A friend and fellow rider, Ken Vinson, invited me to join the Movement Ride on Saturday. “Sure,” I said. “Where and when?”
“Inglewood, Penuel Cycles, 8:00 AM. Thirty miles, all skill levels, no-drop. Barbecue afterwards.”
Race in America
I’m not talking about the bicycle kind. For those who think our country isn’t divided based on race, maybe you can explain why there were only five or six white people on the Movement Ride, out of 150+ riders.
Inglewood is a few short miles away from where I live in Rancho Palos Verdes, but it might as well be a thousand miles away. I’ve been through it before on a bike, emphasis on the word “through.”
We showed up at George Turner’s bike shop and people were friendly and welcoming. I can’t tell you how many bike rides I’ve been on in my life where no one says hello and where the new person has to “prove himself” in order to be acknowledged. Not here. In a few short minutes I had met a dozen people and run into a dozen more who I already knew, but this time I was in their neighborhood.
If you are a white cyclist you need to go hang out in a black neighborhood with black cyclists. It’s intimidating at first and I felt awkward, aware of looking different. I didn’t have any of the confidence I have on the Donut or the Flog Ride. I was in someone else’s community and I was anxious about it.
I think there’s a phrase for this, something about a shoe and a foot.
It’s just a bike, dude
Ken gave a nice starting speech to the group, which started with about 80 riders but swelled to double that number as we cruised the inner city streets of L.A. The Movement Ride exists to get people together, to use the movement of the bicycle as a movement for people to start trying to make a change in this racially divided country of ours.
Unfortunately, despite having invited over a hundred of his white friends and acquaintances, less than half a dozen showed up. I’d learn throughout the day why that was such a loss, not for my hosts, but for the white cyclists who missed an incredible chance to belong, however briefly, to a black community.
We rolled out from Penuel Cycles and set forth on our ramble through the streets of south central Los Angeles. As soon as the pedals started turning, whatever nervousness I felt evaporated. Perhaps I didn’t feel at home on the streets of Inglewood, but I sure felt at home on my bike.
When is the last time a black man talked to you about racism? I was riding next to a guy a few years older than I am, and he recounted leaving L.A. with the Air Force and being stationed in backwater Florida.
“The first morning I went into a donut shop with my crew, I was the only black guy. I was the first one in the shop, everyone else came in after me. There was a register off to the right and another one off to the left. I went to the one on the left, ordered my donuts and coffee and then stood aside. This was 1976, right? The modern era. We all got our donuts, but I was served last.
“We went outside and one of the guys in my crew said, ‘You see, man? That’s how it is in Florida.’
“‘That’s how what is?’ I asked.
“‘You ordered first but you got served last. That’s because you’re black.’
“‘Naw, man,” I said. “I just went to that other register and they filled our orders like that. It didn’t have anything to do with me being black.’
“‘Okay,’ he said.
“The next day we went there to get our donuts and coffee, and I was the first one in, last one served. And we’re standing outside and my friend says, ‘You see? They served you last today and they’ll serve you last every day.’
“While I was standing there trying to not really believe it, this car drives by, it’s seven in the morning, and this guy sticks his head out the window and screams ‘Niggerrrrrr!’ You know, I couldn’t believe it. This was 1976. People didn’t talk that way in Los Angeles. Nobody’s going to drive by in L.A. and scream the n-word at you. That’s how it was, though.
“And I was stationed in the U.K. for seven years and I never heard a racial epithet. People liked me over there, they thought black Americans were cool. But in Florida, that’s the way it was.”
Racism on the bike
When black cyclists ride with white ones, race is usually just beneath the surface. Sometimes it boils over, like it did last Tuesday on the NPR. Sometimes it’s a problem of perception, but often it’s a problem of reality. Some whites react differently to blacks than they do to whites. And although no one likes to ‘fess up and say “I’m a racist,” the fact is that race is still a big problem here, so why should it be magically erased just because we’re on a bicycle?
Answer: It isn’t.
Joining the Movement Ride was an eye-and-mind opening experience. In addition to acutely being aware that I was white and in the minority, I was taken aback by the way motorists treated us. They waved with all five fingers. They honked going the other direction with their thumbs up. A couple of times, young kids on fixies darted out and jumped in with our group, riding wheelies at the front for blocks and blocks.
People at bus stops, and there are a lot of people at bus stops in south central L.A., shouted, whistled, yelled, and hooted encouragement as we whizzed by. At every intersection, Tony and Michael would pull in front and stop traffic with a police whistle while our massive group rolled by.
And you know what? No one got angry. No one cursed. No screaming or honking. The cars just waited until we passed, and then continued on. For them, bikes on the street wasn’t just a normal thing, it was a good thing.
This could never happen in Palos Verdes. You know why? Because so many people here are so fucking mean. And if it was a group of 150 black cyclists, stopping traffic and peacefully riding along the coast? They’d call out every squad car on the force. It made me wonder why the people in Inglewood were so nice to us and the people in PV are so mean. It made me wonder why a black community could be so welcoming to a few white people, but a white community could be so hostile to blacks.
Fear and acceptance
I’m not naive enough to think that truly racist people can be converted with a simple bike ride. But I am convinced that the more white people who experience being in a black community, the better it will be for everyone. Public roads and cycling clubs give us a way to hang out that is natural and normal. Things aren’t forced, and if they get uncomfortable you can always pedal up, drift back, or pedal away.
It’s valuable to get outside of your geographical comfort zones. We’re led to believe that places like Inglewood are dangerous and unsafe for whites, that the “‘hood” is a hostile place. Maybe in some places and at some times of day it is; but on a sunny Saturday morning on your bike, surrounded by pillars of the local community, peacefully enjoying conversation and fellowship, you couldn’t find a safer urban place to ride if you tried.
The initial worry that leads to an eventual feeling of acceptance, or at least an understanding that inside we are all people who want the same basic things, is the first step towards righting a lot of what’s wrong with our society. Making friends means making an effort. Understanding how black people might feel biking through a white community just might require that you spend some time pedaling through a black one.
Barbecue and a few words
When we finished the ride, we celebrated with some of Harry’s Texas barbecue. Harry is from Weatherford and his barbecue puts every other barbecue I’ve ever had in L.A. in the shade. I got to stand up and say a few words, an honor for which I was deeply appreciative.
But in truth I was also really nervous. I’ve never spoken to a 99% black audience before. It’s intimidating, and not just because black communities have no shortage of extraordinary speakers. You don’t want to sound stupid, you don’t want to sound like their stereotype of some fake white dude, you suddenly feel like the impressions you leave people with may affect how they see other people like you. I felt, maybe a little, the way some of the people in my audience may have felt when they were addressing a group of whites.
I got through it without any major gaffes. People clapped warmly, partly because I had the good sense to keep it brief.
We drove home and I thought a lot about how physically being in someone else’s community affects how you see them. Cyclists could all benefit from doing a lot more of that. So could our nation. So could our world.
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