Crossing the color line

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.

Real talk

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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27 thoughts on “Crossing the color line”

  1. Thanks for bringing up this topic; something I’ve been wondering about since moving here (Redondo/Torrance) full time ten years ago. There are two sub-issues here, cycling segregation and neighborhood racial attitudes. New York has no shortage of racism, perhaps more subtle, but neighborhoods, even those quite wealthy, are mixed, and folks have learned (or are forced) to get along. Residential segregation exists, but not on the scale of LA. Residents of the most weathy White neighborhoods of Manhattan are accustomed to the diverse “ colors” of the streets, although the outlying boroughs are another story.

    The gem of NYC, and one of the few places that I miss, is Central Park, or, cycling central, where at any time of day ( or night, it’s safe, trust me) there are riders of every stripe hammering (or rolling) around the 6.2 mile loop. A victim of it’s own success, the Park is so crowded now ( friggin pedicabs, two and three abrest) that to ride at a decent pace, and safely, most riders meet in the park, then ride out of the city, most over the George Washington Bridge, through weathly New Jersey suburbs, then over the state line into New York, to Nyack and North. Getting to the GWB involves riding through densely populated African-American and Latino neighborhoods of Harlem and Washington Heights (where my maternal grandparents lived a century ago). Now imagine mixed groups of riders on bicycles costing much more than a month’s income for neigborhood residents filling the streets every week-end ( weekdays, less so). With the exception of a few isolated incidents, these weekend warriors are greeted warmly, with waves and hellos, this from my thirty plus years of riding back and forth twice a week during ridable (above 20 degrees, try to believe me) weather, similar to your experience in Inglewood.

    The recreational and racing club/groups in Manhattan are totally mixed, with a few primarily Black clubs from Brooklyn. Post-ride ( or race) socializing in the Park is one big mixed party, riders hanging out on benches across from Travern on the Green, telling jokes and lying to each other, sometimes strong drink or weed may be present…Enduring mixed friedships ( and some marrages!) have been a result. I noticed a big difference when moving to LA, and asked a Black rider, who explained that racial composition of gruops here is primarily a function of neighborhood compostion, hence partial segregation. Those with more experience may have other opinions.

    As much as I love living and cycling here, there is a very dark side, which I resist acknowledging, more pervasive racism, perhaps related to further far-right leaning political atmosphere. New York is not without fault, but with less racism, and although I enjoyed returning twice a year, would never want return there to live. My final thought about this, at an early hour, is that I have heard the N word spoken more frequntly here in a few years than I had in my entire life in NYC, perhaps I have met the wrong people…

    1. Bottom line is that people have to experience the communities of others. There is an amazing book on this subject, “Sundown Towns,” by the sociologist James Loewen. People have to get out of their neighborhoods and mix. It has a salutary effect … on everything.

      1. I live in what was once a “Sundown Town”; Torrance/Hollywood Riviera! From Wikipedia;

        “I disagree with the comment of “high level of racial diversity”; it is more nuanced than that. Historically, Torrance was quite supportive of Japanese Americans, tolerant of Hispanics, and antagonistic towards African Americans. The old Hispanic area – the “Pueblo District” – is near the Exxon Plant, is not a pleasant area. Forty years ago, African Americans were not welcome to live in Torrance, despite the Barrows v. Jackson ruling by the Supreme Court in 1953 that overthrew the use of housing covenants like those in Torrance. —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 14:49, 11 November 2009 (UTC)
        That is true! I’m going by my maternal family’s experience growing up in the south side of Redondo Beach and Torrance in the 1950s/60s in the civil rights era affecting the community as much it did in the nation. In the 1920s & 30s, the KKK held some city council seats in Torrance fought off blacks and Jews for purchasing residences and real estate tracts were ethnically segregated until the end of WWII, and sometimes complaints about Portuguese people moving into town at the time. In any community not just Torrance, immigrants with a foreign culture will be first met with disapproval for being “different” from the locals. But locals become used to changes and stopped being prejudiced towards them. + (talk) 06:47, 1 August 2010 (UTC)
        I agree that throughout Los Angeles and beyond there were many real estate covenants restricting the purchase of homes by minorities, but I feel that a comment about Torrance’s affiliation with the KKK shouldn’t be included in the city’s Wikipedia page without a proper reference or citation. Back in the 1990s, I remember Mark Fuhrman (an L.A.P.D. detective involved in the OJ Simpson trial) made some remarks about Torrance being L.A.’s “lone white bastion” or something like that. Feel free to Google it for more precise sources, but here is at least a proper link to an L.A. Time’s article about Mr. Furhman’s comments:

      2. “Sundown Towns” sounds really interesting.

        Have you read “The Color of Law” yet? It’s about the practice of redlining. It didn’t dawn on me until now that’s maybe what inspired the post title!

    2. I concur with this wholeheartedly. Though I am not a NYer, I have engaged the rides that this writer details, and neither I nor any of the groups that I have brought (That would be white groups) have ever experienced anything less than simply being ignored as we traveled through Harlem to get to the GW access, and that includes both side of the GW.

      Once that ride reaches the wealthy enclave of Piermont, then cyclists, who come through in droves, and stop to spend money, are treated differently.

      Anyway, I love this piece, and it reminds me of how simply taking my group through parts of Asbury Park, or Trenton NJ evokes comments, such as “I would never have routed through here on my own. Hope you know what you are doing Eric”.

      1. I agree, they hate us in Piermont, and Nyack as well, despite all the $ spent,

  2. As a high-school student in Queens, New York in the 1970s, I was the only white guy in an otherwise black jazz quartet. At many gigs and parties, I was the only white present. I was quite self conscious at first. But then I realized that no one appeared to notice or care about my color. I felt accepted and appreciated for what I was–a pretty decent sax player for a high school kid. It was a great growing-up lesson and I’ve tried to be just as open and accepting to all races ever since.

    I was thrown off, however, when I auditioned for the group and was told “You bad, man.” I first thought that meant I wasn’t good enough for them. So I had some lingo to learn, too.

  3. Of course you’re right, Seth, but those in power don’t want to share, which is why we have segregation.

  4. Great story, Seth!

    I’m trying to understand why the Inglewoods of the world are more accepting of people using bicycles on the public roads than other places. I’ve experienced the same in San Diego, usually the honks and buzzes and yelling comes when I ride in my own neighborhood (wealthy coastal.. NIMBY paradise) which is closer to a PVE than an Inglewood. Yet when I ride to Tijuana I usually go through all the communities south of Downtown San Diego (instead of Coronado, the Snowflake Sandbar) where there isn’t so much as a sharrow and all the motorists treat me like any other driver. In those areas I tend to see more kids out on bikes and a better tolerance of us on the road. Tijuana motorists also do not give me too much grief. My biggest issue there is finding a good place to lock up my bike when I visit the dentist.

    Of course my community does have people who ride bikes including our city council rep but the most vocal ones believe they bicyclists belong on the bike paths out of their way and off “their” roads. It ain’t the cheap ass bicycle riders bringing all the tourist rev air or renting out their AirBnbs anyways I suppose.

    The way certain communities embrace bike share programs over others is also eye opening too.

    1. Thanks. I think the conclusion is not pretty: The more money you have, the bigger an asshole you are. Exhibit A: President of the United States.

  5. Thank you Seth. This was an excellent post. My daughter and I would love to attend a future Movement Ride.

  6. I’ve always felt as a cyclist fairly welcomed by the black community. I’m about as white as Niles Crane and I don’t have any kits that aren’t club or team kits (I prefer to support groups that support bike racing and cycling in general vs just supporting rapha) so I’m far from inconspicuous but any time I ride through the North East of Houston I’m shocked at how well I’m treated on the roads, seems like the only time I get coal rolled or buzzed are in more affluent low minority areas.

      1. gotta keep you grounded! 🙂 Seriously though, the mainstream unwashed sheeple need to read this and just TRY to open the blinders just a bit wider.

  7. Super kind comment came in from Greg, who drove all the way from Vegas to hang out after the ride:

    “I’ve been riding for 40+ years with groups of all sizes.They have always tended to be predominately white. I’ve never been involved with a group of cyclists who are so warm and welcoming as what I experienced on Saturday, and I wasn’t even a rider. While I was waiting in the shop for the riders to arrive, all the guys in the shop were much more friendly than I had experienced at any other shops. More notable with a staff in the shop so large.

    “The level of rambunctious jocularity and warm laughter after the ride. Amazing. I wish I had been able to ride here. Obviously it was the cultural difference, most welcome

    “The rest of the US cycling world could do well to take notice.”

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