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February 13, 1989|BOB BAKER | Baker is a Times staff writer who has reported extensively on events in South-Central Los Angeles.

What burns inside us? Why can't we watch the Big Spin without somebody alongside us commenting dourly about the number of Spanish-speaking winners? Why can't we watch a professional basketball game without someone alongside us feeling obligated to mention that everyone on the court is black? Why, after so many painful decades of introspection about prejudice and racism and discrimination, does the awful self-consciousness remain?

Wasn't it supposed to eventually dissipate, this awareness of skin color and the monstrous little acts it produces? Wasn't there eventually supposed to be a generation so sensitized to the evils of discrimination that it would train itself to stamp out the demon inside all souls that finds something wrong in all that is different? Wasn't Los Angeles--the new Ellis Island, teeming with so many racial and ethnic cross-currents, so many new faces, so many people starting over--supposed to become the kind of place where the old demon died, where it was harder to be racially conscious because there were so many races?

Not yet. The demon lives. It lurks in new ways.

In the civil rights era everyone knew what discrimination was. It was being refused lunch or a job or a ballot. It was black and white because it was written in black and white. Now it is written, with equal force, that there can be no discrimination, not for any reason, and we take comfort in the knowledge that much of the discrimination has died.

Our comfort blinds us to the fact that much of the prejudice that fueled the discrimination of old lives on. We have made it easier to ignore the fact that hatred continues to percolate from generation to generation, flaring like an evil genie.

An Arab-American businessman finds racial graffiti on his building. A UCLA teacher of Chinese descent walking on campus hears two white male students yell a racial epithet at her and tell her, "Go home!" A Jewish teen-ager who asks other boys why they wear the symbol of a fish to proclaim their Christianity is ridiculed and showered with pennies.

It happens, a handful of acts of overt violence but mostly defacement and insults. We tell ourselves it does not happen often enough to be regarded as a social problem. After all, how often do we see these sorts of things? They are rarely reported to police or to the county Human Relations Commission, which each year releases a report of perhaps 200 incidents of racial and religious vandalism and violence.

Isolated incidents, we tell ourselves. Anecdotes, not stuff of a pattern. Amid all the non-racial violence that confronts Los Angeles, discrimination seems trifling. After all, no one is being lynched. How concerned must we be? Look at what passes for racism these days, we tell ourself. Does it matter--does it truly matter--if a few feelings are hurt because the winning entry at a Long Beach sand sculpture contest features a caricature of a grinning Chinese man emerging from the other side of the Earth, with the title, "Wrong Beach."

Yes, it matters.

It matters because each tiny abrasion that we produce as we rub against people of different backgrounds is an unrepairable tear in the fabric of society. It matters because each incident gives implicit permission for another to follow. It matters because children hear these things and feel them, and the argument that no law has been broken by a racial joke or a racial slight does not make up for the spirit that has been broken.

Discrimination in Los Angeles in 1989 is not fire hoses in Selma, Ala., in 1964. It is the woman speaking Chinese who cannot catch the right bus because the driver, pressured by a schedule to keep, just shakes his head and closes the door. It is the Mexican-American comedian who recognizes that his career depends on telling jokes that allow Anglo audiences to laugh at Latinos and confides that he sometimes feels like a guard at Auschwitz, just doing his job, a job that involves inadvertently tearing another small crack in the wall of racial dignity. It is a black woman who moves into a middle-class white neighborhood and is so conditioned to expect the worst that it takes her months to stop suspecting racists behind every shrub. It is the Asian teen-ager who has become philosophical beyond her years. "Like, America is mixed, right?" she asks rhetorically. "But I don't think it's going to be one nation. People don't try to be like one."

Some people do. In one Los Angeles classroom, a Korean student from Paraguay gives answers in Spanish to a companion from El Salvador while a Romanian immigrant student asks a Mexican teacher's assistant how to say don't forget in Spanish. At a gas station, an Armenian man in oil-stained coveralls who prides himself on speaking not merely his native tongue but English, Spanish, Turkish, Farsi, French and Italian sees a Spanish-speaking woman approach him and asks in heavily Middle-Eastern-accented Spanish, "How may I help you?"

The stories you are about to read are largely undramatic. Nobody dies. In a lot of cases, nobody even cries. Mostly they ache, and they wonder about life's cruelties, and they sigh and go on with their lives, each time a little more guardedly, each time a little more skeptically. They never forget the demon.

Nor should any of us.

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