The Past Isn’t Quite Dead Here, Either: How Racism Shaped Santa Monica


This piece originally ran on The Healthy City Local.

When Fay Wells went national to write, in the Washington Post, about what happened when a neighbor called 9-1-1 on her, she brought the issue of race to the attention of the white majority in Santa Monica, a city where race is not typically a major part of the public conversation. To me the case is a lens through which to examine how racism has shaped Santa Monica.

Santa Monica has been shaped by segregation. Segregation? In Santa Monica? Well, yes. Like much if not most of America that was developed in the 20th century, Santa Monica was developed as a segregated city. The mechanisms of segregation were not blatant Jim Crow laws. Instead, segregation was implemented formally through restrictive covenants included in deeds for properties in single-family zones and by federally mandated redlining for F.H.A. financing that also kept minorities out of neighborhoods, and informally by realtors seeking to “protect property values.” While the Supreme Court declared restrictive covenants to be unconstitutional in 1948, redlining and other forms of housing discrimination weren’t illegal until the Civil Rights Act of 1968.

Restrictive covenants were part of the DNA of suburban development in the first half of the 20th century, when most of Santa Monica was subdivided, much of it only for single family homes. Single-family zoning, by prohibiting apartments (which had been common in American cities), was another strategy to keep lower-income families (i.e., renters), and in particular black families, out of new neighborhoods. (This history is discussed in detail in Benjamin Ross’ 2014 book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism.)

The impact of restrictive covenants and single-family zoning on Santa Monica today cannot be underestimated: about 32% of all the land in the city is zoned for single-family homes (nearly half of all land zoned residential), and to this day few black or brown people live in R1 zones. Santa Monica is about 70% non-Hispanic white, but it is more segregated than one would expect for a city that is 30% non-Anglo.

Nearly all minorities in Santa Monica, with the exception of some of Asian descent who have moved into the city in recent decades, live south of Wilshire and north of Pico (mostly in the Pico Neighborhood), with a few other clusters in Ocean Park and in non-single-family areas of Sunset Park. Not coincidentally, these were, historically, the only integrated neighborhoods in Santa Monica. And also not coincidentally, these neighborhoods mostly straddled the industrial belt that ran along the railroad tracks that ran through the city—in Santa Monica, as in much of America, most black and brown people lived “across the tracks.”

African-Americans and Latinos have lived in Santa Monica for over a century, but they didn’t have the opportunity to buy houses in Santa Monica when working-class whites were able to, part of a shameful national story of how minorities were denied the opportunity to participate in the (heavily subsidized) post-World War II real estate boom.

And racism in Santa Monica wasn’t all about what could be built, and for whom, but what could be destroyed. Who were displaced to build the high school, the Civic Auditorium, and the freeway? Black and brown property owners and renters. Santa Monica has African-American churches to which black families still return to worship from their scattered homes miles away.

From the Santa Monica Evening Outlook, Feb. 15, 1951
From the Santa Monica Evening Outlook, Feb. 15, 1951

So you’re saying, what’s the point? History is history, right, and only in places like Faulkner’s Mississippi is the past not even past, right? Well, yes, to a point. We’re not doomed to be racist because our physical environment was shaped by racism. In my lifetime I’ve seen whites go from asking rhetorically what they would do if their sister married a black man, to today, when I doubt if there are too many white Santa Monica parents who would bat an eyelash if their child brought a black or Latino boyfriend or girlfriend home (preferably without too many piercings, but that goes for a white boyfriend or girlfriend, too).

Progress does get made. I’m not calling anyone a racist. May I repeat that: I’m not calling anyone a racist.

However, the past isn’t dead. One can argue whether racial incidents involving the Santa Monica police, and there are more than the two involving Fay Wells and Justin Palmer, are evidence of institutional racism or isolated incidents that don’t reflect the police department’s earnest efforts to be fair. In fact I’ve made the latter argument. One cannot honestly argue, however, that blacks and Latinos do not have historical grounds to feel marginalized in our city, which is going to affect their interpretation of interactions with the police and other public institutions. And because of Santa Monica’s history of segregation, you’re also going to have white people who don’t see black or brown people in their neighborhoods often, and because residents want the police to protect their neighborhoods, that is bound to lead to trouble.

Would the Fay Wells 9-1-1 caller have called the police if the locksmith had been white? I doubt the caller himself can answer that question.

The legacy goes further. Politicians appeal to voters in R1 zones by talking about the importance of preserving neighborhood “character” (when, for instance, the issue is whether to allow the building of apartments on adjacent boulevards); should it matter that that character is based on a racist history? What about when politicians decry gentrification in the historically integrated neighborhoods of Santa Monica, but then side with residents who oppose building apartments near R1 neighborhoods that might (mildly) de-gentrify them by bringing in renters?

Thanks for reading.

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