While lecturing on “Diversity in the Workplace” in my management class recently, I gave a handout to my students on ‘The Four Layers of Diversity’ from Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe’s book, Diverse Teams at Work: Capitalizing on the Power of Diversity. The layers of diversity—personality, internal dimensions, external dimensions, and organizational dimensions—form our filters for how we perceive others. We discussed factors in the different layers—such as age, race, ethnicity, economic income, management status, parental status, income, etc.—then I added a factor that was not included: class.
As I had done in other classrooms, I used my personal experience as an example of how those in upper classes can be uncomfortable with those at lower levels of society. Social classes are based on power, the power of money, status, tastes, external appearances, etc.
My students had surprised looks on their faces after I shared my story. A good number of the 26 students currently that I teach—mostly ‘first generation’ children of immigrants that represent 17 different nationalities and ethnicities—knew the connotation of the area I referenced. For those who didn’t know, I promised to give them more information.
Following is a draft of an essay that I wrote about “The Hendersons of South Central Los Angeles” which includes a description of the area where I was born and raised.
One evening in early May 1998, I was making small talk with a casual acquaintance during an informal cocktail party on New York City’s gold coast, the Upper East Side. When this man outfitted in appropriate Ralph Lauren attire asked me in his slightly pompous way, “Are you related to the Hendersons of Rhode Island?” I made a quick decision.
“No, the Hendersons of South Central Los Angeles,” I blurted out.
Dazed, uncomfortable and at a loss for what to say next, he mumbled something into his crystal wine glass and excused himself. I was comfortably dressed in a discounted cotton blouse and shorts from Filene’s Basement. What I wasn’t at ease with was the truth I had shared.
“No, I’m from Los Angeles,” would have been a perfectly fine answer and let me continue to hide my origins in the generic ‘Los Angeles’ rather than identify a very specific and notorious district.
“Why did I shock my companion with the truth?” I wondered then and still to this day. Had I spoken out of anger and jealousy that I didn’t come from a family in a state known for aristocrats and beautiful mansions? Was my honesty a side effect of my renewed effort at psychotherapy to work out constricting kinks of family patterns, accept the white trash image of the decaying home on West 90th Street and cluttered backyard that looked like the L.A. dump, and give up on hoping my two sisters and a brother who still lived on the block would move to someplace safer?
Or did I speak out of a need to share the true shame of my life—I was from a place best-known for what it couldn’t do right?
South Central is an area known for its failures. The region south of the Los Angeles City Hall—loosely defined by the Santa Monica Freeway on the north, the Los Angeles River or the Long Beach Freeway on the east, and the San Diego Freeway on the west and south—is a relatively small area of about sixty square miles but it has enormous challenges. Some of these include continuous high unemployment, chronic racial and cultural tensions, evolution of gang warfare within and among ethnic groups, plus ongoing friction between residents and law enforcement officials that periodically erupts into violent outbursts.
The 1965 Watts Riots put one small neighborhood on the global map of cultural unrest and skewed the definition of South Central in that direction. The spark of the riot was struck on Wednesday, August 11, 1965 after a white police officer stopped a young black man driving carelessly near 116th and Avalon just south of an area called Watts. That routine arrest on a hot summer’s day escalated into what some called ‘the bloodiest race riot in the history of the United States’—up to that time. It also restrained my family from leaving our home until the area calmed down. Ten days of fire bombs in buildings and homes, deadly sniper fire, and zealous looting left 34 dead, 1,000 injured, nearly 4,000 arrested, and over 700 buildings destroyed or damaged. The price tag of $40 million couldn’t cover the cost to heal the spiritual wounds inflicted of those making progress toward integration and to improve police-community relations.
Federal money was allocated to improve economic opportunities, highways were planned out to allow for easier access to jobs in other neighborhoods, and educational programs were developed to renew efforts at improving literacy and skills. The Los Angeles Police Department was ordered to take a microscope to the area to see how to better train its officers in community relations. The City built a new one story brick police station just a quarter mile from the public housing projects where the ‘insurrection’ caught fire. The new Southeast Station opened its doors in 1979 with a big mission: to change the image of the predominately white police force with the cultural mix of blacks, those with Spanish surnames, and the few remaining whites—including three members of my family.
In 1984, the Olympics brought millions of people, billions of dollars, and worldwide attention to Los Angeles. Athletes from South Central like Florence Griffith Joyner competed for gold medals while youths in the still economically disadvantaged area found other ways to gain self-esteem. Well-established gangs like the Bloods and the Crips offered allegiance to a cause and a way to ease a sense of alienation, rivalries developed to test strength and endurance, and killings occurred to resolve disputes over territory, drugs, and power. Hollywood turned its lens on the gang culture and in 1991, “Boyz N the Hood” was released, earning John Singleton Oscar nominations for Best Director and Screen Play.
However, another riot turned the spotlight three miles northwest of Watts to Florence and Normandie. On April 29, 1992, news of the acquittal of four L.A. police officers by an all-white jury in all-white Simi Valley north of L.A. spread quickly. The officers had been caught on tape trying forcibly to subdue and arrest motorist Rodney King, a man with a police record who had led the officers on a wild car chase after being spotted speeding. African-Americans were outraged by the verdict and expressed their anger by pulling drivers out of their cars and assaulting them. Truck driver Reginald Denny was beaten within breaths of his death. Nearly four days of rioting left 55 dead, 2,300 injured, 10,000 arrested, 600 fires set, and close to $1 billion in damaged stores and homes. It also left those who had worked hard to improve relations asking: “How did this happen again?” and “Hadn’t the police and the community learned anything?” University professors, city officials, and media savored this well-dissected public failure. My sisters, however, continued their roles in the West 90th Plus Block Club and other public service community groups to ease tensions and subdue the level of violence that had earned the area where they lived “The Killing Zone” by the Los Angeles Times in 2002.
Looking back to the conversation I had in May, 1998, I know I felt a failure. I also felt insulted by the man who walked away from me because he made me feel that I wasn’t in his same class.
Today, it is pride that inspires me to share my story. Pride that after telling myself that one day I wanted to help people while watching the smoke from the Watts Riots on my way to college, I have found in teaching college a way to not just help students but to guide them through real-world experiences so that they are prepared to be effective managers and leaders.
Even though there has not been a family member in the area since 2003, I continue to say that I’m proud to be one of the Hendersons of South Central Los Angeles.