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Students Take Steps to Ease Racial Tensions

By Menaka Fernando
Special to the Outlook

April 20 -- In a narrow back alley Monday, a diverse group of young people get a lesson about their shared struggles.

Coordinators at the Pico Youth and Family Center instruct them to take one step forward for the positive aspects in their lives and one step back for the negative.

They begin taking long strides forward if they have computers, if their parents went to college, if they can afford to take a vacation. But, soon they begin to retrace those same strides in the opposite direction if they have been in a fist fight, if they have witnessed abuse, if they have received food stamps.

By the end, the eight black and Latino youths who participate end almost exactly where they had started -- but they notice that they are all together.

"What if twenty black students and twenty Latino students participated in this activity, where would they be?" asks the center's director Oscar de la Torre.

"We'd all be in the same place because we go through the same struggle," says Julian Ayala, a Latino freshman from Santa Monica High School.


That was the precise message the center's officials were hoping to drive home in the aftermath of a Samohi brawl last Friday that many believe resulted from brewing racial tensions between black and Latinos students.

The fight reportedly involved as many as 200 students and resulted in a lockdown of the school. On Monday, school officials announced that police cars will be parked at the three school entrances, and roving police officers will continue to patrol the school.

Housed in a traffic-congested corner near Pico and Lincoln boulevards, the youth center is working to ease the racial tensions that swell in the streets, homes and schools of the Pico Neighborhood, which has the highest concentration of low-income blacks and Latinos in the city.

Large paintings of black and Chicano civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez hang side by side in the center's reception area. The corridor leading to the main rooms are adorned with social justice posters and peace slogans.

And underneath the bold colors of the urban artwork, black and Latino youth don't hesitate to interact with each other -- whether it is while surfing the Internet or playing a game of pool.

"This place is a place where they come together," said de la Torre, who is a member of the local School Board.

The youth center, students agree, is much more integrated than the schoolyard.

At school, blacks, Latinos and whites typically hang out in different groups, said Johnny Garcia, a Latino freshman from Samohi.

"I just come here to hang out with anyone," Garcia said.


The activity in the alleyway has ended and coordinators are leading a discussion about the causes of racial tensions and attempting to come up with tangible solutions to the problem.

If the two groups have "so many commonalities, why is there all this beef?" de la Torre asks the group that included mostly Latino youth.

The tensions are often gang-related, says a Latino Samohi alumnus that chooses to remain anonymous due to safety concerns.

When people become affiliated with one gang, he explains, they automatically have tension with all opposing gangs and their affiliates.

But that doesn't mean that "just because you are not in a gang, you are safe," he adds.

The group then begins to bounce around possible solutions: eliminating the 2.0 GPA requirement to play sports, teaching immigrant history rather than European history and, more ideally, eradicating all the world's boundaries so "everything's Earth."

De la Torre believes most conflict stems from miscommunication.

Earlier in the day, he had visited Samohi to talk to students and student leaders about Friday's incident, which led to a lockdown, as officers from two nearby cities helped local police secure the campus.

After having talked to two Latino students who were involved in one of the fights Friday, de la Torre decided to serve as mediator. One of the students had told him there would be no solution to the problem.

One had punched the other because he thought the other had punched his cousin. That wasn't true, the other said. There had been a misunderstanding, and they decided "to squash it," de la Torre says.

The miscommunication between the school's two largest ethnic groups is further driven home by a 15-year-old Latino youth at the center, who later joins the group in the alley.

He bursts in spewing racial slurs about blacks and playfully getting in the face of a black student.

De la Torre asks the Latino if he was directing his comments at all black people.

No, he said. "I kick it with some black people."

The center's director then asks the black student whether he feels "disrespected" by the Latino student's comment.

He doesn't -- but only because he knows the Latino student. He would take it on a "different level" if someone he didn't know had made the comment, the black student says.

De la Torre tells him he shouldn't accept racial slurs.

"Don't let people disrespect you like that," he says, adding that he should call attention to offensive remarks.


De la Torre, a Samohi alumnus who was a counselor at the school, wasn't surprised by Friday's incident. The indicators of conflict were there, he said.

De la Torre had cautioned fellow School Board members about the growing racial tension and he blamed the school's leadership for not doing enough to prevent Friday's outburst.

"The schools are too large and overcrowded. It's a crime," he said. "Any time you stress resources, you are forcing people to think about violence."

Some students also saw the fight coming.

The two groups "were looking at each other like they were about to do something," Garcia said, adding that he's noted tension from the time he began attending Samohi.

In the days following the incident, tension has grown, students said. Some are mad at each other, others mad at what happened.

Though the incident is now on everyone's mind, once things go back to normal, there will be less urgency to tackle the problem, and that, de la Torre said, can't be allowed to happen.

In addition to speaking with administrators, de la Torre's immediate priority is to encourage the youth at the center 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.

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