Walking While Black in South Pas—Is That a Problem?

One mom's reflections on race and tolerance in South Pasadena.

Every , my son would get really worked up, “But why? Why did that man kill him?”

His “Aunty Nana” came up with the best answer, “It was fear. He killed him out of hatred created by fear.”

In my elementary school, which was mostly African-American and Asian-American and about 1/3 white and other, I mostly hung with my three best friends—a little United Nations. Me, “Sammy Boy”—who was a  Jewish "tomboy”—and three boys: African-American,  Japanese and German descent.

The day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, I remember sitting with my mom and a neighbor while they cried watching the scenes over and over again on television. That same year, I wrote to the state of Louisiana to ask if it was true that it was illegal for me to marry my black boyfriend, being officially “Caucasian,” though never viewed as such by most white folks. They mailed me back a copy of the actual law forbidding blacks and whites to marry.

What Would MLK Do?

When my son, Gabe, was around 7, I picked him up at a friend’s home. The mom and my friend greeted me with “something happened.” Her nephew, about 10 years old (who—like her and her son—was of Armenian descent) had told Gabriel that he didn’t like the "n--gers" touching him when Gabe’s hand had brushed against his.   

Furious and devastated for my son, I asked, “What did you say to him? Did you tell him your mom would kick his a--?" 

“No” Gabe replied. 

“That’s not what Martin Luther King would do. He’d fight back with words and talk and talk.”

When my son was around 10, we attended a weekend for multiracial Jewish families called Camp Tawonga in the Bay Area. One family made of two moms (Jewish and white) told a story.

They live in Albany, a small town next to Berkeley, but predominantly white at the time. When their son turned around 10, they introduced their family to the local police department and explained, “This is our son, we live here in the community,” as they’d heard of kids being pulled over for “walking while black.” 

It was chilling to think that my son could someday be seen as a potential perpetrator. Michelle Alexander’s new book, The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, among others document the mass incarceration of black men.

I wouldn’t have chosen to place my son in a high school and community where he was a racial minority, but he ended his middle school in Altadena with an experience of being with classmates from a variety of racial and ethnic groups and had grown to feel comfortable enough to sign his texts “Afro-Jew Without a Fro.”

In his eighth grade class, his Arabic classmate gave him and the other Jewish kid in the class a Valentine that said “I love Jew” on a heart. 

Race and South Pasadena High School

Recently Gabe told me a disturbing story he had heard, involving black students in South Pasadena High School and asked me to write about it. I contacted an African-American friend with a daughter there, and she told me that she also had heard the story about how “walking around together while black” had caused some kind of uproar resulting in the students being called into the vice principal’s office. She was very upset and wanted to know more.

On the eve of MLK day, I was finally able to interview an African-American student who asked to remain anonymous because of fear of reprisal—we’ll call her “L.”  

“It started at a pep rally,” she told me.  

“A couple of the black kids were walking around, and because it was unusual for the majority of the African-American kids to walk around together, they decided that it would be fun to do that.”  

Then because it became more of a thing of guys hanging out, L walked away with her girlfriends. Much of the rest of the story below is what she told me that she gathered from speaking with other students involved as well as subsequent emails and postings.

Alarmed at seeing the group of “black youth” walking together at SPHS, another student went to talk to the office. It’s possible, L told me, the African-American kids may have uttered some words like “black power,” but they were just walking around. A lot of kids began to look around and ask, “What's going on, is there going to be a problem?”

Is there a Problem?

When I asked L if this is a problem for any group of male students walking around, she replied, “If white kids are walking together, it’s perfectly normal. If it’s black kids, for some reason, it’s a crime.”

The “walking black youth” were taken into Vice Principal Terrance Dunn’s office (who also happens to be black) and questioned as to what they were trying to do. Were they trying to gain some kind of recognition? According to L, he then told them he “would let it go this time, but don’t let happen again because kids are worried that you might beat up on someone.” 

Later L told me the African-American students were upset and felt that it was wrong that they were questioned. A couple days later when several of the black male students discovered they were all wearing purple—an unplanned coincidence—they decided to walk around together again.  

According to L, it was a smaller group and not even “buff” guys. Hardly intimidating. L says that one of the younger school counselors (who happens to be white) came out and asked them why they were all wearing purple. Was there some reason, perhaps a gang?

And so, regrettably, as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, I have to ask the question “Walking together while black in South Pasadena”— is that a problem? 

And much like Gabe’s “Aunty Nana’ told him many years ago, it might be. Is it because of that same fear and ignorance that resulted in Dr. King’s assassination almost 45 years ago?

Tell us about how you teach your children about race, injustice and discrimination of any kind? How do your children see race? What has been your family experience? Do you believe racial profiling or prejudice exists in South Pas?

This article is one of a two-part series reflecting on race and tolerance. Click HERE to read Part 1, published Monday.

George Kafantaris January 17, 2012 at 01:18 PM
When are we going to learn that it is no longer "us" or "them" anymore.  It is only "us" now.  We're in this together, as a world family. And like a  family we must help each other in times of need.  No matter who we are or where we are, we all breathe and bleed the same; we all love and cry the same; and we all hope and dream the same.  Infinitely more unites us than what sets us apart.  It's about time we accept this truth and try to solve our problems as the world family that we are. 
Sandra January 17, 2012 at 01:25 PM
I'll never forget the first time my white (well, Italian...some people don't call us white) daughter brought home Jay, a big, beautiful, black football player from her school. She was 15 or so, he was 16 or so (it was over a decade ago so I don't really remember). He was coming to our house to meet my husband and we were late getting there. As we rushed around the corner and neared our house, I saw Jay getting out of his brother's car. My husband gasped. "Oh my God!" I looked at him wide eyed. I never even thought to say that Jay was black. I didn't think about it and I didn't think my husband would either. Just as I was about to get angry and say "WHAT??" he said loudly "He's a MAN! Our daughter should be dating boys and that is a MAN!"
Candide08 January 17, 2012 at 01:36 PM
Join the club - WWB is a "friskable" offense in NY City. DWB (Driving while Black) is a stoppable offense nearly everywhere else.
Josh January 17, 2012 at 02:10 PM
I must say as a white dude that that grew up as a minority in his community & school that seems completely insane & obsurd. The idea of kids of race, color or religion being harrassed by police or school officials is beyond unexeptable. But note that.... A: the author noted they were walking around saying BLACK POWER, and B: the child admited to the adult author thats what was being said BLACK POWER. The fact that this obviously liberal author put "they might of said black power" in her story means chances are it was MUCH more than that or she wouldnt have put it at all. Also the fact that the adolesent admited to the adult that those words gad been used means logicaly more was said than some sweet kids walking together singing campfire songs. Now if this group had been white, walking in a pack saying WHITE POWER what would be this authors oppinion, what would be yours? Not the same Im sure, its time for Martin Luther Kings dream to come to full reality. And part of EQUALITY is equal condemnation, equal civil responsibility, equal judgement. Please begin to wake up to the reality that all races' are equal, in every way good & bad, equality is a TWO way street. joshtopia-jc.blogspot.com
Ron Rosen January 17, 2012 at 03:07 PM
Back in the 60s I was stopped several times, for either walking or driving with hair.
Sam Burgess January 17, 2012 at 04:53 PM
There is not now nor has there ever been, a race, culture or society that has not had its share of racists, bigots and hate-mongers. There are no exceptions. This is how it has always been and, sadly, how it remains.
Cedric January 17, 2012 at 04:56 PM
I suspect that these kids were "walking" together because they looked intimidating as a group, and intimidation has no place in a school setting. Your interview makes it clear that the kids wanted to project power. Kudos to the school administration for keeping the environment there free from this behavior. There are many non-threatening ways to express solidarity, but in a school all students should be free from the fear that one group can project power over another.
Michael Perry January 17, 2012 at 06:52 PM
Please read "Black Power Defined" by Martin Luther King Jr. from June 11, 1967. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=1139
Kristen Lepore (Editor) January 17, 2012 at 10:48 PM
The following comment is from South Pas resident Kelly J. Madison, Ph.D. who is a Professor of Cultural Politics & Media Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. She asked that I post on her behalf due to a glitch in the Patch system. "I heard about these incidents and was appalled. I thank Patch for creating a forum for people in this community to discuss such things. I talked to several students at the time, of different ethnic backgrounds, who witnessed it and none of them mentioned hearing the African American students say "black power." But even if they had, what would it mean? Josh, above, seems to think that "black power" is the same as "white power." That would only be true in a historical vacuum, where we ignore the hideous history of white racism and violence institutionalized in this country. Who was killed under the call for "white power" in this country's past (and is still being killed in contemporary times under the same slogan)? African Americans and other classified an "non-white." Who was being killed when African Americans in the 1960s rightly and defensively called for "black power" to make things more equal and just in this country? More African Americans."
Kristen Lepore (Editor) January 17, 2012 at 10:49 PM
Continued comment from Madison: "Let's not pretend that a call for "white power" is the same politically, economically or ideologically as a call for "black power"... because they are not, and they do not mean the same thing. The latest census data show that today the average wealth of "white" Americans is 20 times the average wealth of "black" Americans. What do we need? More black power obviously, which would mean more equality. As for trying to intimidate, it seems clear to me that in some peoples’ minds African American students simply walking around together was “intimidating.” I think that is serious problem."
Estelle Underwood January 17, 2012 at 10:59 PM
Excellent article, Carla! This stuff needs to be uncovered time and time again....until it no longer exists. Thanks for your courage in addressing this. Estelle Underwood
Brad Johnson January 18, 2012 at 02:44 AM
Wow......thank you for this article. As an Black male, I am aware of my surroundings and subtly reminded of my blackness by the Pasadena Police with an occasional "escort" to my home in South Pasadena. I remind myself that it was a lot worse years ago. No pity party here just aware of the issue. Bravo Carla.
Janet Cartwright January 18, 2012 at 03:21 AM
Walking While Brown is another offense. Gotta love SPPD. Remember when the John Birch Society was in San Marino?
Marvion January 18, 2012 at 07:57 AM
Hi ello hi lol,, JBS says 'keep US out of the UN'.. and as of when do are school kids need a 'quad 4 ~ 2 terra byte ~ 8 GB ram' personal coumpter just to finish high school.. they don't.. they need a 70 inch 3D big screen! Better yet,, make the school kids of S.P. pay for their own textbooks,, not us taxpayers.. pointless,, nearly half of everyone runs the stop sign anyway
Paula January 18, 2012 at 06:21 PM
1. If the kids were saying "Black Power" then they should not have been in that setting and at that time. 2. My son who is Hispanic has gotten pulled over and escorted home by the police in South Pasadena, when it was after curfew. 3. I would think and hope that the school would stop any group that was walking around the school in what could be perceived as an intimidating matter. 4. The kids should start a club if they want to assert their power which I don't think people would have a problem with. ( at least I hope not) 5. I know of plenty of White students who also get picked up by the police especially if they are walking in a large group at night after curfew, I have a few friends whose children have also been escorted home. 6. Racism does exist but I don't want any group in school being it white, black, Hispanic, etc. doing anything that may cause a problem during school hours. I hope the school would have done the same if say it were Asian students or any other race.
Amy January 19, 2012 at 12:37 AM
I go to SPHS, I was there, and i can assure you that they were just 7 little boys who looked like no threat to me or any person. There is no such thing as an intimdating black person at SPHS LOL. They went past. It was NOT about them trying to say something or be agressive they were just having fun and walking around find all the black kids at our schoool because there are so few it made it even funnier. In no way is that something to get asked if your in a gang for cause i see more white kids in a group daily than was in that group and no one stops them.
Carla Sameth January 19, 2012 at 02:35 AM
Hey Brad and others - thanks for your comments. Here's an article from NY Times that speaks to some of the discussion, Brad's and other comments. "Why is the N.Y.P.D. after Me?" http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/18/opinion/sunday/young-black-and-frisked-by-the-nypd.html?pagewanted=all
Ellen Georgiou January 21, 2012 at 10:53 PM
Great article. Enjoyed comments almost as much as the article.
pamela wright January 23, 2012 at 09:37 PM
Great article, Carla! Thank you for documenting what happened.
Carla Sameth January 27, 2012 at 05:15 PM
And here's an article about a woman that "supported the right to marriage, whether for those who are 'black or white, young or old, gay or straight,' because “that’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.” Read about a photo exhibit and a story that goes back to my time in elementary school when I found out that interracial marriage was against the law. It also shows how injustice and just trying to live your live can turn someone into a political activist and change maker. "And more than four decades later, on the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Supreme Court ruling, she knowingly entered a new battle for marriage rights in declaring that “Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry.” See the full article here http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/27/arts/design/the-loving-story-at-international-center-of-photography.html
Zoe Sheli Sameth February 01, 2012 at 11:45 PM
Great article, once again, Carla. And a beautiful tribute to our Dad who worked hard himself for equal and civil rights for all, and to help make it safe to walk while black or any color, long before Gabe was born.
Carla Sameth March 22, 2012 at 05:16 PM
See NPR - Morning Edition segment today, very timely for this column "A Moms Advice to her Young Black Sons" http://www.npr.org/2012/03/22/149126015/a-moms-advice-to-her-young-black-sons


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