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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
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).

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.