively enforcing a sundown town mentality as recently as the 1960s. That mentality was something he said he personally observed when, as a teacher at Crescenta Valley High School, he would drive along Foothill Boulevard through La Cañada Flintridge and see scores of black men and women waiting at bus stops.
On occasion, he said, he would see local law enforcement stopping black motorists to redirect them as they journeyed to what were then African-American communities, such as Pacoima or Altadena.
“That’s where it gets really ridiculous,” Keyes said. “Some sundown cities did not allow African-Americans in the community at all, and therefore if you were going someplace you would have to detour around town.”
Noble, a UCLA professor specializing in technological and data redlining, outlined that the difference between “not racist” and “anti-racist” is that the former is a passive stance whereas the latter describes people who “actively work” to dismantle institutional racist practices. “Not racist” white people’s acknowledgment of the inherent social benefits they are afforded is not enough, she said. Noble also pushed back against the “half-and-half” designation she said she sometimes gets because her mother is white and her father black.
“Of course this is completely absurd because no place in my life have I been misunderstood or misclassified as a white person,” she said. “Every dimension of modern life is governed by racial categories …We live in systems, and it doesn’t matter if you signed up for the system or not. It doesn’t matter if you declare yourself to be not racist. You’re still a beneficiary to long-term, systemic racism.”
Johnson, pointing out that the Tulsa riot remains an obscure part of the nation’s history, said enhancing education and curriculum represented a strong first move in the right direction. Indeed, as moderator Steven Nelson quipped, the harrowing opening scene of the 2019 HBO miniseries “Watchmen” has been for many the first exposure to the tragedy.
“What we are taught in our schools really feeds into systemic and structural racism that exists,” Johnson said. “We are too often taught a sanitized version of history that is exclusive of people of color and exclusive of what I call ‘hard history.’
“That’s something that people don’t forget,” he added, referring to the riot, “and it takes years and years and years of ‘affirmative action,’ if you will, to even begin to bridge the divide between the races. One concrete step, I would say, is for the community to take a look at curriculum, particularly history. There are a number of opportunities for just the ordinary citizen to make a real difference. We’re all represented by somebody on a school board. That’s influence.”
Keyes added that in 1920 the KKK hosted a major rally, which included a cross burning, that began at Verdugo Park, and that the organization would frequently participate in the city’s parades in that era. He added that the “last gasp” for overt white racism may have occurred in the 1970s, when an industrial park planned for the south side that would have pushed out the area’s Mexican community was ultimately shot down.
“I believe Glendale has made a sincere effort to change its past,” he said, having earlier noted: “People don’t always know their history and people should always look for the dark side of American history, because if we don’t know anything about our past, we can’t do anything about it in the future.”