Hired Guns: Part 2

Part 2: Red Cross Store Blues

When I was a kid there was a lot of empty time. My Dad had a set of Leadbelly’s Last Sessions and I’d put them on the record player when no one was home because if you were a little kid using the adult record player you would get an ass beating. Huddie Ledbetter was himself part of the great black exodus from the South, leaving Texas after serving a prison sentence in Louisiana.

Towns across America were viciously racist in the early 20th Century, and few protests capture the times better than Leadbelly’s Red Cross Store Blues, a song in which the protagonist refuses to be snookered by the Red Cross welfare stores to enlist in a war he has no intention of joining. The other giant of the early blues era and a World War I veteran, Bill Broonzy, was even more to the point with Black, Brown and White.

The work of great blues musicians may seem irrelevant to cyclists pedaling through a rich white town a century later, but the tools put in place to oppress blacks in PV Estates almost a hundred years ago have proven equally effective at harassing another group of undesirables: Bicyclists.

There is disagreement about why so many PV Estates residents so virulently oppose bicycling. My opinion is a minority one, but it has the advantage of being backed by over four hundred years of history: The city’s behavior is rooted in racism.

We don’t have to go back to the slave ships to understand how important racism was to the founding of PV Estates, as well as the founding and maintenance of its police force. The city’s founders spelled it out, quite literally, in black and in white. Their founding document? Racially restrictive deed covenants that forbade the sale of property to non-whites.

In this regard PV Estates was no different from hundreds of other communities across America, and its origins are indistinguishable from California’s other richest and whitest coastal communities. Of the 13,438 people who lived in PV Estates as of the last census, 161 were black. That’s 1.2 percent. This segregation of the races was inherent in the development of the community and countless others like it. Leadbelly and Broonzy would recognize PV Estates today at a glance for the “sundown town” that it is.

Even though we take vague comfort (as long as we’re white) that in some ways race relationships in America have changed since PV Estates was created as a subdivision in 1923, in some fundamental ways those relationships haven’t. I always assumed that PV Estates, like the urban Texas cities I grew up in, was racist. But it wasn’t until I got embroiled in the Great Bicycle Gang Imbroglio that I began to understand that PV Estates wasn’t casually, or accidentally, or coincidentally racist. It was methodically laid out, planned, and executed as a racist community. But as with so much else in our national fabric, to understand how important racial purity was for the founders of the city, you have to turn to law, and you have to understand that PV Estates’ desire to remain racially pure was not unique, special, or unusual. A look into PV Estate’s founding mythology of racial purity is a click away on the Supreme Court’s 1917 decision of Buchanan v. Warley.

Gazing back a century to 1917 it’s almost impossible to use the right lens. Rather than focusing on the future they didn’t yet know – computers, phones, air travel for the masses, television, video cameras, full carbon bikes that are 100% pure carbon, or even bicycles with gears – it’s a lot easier to focus on what their recent past was. The year 1917 was only fifty-two years after the Civil War. 1865 was to them as 1965 is to us: Recent history to most, living history to many, and still redolent with personal recollection and experience.

Americans were still struggling with the awesome weight of understanding the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution: Blacks were people, citizens, the equal of whites, and entitled to the same rights. Much of that “understanding” though involved a low-grade, unending war against implementing those guarantees, and no place was a more bitter battleground than the U.S. Supreme Court.

Joseph McKenna, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Day, Edward Douglass White, Willis Van Devanter, Mahlon Pitney, James Clark McReynolds, and John Hessin Clark were on the U.S. Supreme Court when lawyers argued Buchanan v. Warley. All were northerners except for McReynolds (Kentucky), and White (Louisiana). Louis Brandeis had not yet been confirmed at the time of oral argument and was nominally from Kentucky, but raised in a Jewish family from Prague that valued German culture and that prized Schumann and Schiller as dinner time conversation topics, it’s safe to say that his childhood had little in common with the redneck state in which he was raised.

This constellation of justices, that included two of the greatest jurists to ever sit on the court, rendered the opinion in Buchanan v. Warley, which confronted a simple issue: Can a white man sell property to a black man even though the city of Louisville had an ordinance prohibiting it? It was a test case set up by the NAACP to fight the new wave of segregation that was crashing like a giant close-out over the cities that were absorbing the great black migration from south to north.

Justice William Day, writing for the majority, was no slouch. In his nineteen-year tenure on the court he penned over four hundred opinions, of which only eighteen were dissents. He was an enemy of large corporations and voted with antitrust majorities throughout his time as a justice. But it was nonetheless surprising when he ruled that ordinances prohibiting blacks from owning property in white neighborhoods were unconstitutional.

The decision sent shock waves through the nation. It was the first time in the prior thirty-eight cases that had come before the court regarding civil rights that the court had ruled in favor of blacks. And although the racist south was most deeply entrenched fighting the Fourteenth Amendment, few if any northern or western communities in America wanted to integrate either, and a quick review of PV Estates’ 2010 census data shows that for this enclave at least, little has changed. “If you’re black, oh brother, get back, get back, get back.”

But in those days when questions of race were still so close to the carnage of the Civil War, and the status of blacks had only been elevated in principle rather than in fact, racists felt no qualms about putting their bestial arguments into Supreme Court briefs. Justice Day noted “That there exists a serious and difficult problem arising from a feeling of race hostility which the law is powerless to control, and to which it must give a measure of consideration, may be freely admitted.” This is of course the mantra of the anti-politically correct, or the Trumpers of 2017, a hundred years later: We hate blacks and the law can’t stop us from hating them.

Yet Justice Day was not hobbled by this reality as he considered and then struck down the racist arguments supporting discrimination in housing sales: “It is the purpose of such enactments, and, it is frankly avowed, it will be their ultimate effect, to require by law, at least in residential districts, the compulsory separation of the races on account of color. Such action is said to be essential to the maintenance of the purity of the races, although it is to be noted in the ordinance under consideration that the employment of colored servants in white families is permitted, and nearby residences of colored persons not coming within the blocks, as defined in the ordinance, are not prohibited.” The racists wanted separation of the races but, apparently, not when it came to their servants. This parallel in PV Estates is evident any weekday on countless city streets, where Hispanic workers tend the yards on condition that they leave the city at day’s end. Justice Day made clear that the case was not one of maintaining racial purity, but a white man’s right to sell his property to a black man if he saw fit, and vice versa.

The appellants argued that the proposed segregation would promote the public peace by preventing race conflicts. “Desirable as this is, and important as is the preservation of the public peace, this aim cannot be accomplished by laws or ordinances which deny rights created or protected by the Federal Constitution,” was Day’s curt response.

Finally, Day rebutted the racists’ strongest suit, one that PV Estates residents still bandy about today — property values: “It is said that such acquisitions by colored persons depreciate property owned in the neighborhood by white persons. But property may be acquired by undesirable white neighbors or put to disagreeable though lawful uses with like results.”

And just like that, the constitutionality of these ordinances was tossed on the rubbish heap.

If only racism could have been tossed on the rubbish heap with it.


*Note: I’m cobbling this together in fits and starts and am only up to Part 2. The next three installments will be published next week. In the meantime, back to our regular bike racing programming nonesuch and whatnot and etcetera.


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32 thoughts on “Hired Guns: Part 2”

  1. This is so beautifully written, Seth. Thanks for a wonderful history lesson. Now, if only all could learn from it! As I tell my sales leaders, I can train “can’t do” but I can’t train “won’t do.”

  2. Barbara Radnofsky

    Great and important history, thank you. Are you available for the Supreme Court? You’d have to move, but they need you over there.

    1. As long as they cover the monthly $2.99 subscription fee and will let me participate by Skype, I’m happy to help.

  3. Well looky here we got one of them smart ass white lawyers, sticking his nose in where it’s not wanted or needed.

    Good work and thank you.

      1. I’ve always believed it’s better to be a smart-ass than a dumb-ass.
        Seriously, though, thanks for the history lesson, legal and otherwise. Curious to know how you’re going to tie together racism and anti-cyclery.

        1. The tools used to enforce and perpetuate the one are being used to harass the other … pretty straight-forward application, but the story is so twisted and insane and involves so many cranks and bad people and of course ordinary and good ones, too.

          Just life, and it’s not always apparent on the surface what makes the machine tick.

  4. You’re singling out PV Estates , but my understanding is that many if not most So Calif cities had racially restrictive covenants governing land purchases, circa1920s

    1. All of them did, and it was common throughout the US. PV Estates was never unique or special in its racism. It was thoroughly ordinary.

      Yet a hundred years later it is one of the few communities that has been able to keep out blacks despite Shelley v. Kraemer (1948).

      I’ll be examining why, and why it matters to cyclists, in future installments.

  5. Your 2010 census data says of PV:
    13,438 residents
    73.4% White, not Hispanic
    17.3% Asian
    4.7% Hispanic
    1.2% Black

    But the same Census data for Hermosa Beach shows an even whiter community, and same level of blacks: ( https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045216/0633364,06 ):
    80.9% White, not Hispanic
    8.4% Hispanic
    5.7% Asian
    1.2% Blacks

    And yet I would argue that Hermosa is significantly more bike friendly and facts on the ground support it (aoption of South Bay master plan, installation of sharrows, participation with South Bay Bike Coalition, etc).

    Redondo, also bike friendly, has a similar ethnic breakdown.

    But unlike ethnicity, there is a marked contrast in another demographic characteristic that does correlate with the bike friendliness (certainly with bike infrastructure spending):

    Voter Registration
    Dem GOP
    PVE 25.4% 51.6%
    Hermosa 35.4% 32.5%
    Redondo 38.0% 31.4%


    1. You miss the point. It’s not that PV Estates is the most racist community on the coast. It’s that all communities enacted racist prohibitions, first in codes and later in covenants, but as of 2017 only a handful of those communities have been able to maintain their racial exclusion of blacks.

      There is no argument about whether Hermosa is more “bike friendly.” PV Estates had two bike deaths last year, neither of which was the subject of any meaningful police investigation.

  6. To be clear, it case it was too subtle:
    You say its rooted in racism and point to the demographics in the census figures.
    I say it may be rooted in racism, but it’s not the ethnic demographics. I say it’s the conservative mix, ie, those who want to “keep it the same”, some rose colored “pastoral” version. Keep “them” out, where “them” is people who are different. Like cyclists. Half the anticyclist comments on NextDoor are about “keep them from coming here”, as if we are foreign invaders intruding on their lifestyle, and a virtual wall of rules should be erected to keep us out.

    1. This is a nice attempt to divert. “Keep it the same” is “keep out blacks.” “Pastoral” is keep out blacks. “Them” is “blacks.”

      The census figures and demographics are only the current incontrovertible evidence of hostility to blacks in PV Estates. You’ve completely ignored the history of how it got to be that way, as if “rooted in racism” means nothing.

      The tools used to effectively segregate and keep PV Estates segregated are now used to keep out cyclists and harass them. If you don’t think this is a problem of racism, you’ll need some historical facts to support your claim.

      1. You may have missed my point.

        The reason I wrote is because TomH pointed out that racial covenants were common among all cities in the area. You agreed. In response to my post, you wrote, “as of 2017 only a handful of those communities have been able to maintain their racial exclusion of blacks.”

        This leaves a question of what is unique or different about PVE that it is in that handful. You didn’t say but mentioned you’ll be writing about it in future installments. I look forward to your thoughts on this.

        All I’m doing now is responding to that food for thought and looking for data that illustrates a uniqueness or difference in population between PVE and the other nearby beach cities.

        I pointed out a distinction in party affiliation, but that’s just a quick first pass look for a distinction. I strongly suspect party affiliation is really a proxy for age. Looking now at the same census data, although the data is coarse, it seems to bear out: 24.2% of PVE’s population is older than 65, *significantly* more than the US average (13%), and much more than Hermosa’s (9.0%) and Redondo’s (10.5%) younger demographic.

        So a quarter of the PVE population was born in 1952 or earlier, and experienced their formative years in pre Civil Rights Act America. It’s not a stretch to believe that they may be more “stuck” in the rosy colored view of that past than the younger Beach Cities population.

        I agree that use of words like “pastoral” is a diversion – a wink and nudge, you know what we mean. That’s why I put it in quotes.

        Anyway, look forward to next installment and hoping you’ll touch on why you believe PVE is stuck in the racial ditch.

        1. The simple reason that PV Estates is stuck in the racial ditch is because a preponderance of its residents and city administrators, as well as elected officials, are racist.

          Why they are that way I have no idea; likely a combination of upbringing and personal experience and worldview.

          Why PV Estates has maintained its racial segregation is likewise simple. It has a police force that makes the community dangerous for blacks and for poor Hispanics.

          These things are not the point of my investigation, however. This series simply examines whether one law enforcement agency, PVEPD, or another, LASD, is better for cyclists.

          And to answer that question I’ve set about examining racism, its origins, and its tools for maintaining white hegemony in PV Estates. Only by understanding those things can we evaluate the relative benefits of one agency over another vis-a-vis cyclists.

          That’s the sum of it, no ball hiding or anything to be revealed in future posts. Just an examination of the past and present to better understand today, with real examples, and names of real PV Estates residents who are involved on various sides of the fight.

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