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ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN

Sun hasn't set on `sundown towns'

January 24, 2007|ERIN AUBRY KAPLAN | ekaplan@latimescolumnists.com

REMEMBER "sundown towns"? That was the picturesque-sounding name used for small cities and communities across the country that had an ugly policy of not allowing blacks on the streets after dark -- or not allowing them period. Sundown towns included such unassuming enclaves as Hawthorne. And though the phrase had a distinctly Wild West overtone, for the blacks who coined the term, it was pure old South. And, as they had in the South, blacks generally followed these rules of de facto segregation -- not going north of Slauson Avenue, for instance -- because, as usual, they had no choice.

All that began to fall away with the legal unraveling of racial housing covenants in the late 1940s. But a sense among black people of geographic vulnerability -- a sense that where they live is determined less by choice than by social forces that are always subject to change -- persists.

This has been lately and painfully illustrated in Harbor Gateway following the December shooting of Cheryl Green, a 14-year-old black girl. Her death was part of a 12-year campaign by members of the Latino 204th Street gang to push blacks out of the tiny neighborhood it has long regarded as its own.

The media immediately characterized the problem as mostly one of gang turf, with reports noting that the 204th Street gang preys on fellow Latinos as well. Citywide, gang-related crime is overwhelmingly not interracial. Everyone who lives in gang-populated neighborhoods lives in fear.

Yet these facts -- that the Green shooting was about gang turf and also a reflection of unchecked gang violence -- fail to convey the larger truth. The violence in Harbor Gateway is different. Much of the violence is reminiscent of sundown towns and their "just-move-along" animus toward blacks that most of us thought were history.

In Harbor Gateway, the consequence for blacks straying "out of bounds" -- in this case, north of 204th Street -- can be fatal. A few Latinos from the area were quoted on radio reports saying that blacks are "ghettoish" and "dirty" and that they came in and "messed up" a perfectly good neighborhood -- comments that could have come from the mouths of working-class whites 50 years ago.

That such comments come from Latinos makes for a bitter irony, especially given the backdrop of an overwhelmingly Latino immigration rights movement that has effectively adopted the model of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Granted, the comments were made by a hostile few. But they sting nonetheless.

Meanwhile, the black response to the Harbor Gateway matter has been less about anger or even indignation than about conciliation and acceptance. In the absence of any visible black leadership, Green's mother, Charlene Lovett, and other activists have been extending olive branches since the Dec. 15 shooting with marches and public attempts to display ethnic solidarity across turf lines. One such attempt was an ill-fated truce that gave all negotiating power to gang members and none to blacks.

Still, the outreach makes a certain kind of sense. Despite the oppressiveness of the last dozen years, black residents such as Lovett are probably more anxious to figure out how to stay in Harbor Gateway than how to leave it, mostly because they're running out of places to go. Yes, the cross-cultural, let's-gettogether-now news conferences were naive, implying a moral and actual equivalence between Latino and black gang activity that doesn't exist. But they also express a real hope on the part of blacks that Harbor Gateway can be the better place they imagined.

Lovett and her family had that kind of hope when they moved to the Torrance-adjacent neighborhood from South L.A. So did another African American, a man named Carl Wagner. But he got shot in the leg last August and wound up going back to South L.A. after his landlord warned him that it was best for him to get out of town. He was lucky.

It's understandable that the news media and various leaders, black and otherwise, would want to downplay or actively counter the starkly racial elements of this latest troubled story about black and brown. They don't want to aggravate an escalating conflict, or they simply resist the idea that blacks are the main victims here. Lost in all the posturing, however, is the ancient but still urgent cause of black people's right not just to live where they want, but to have someplace to call home.

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