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Experts Weigh in on Racial Tensions

By Jorge Casuso

April 26 -- Demographic changes. Lack of respect. Released convicts. A stress on multiculturalism. These are some of the explanations given by experts and community leaders for the racial violence that erupted at Santa Monica High School earlier this month.

While Education officials are beefing up security at the district’s largest campus and parents are openly wondering if it’s safe to send their kids to school, a question seems to be looming -- will the violence break out again?

Santa Monica parents aren’t the only ones asking.

More than 70 miles away at Norte Vista High School in Riverside, a brawl between black and Latino students also broke out at lunchtime on April 15. And one day earlier, at Jefferson High School in South LA, a racial disturbance during an annual fire drill led to a brief lockdown of the campus.

Many experts agree that demographic changes may be at the root of the brewing racial tensions, as traditionally black neighborhoods such as Watts and South Central become increasingly Latino.

"It may be that we're seeing the results in geographic and cultural shifts over the past two years, with Latinos moving into established black neighborhoods," said Velina Hasu Houston, a USC professor who has taught drama at Samohi as a guest teacher.

"There is a sense in one race of ownership over the community and that somehow they are being displaced, that their cultural identity is being displaced," said Houston, whose son graduated from Samohi. "These tensions start on the level of parents and seep down to the children.

"Add to all of this that high schools are a huge community of testosterone and progesterone, and that for both males and females, they are at a time of transition in their life," Houston said. "It's also unfortunate that the longer the period of time they are together, there tends to be more tension, not less."

Unlike the rest of California, where blacks, and especially Latinos, grew in numbers, Santa Monica saw significant decreases in its largest minority groups.

The number of black Santa Monica residents dropped 17.4 percent since 1990, while the number of Hispanics declined 7.4 percent, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. By contrast, the number of Hispanics grew by 26.6 percent in Los Angeles County and by nearly 43 percent in California overall.

But in Santa Monica, blacks and Latinos continue to be segregated in the Pico Neighborhood, where gang violence sometimes pits both groups against each other.

School Board member Oscar de la Torre, attributes the growing tension in large part to the release of inmates from prisons where black and Latino rivalries often erupt into racial violence.

“There’s racial wars going on behind prison walls,” said de la Torre, who is executive director of the Pico Youth and Family Center, which caters to at risk youth. “There’s no accountability, and now we have a spillover into our communities and our schools.

“Because there are so many blacks and Latinos incarcerated, you start talking in the family about it,” de la Torre said. “The jail mentality has been becoming the mentality of youth in the community.”

Prison culture, reflected in such films as Edward James Olmos’ American Me, has also “built animosity between black and Latino gangs on the streets,” de la Torre said.

Inside the classroom, the emphasis on multiculturalism could also be contributing to the rising tensions by emphasizing differences and instilling racial pride, experts said.

“I think we’ve hyped up the issue of differences,” said Joe Hicks, past executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission. “Students are told to be proud of who you are. They accept that, and you have to choose sides.”

Hicks believes that celebrations of cultural identity during Black History Month and Cinco de Mayo could be dividing, instead of uniting students from different racial backgrounds.

“We need to step away after 15 years or more of this multiculturalism,” Hicks said. “We have to step back and say, ‘How does this contribute?’”

If some experts venture to offer possible reasons for the violent outbreaks on school campuses, others say the students often don’t know why they’re fighting

“Kids fight, there’s a lot of reasons,” said Father Mike Gutierrez, the pastor of St. Anne’s Catholic Church in the Pico Neighborhood. “If you ask them why, they don’t know.

“The culture right now, there’s a lot of tension, a lot of hate for some reason, and someone’s firing it up,” Gutierrez said. “There’s always historically been a rivalry with the cultures… I don’t think it’s gang related. I think it’s bigger than that.”

But while the reasons for the violence may be unclear, Gutierrez argues that those in power may be failing to tackle the issue.

“The way it’s being handled, I wonder if leadership has experience in this sort of thing,” he said. “Authorities, I think, are struggling with this one, and it’s not an easy one. I think sometimes leadership doesn’t give the support system to work the issue out.”

One problem could be a lack of respect for authority, Gutierrez said.

“Do the kids right now respect anybody at the school?” he asked. “There’s no respect for the leadership a this time. It’s a very valid question, ‘Can the leadership hold the children accountable?’ That’s the big question.”

But experts and community leaders seem to agree that, if anything, blacks and Latinos share many of the same problems -- low-end jobs or no jobs at all, expensive housing, discrimination.

"I don't know what triggers this type of violence between groups like blacks and Latinos,” Professor Houston said. “It would seem that because they are experiencing the same type of problems, you would think they share some kind of bond or empathy, but it's just the opposite."

In a sense, both groups are competing for the "American dream," said Houston, who is half Japanese, a quarter Native American, a quarter black and is married to a white man from England.

De la Torre also would like to see the groups unite over their similarities, and he has devised exercises to showcase what the teenagers and young adults who frequent the Pico Youth and Family Center have in common. (see related story)

An immediate priority, he said, is to encourage the youngsters to put aside their differences and band together to fight "the bigger fight" of social justice.

"We are trying to build on our successes," he said.

While some community leaders are looking to society and politics for answers to the thorny racial question, others are turning to a higher power.

“I trust the power of prayer in this case,” Gutierrez said, “because I don’t have a pinpoint answer.”

Olin Ericksen contributed to this report

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