Are You From Compton?

Commuters wait to take a ride on a L.A. Metro train at the a rail station Compton. | Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The recent reports of racial harassment and assault in Compton, in which Latino gang members targeted a black family in an effort to ethnically cleanse their turf (Compton, once overwhelmingly black, is now overwhelmingly Latino), is both disturbing and all too familiar. Drive-by threats, broken windows, physical intimidation -- blacks have endured all these things and worse when they moved into neighborhoods where they were not welcome, where laws had in fact kept them out for decades (when my uncle and his family moved to a house south of Slauson Avenue in the 1940s, they were greeted with a burning cross on their lawn).

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The modern development is that the white supremacy that fueled anti-black sentiment has now been taken up by Latinos. A small, delinquent band of Latinos, to be sure, but put this latest incident next to a string of similar Latino-against-black incidents over the last ten years, and the picture is not reassuring. Perhaps the least reassuring thing is the absence of loud and collective condemnation from Latino leaders; blacks have raised their voices, of course, but that's not exactly unexpected. Ironic how the immigration rights movement likes to claim the moral mantle of the civil rights movement -- particularly as it relates to social mobility, living where you want and need to live -- but when something grossly immoral like this happens to black folks, people are more or less silent. Martin Luther King would not have approved.

It's interesting timing. Last week I was in El Segundo walking my dogs, something I do occasionally just to change the scenery. El Segundo, as I've said in previous blogs, is a lovely little seaside town that is not luxurious but cozy and insular, which is another kind of luxury. It is also almost virtually all white. When I'm there I tend to get lulled into the scenic-ness of the place and a sense that I belong -- sort of. On the first lap of my walk I caught sight of my neighbor, Lawrence, who attends El Segundo High. He's one of very few blacks at the school, and he stands out. He looked very pleased to see me, but surprised. "What are you doing here?" he shouted from across the street.

Here to walk the dogs, I shouted back. I do that sometimes. He nodded, but still looked surprised.

Walking up one of my favorite tree-canopied streets with my dogs, the peace was suddenly pierced by the blare of hip-hop from a car stereo. It was raw stuff, gangsta style, profanity that started with "nigga" and ramped up from there. An odd sound for El Segundo, I thought. A common sound in Inglewood that I frankly like to escape from. Four white teenagers in a white car were pulling up at the curb across the street from me, parking. I assumed they lived here. I kept walking. Underneath the music I heard them talking, smirking. And then I heard one of them say clearly through the open window: Are you from Compton?

I immediately stopped and stared across the street. The four were looking straight ahead, looking guilty. At least a dozen possible reactions went through my head, including cursing them out indiscriminately and ignoring them altogether. What I ended up with was a very cold: "Did you say something to me?"

No, we didn't, one of them said in small voice. The hip-hop was turned off and it was just them, me and the neighborhood, with my dogs at my feet and the squirrels worrying the trees overhead. Cozy indeed.

"Are you sure?" My voice was sharper, meaner. I didn't know what kind of response I wanted, but I knew that I was furious at their casual racism and wanted them to know it.

They nodded, not speaking at all this time. They look scared now.

After a minute or so of more hard staring, I walked on. I had won, I suppose: I had made the El Segundo boys see their racial folly, or at least made them look like fools when they realized they were throwing up insults at a 51-year-old educated woman, not some black skeezer in their hip-hop imagination. But somehow I had lost. More precisely, I had been called on my own folly, the belief that I belonged in El Segundo, that no one would notice that I don't live here. I don't. And while I'm not from Compton (though I was born and raised not too far from there), I am from Compton in a cultural sense; all black folks are.

In a weird way, I'm grateful for the reminder of that fact. What are you doing here? An innocent question that for blacks is so often existential. And in the case of the black family that forced to flee their home in Compton where they did belong, it is a menacing question indeed. Some things don't change, or they only change color.

Learn more about Compton through KCET's Departures: Richland Farms.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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Yes you do belong in El Segundo. As an El Segundan for the last 13 years, I have seen my wonderful city change from a quiet, safe small town to one that is overcrowded and increasingly attracting "undesirables" like the ones you encountered.

During my decade+ in E.S., more and more single family dwellings have been razed, with condominiums and apartments being built in their place. The result is a quadrupling of the population (without the needed infrastructure upgrades), with the resultant undesirable element showing up, usually as friends or acquaintances.

I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that those boys don't live in El Segundo, but they were visiting someone who does. I'm so sorry that happened to you.

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Why doesn't she talk about the fact that the gentrification of the white people and hipsters into Latino communities have pushed Latinos to move into Black communities in the first place? I get her anger but it's an alienating, limited account of truth. By the way, I lived in Compton almost 20 years ago and I am not black. Also, since when has gang activity been generalized to describe a whole community? Oh right, by white hegemony and the media. I severely disagree with her in adopting the same framework of discrimination and dividing alliances when we need all the political collectivity we can get against ALL forms of racism. Also, who is she calling "skeezer?" Even if she had been uneducated, no one deserves to be hollered at in a racist way. Poor black people--no matter their look or taste or poverty--have DIGNITY.

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Oops I didn't mean to press send all those times.

Also, I would like to change "no matter" to "in spite" because there is no hierarchy of taste or being or culture, or even language.

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I appreciate her sharing her frustrating and painful experience except the part when she villainized Latinos, another group which does not have any power to begin with; not to mention, Latino gang-affliated individuals are not representative of whole community. She doesn't deconstruct the true causes underlying systems and manifestations of oppression. Should people of color be jumping at each other throat's again -- race riot circa 98? - or form among a common political goal and "enemy," in which I do not people but white hegemonic structures of power in play. When she brought up the immigration bit, I seriously was like, great. Latinos only need more conservative backlash like getting it from poor whites wasn't bad enough. The point is if you don't unpack the real source of people's poverty or oppression in any argument or story, the serious ramification of something like black kids now striking back and hating Latinos in Compton ensues not understanding why a scarcity of resources exist in the first place. If there is race for limited goods it's because white rich men who exist in government and wall street took it from us . Eye for an eye makes the world blind... and you got to always end in LOVE. You feel me?

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I re-read it and see it a bit differently. I see where you are coming from; after all, ultimately, we are on the same side. The sole purpose of any intellectual conversation - or dialectic synthesis - is truth, which is love, and even though it's an account of the heart it's one in a political media blog; not to mention, she began with politics and personal is always political. And if we are speaking about ills of the heart, psychology, without politics, then that is a conversation about individuals. Group think is political ala Nazi Germany, because we affect each other (negatively) for as long as people live unconsciously towards collectivism - security. We accept without question; we are brainwashed. That is why any exposé, without speaking to its core, is subject to ill ramifications.

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My only real point was that the "white supremacy that fueled anti-black sentiments" and the violence of mexican gang leaders towards its black neighbors is NOT the same thing therefore not being "taken up by Latinos." I was with her until and after then. Then my jaw dropped. Words are sensitive and require caution. Latinos, as a collective, have no power in the institutional sense, in the way of segregation laws, and if the violence by gangs progresses to get out of hand because of territory, you can bet there will be a war between both groups, blacks included. Let us pray not.

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In which case, leaders of both groups should attend to inner city gang violence period!!!