When the San Diego Unified Port District commissioners refused last week to name the city's new $160-million bayfront convention center after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., longtime black civil-rights activist Vernon Sukumu recalled thinking, "Same old story, new chapter."
Other San Diegans of all races had similar thoughts, for the Board of Port Commissioners' rebuff of the attempt to honor the slain civil-rights leader was only the most recent in a series of racially tinged episodes in California's second-largest city.
Over the past three years, San Diego--now the nation's seventh-largest city--has suffered through divisive controversies that included the firing of the city's first black city manager, a citizen-led referendum that overturned a City Council decision to rename a major thoroughfare for King, the racially charged trial of a young black man who eventually was acquitted of killing a white policeman, and now, the Port District's refusal to endorse the council's plan to rename the new convention center after King.
Also, racial tensions in schools and the locally based national white supremacist group headed by Tom Metzger have drawn occasional headlines, and the city's decision late last year to close several beachfront parking lots overnight had racial overtones.
All of this has some residents in this booming coastal city pondering a particularly sobering question: Is San Diego, which calls itself America's Finest City, experiencing a rise in racism?
Though some defend the city's racial climate while others caustically condemn it, the consensus is that San Diego's racial problems probably are comparable to those of other major American cities. What is significant, many say, is how the city has been slow to see--and reluctant to accept--that reality.
"Without suggesting that there's rampant racism in San Diego, I think it's fair to say that public officials haven't always recognized the racial significance of their policy decisions," said San Diego City Councilman Bob Filner, who was arrested in Mississippi as a Freedom Rider in the 1960s. "Sure, there are racial problems here. And the way to start solving them is to start looking at these issues through different eyes."
Dennis Rohatyn concurs. He is a professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego and an occasional radio commentator on local issues.
"The problem with San Diego is that it has big-city problems but a small-town mentality," Rohatyn said. "It prefers to think of itself as this idyllic little seaside village, where we wink our eye and pretend that typical urban problems don't exist."
The 1980s, however, have provided ample evidence to the contrary.
In the past five years alone, a city mayor and a councilman were forced from office by criminal charges, a nondescript madman killed 21 people at a McDonald's in the worst single-day massacre in U.S. history, and a series of 100-decibel business scandals was topped by the collapse of J. David (Jerry) Dominelli's La Jolla investment empire after he admitted bilking investors out of more than $80 million. The city faces burgeoning drug and gang problems, the same deteriorating infrastructure and financial woes that confront other big cities, and it has seen mounting friction between local residents and the area's growing population of illegal aliens.
Now, last week's Port District vote has magnified a thorny, disturbing question over race relations that some political, business and community leaders argue has been minimized for too long. However, even as they encourage a kind of civic introspection, they also take comfort from the knowledge that San Diego's racial troubles pale by comparison to those of other major cities.
"The thing to keep in mind is, whatever our problems are here, San Diego is light-years behind racially charged cities like Boston and Chicago," said Steve Erie, a political science professor at UC San Diego who specializes in ethnic politics. "If some of the things that have happened here had occurred in some other cities, you'd have seen rioting in the streets."
'Turn Other Cheek'
That is partly attributable to the relatively mild, conciliatory tone often adopted by San Diego black leaders, who, as one of them put it, "perhaps have been too willing to turn the other cheek."
Even last week's port vote appeared to leave more disappointment than anger in its wake among blacks, some of whom preferred to talk more about ongoing plans for a King memorial in Balboa Park than the convention center setback.
"We've compromised ourselves to death," said the Rev. George Stevens, a firebrand '60s street activist who, though now an aide to Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego), still is willing to throw down the gauntlet on occasion. After the Port District vote, Stevens announced plans to organize a nationwide boycott against San Diego aimed at keeping tourists and conventioneers away--a proposal that drew a lukewarm reception among other black leaders.