Freedom to Be Inclusive

10_8_09_AloudCrowd.jpgCrowd shot from last Friday’s panel discussion with David Byrne.

At the October 2nd ALOUD event with David Byrne I couldn’t help but notice the lack of racial diversity in the crowd. It did not match the demographics of Los Angeles and certainly did not match the demographic that rides bicycles in Los Angeles.

Where was the working class?

Where were the Latinos?

Where were the Asian-Americans?

Where were the black people?

Was I ever going to go to an alternative transit event in ethnically diverse Los Angeles that was racially diverse? I would think the alt-transit movement would be perfect to bring together the mosaic of cultures in Los Angeles, but it seems to always be the perfect storm that misses hitting the giant island of racial diversity.

One person that has an answer for a more inclusive cycling community is James Spooner, a former New Yorker who started the Afro-Punk movement with a little film called Afro-Punk.

10_8_09_spooner.jpgJames Spooner

Spooner hosts Freedom Ride, a ride that meets the last Sunday of every month for "black kids" on bikes. It is named after the Freedom Riders of the 1960s who rode Interstate buses and railroads to test the Supreme Court’s ruling in Boynton v. Virginia (1960), which declared segregation in interstate bus and rail stations unconstitutional.

I sat down and talked to James Spooner about the bicycle community and issues of diversity in Los Angeles. We discussed how to walk on the delicate tightrope of being inclusive to people of color and how to explain that to your friends who aren’t of color.

"Say you’re in your thirties, you’ve got a Mohawk. You’re not a hipster. You’re not a person who got a Mohawk yesterday because it’s cool. You are a grimy fixed-gear rider who has had a Mohawk for 20 years. You know what it’s like to feel ostracized. And you know what it’s like when you go to a punk concert and for those two-to-four hours you feel free. You feel that everybody there understands you. You can be exactly who you want to be without feeling ridiculed or less than. Then you leave that place and you go back to being the grimy punk rocker that everyone looks down on. Well, that’s how black people feel and there are not enough punk shows for us to go to. That’s why I do the ride," James Spooner, recanting a story to me when he tried explaining to a friend the Freedom Ride. Unfortunately, the friend still didn’t get it.

We talked about why women’s rides were viewed as OK but the Freedom Ride was viewed as a problematic or divisive. "There is not a problem with the (women’s rides.) Men are more comfortable with being called a sexist than being called a racist. If they support a women’s ride they are being liberated, but to admit that black people need their own thing that would be admitting that there is still racism and they might be part of it. To think that their friends, which is the real hard thing for them to grasp, that their one black friend that this would appeal to that person, it would mean that their community is racist. Racism has a bitter, vile history that is in close proximity-if they acknowledge that we aren’t equal than they’ll have to do more work," said Spooner.

I believe that is the key to the alternative transit movement and the environmental movement in general. It is about putting in the work. James and I talked about if there was an actual bike culture in the Los Angeles or was it just a community. We agreed that there was a community and that it has the potential to become a culture, but it’s not there yet. If the bike community wants to become a culture in Los Angeles then it is going to have to become more inclusive-not just racially, but also in regards to socio-economics and family status. The alt-transit community has to be about affordable housing and safe streets and it also has to be about gender and racially equality. In my opinion bike lanes alone will not build a bicycle culture in Los Angeles; they will certainly help, but bike lanes and bike boulevards are not the most important components in creating a bicycle culture in Los Angeles.

If we want to build a community that becomes a culture, something precious that has the ability to be passed down to our children and their children and not become the next hot thing marketers try to sell, we’ll all have to work a little bit harder.

  • There are many different kinds of people riding bikes in LA, and many of them do not identify with any kind of bike “culture,” per se. If you are a Latino man who is desperately looking for work and considering returning home to Guatemala because you haven’t found a job in two weeks, and you happen to ride a bike because that’s the only thing you can afford, are you going to plunk down $25 to see David Byrne speak about bikes? The question is kind of absurd. There are real socioeconomic differences between bicyclists here and everywhere, and we should try to bridge those gaps, but truly crossing racial/cultural/social/geographic divides is not easy for everyone.

  • To answer your question about where certain common ethnic groups were in the room:

    (1) The event was entirely in English;
    (2) The event cost $25 per person.

    This was not designed to attract a broad cross section of humanity. This was an event designed to raise funds for the Library Foundation and to engage those who can afford to enter the auditorium.

    Further, I don’t think you looked around the room closely enough, because there was a lot of ethnic diversity. Class diversity, not so much – but, again, the price of admission was pretty steep.

  • As a long time cyclist who started riding when cycling was a strictly white, male activity, I’ve been pleased to see the rise in women riders over the last few decades, as well as the more recent increase in ethnic riders. Only a few years ago, it was a rarity to see an African-American in spandex, even here in L.A.; now it’s an every day occurrence. And every day I see riders of every possible description on bikes of all kinds, and every style of riding.

    As for the Byrne panel, as a survivor of the ’70s and’80s — and an OP (Original Punk) — my recollection is that the popularity of the Talking Heads was pretty much confined to the white community. And since that’s still the main reason most people know David Byrne, I suspect that has a lot to do with the hue of the audience.

  • I really feel that a Hollywood feel good sports story of the life of Major Taylor would do wonders for diversity in the cycling community. The Major Motion cycling team inspired by Taylor, which has an amazing youth program has been quite a game changer in diversifying the cycling community. Taylor was the original African American athlete making it at the professional level in a white sport, but more than making it he was a dominating winner of the track racing scene at the turn of the century which used to be a huge deal in the U.S. before automobile racing. Despite death threats and objects thrown at him at times, he kept on riding his bike and kicking ass in the process.

  • @bikinginla: “when cycling was a strictly white, male activity” huh? I don’t think that this was ever the case…

    Perhaps it’s shorthand for something a little more subjective like “when I didn’t see a lot of non-white or female road racer bicyclists on my rides.” I would assert that these folks may have been out there riding, but not in the same places that you were riding. We’re in a still racially and class segregated region. I suspect that they were riding in their neighborhoods, you in yours.

  • Erik G.

    The event ended after most final Metrolink trains have already left LAUS, and some of the Rapidbuses had stopped running. Basically you needed a bike or a car to attend if your home is in a great deal of greater Los Angeles.

    Also, though I was in attendance, I had been warned about how “sketchy” Little Tokyo was earlier in the day by a co-worker. Nothing could have been further from the truth, of course.

  • Joe, you have a point. I’m sure there were some women and minority riders even back then, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. But I’ve never been one to confine myself to white neighborhoods, or even my own neighborhood; I’ve always preferred mixed neighborhoods, people of widely diverse backgrounds and riding everywhere.

    Maybe it’s just the cities I was in, but the overwhelming majority of adult riders in Baton Rouge, Denver and San Diego were both white and male, at least when I lived in those cities. And in the 20 years I’ve been here in L.A., I’ve seen a gradual, but dramatic increase in adult cyclists of every description — especially in the last few years.

    And that’s a very good thing.

  • “To answer your question about where certain common ethnic groups were in the room:

    (1) The event was entirely in English;
    (2) The event cost $25 per person.”

    Come on. Those certain ethnic groups *do* have money. They just aren’t spending it on biking stuff.

  • “@bikinginla: “when cycling was a strictly white, male activity” huh? I don’t think that this was ever the case… ”

    The League of American Wheelmen, the predecessor to the League of American Bicyclists was a stubbornly racist and white male dominated organization that for a long time forbid African American membership. I’m sure there has always been a a fraction of cycling adults of all races and genders in America, but they weren’t part of the “club” so to speak. Back in those days LAW was both an organization that advocated for cycling, but also bike race promoting, and they did not take kindly to a black man winning their races. That was the early days, but there was a time when cycling was a strictly white male sort of activity. We tend to associate the cyclist of today with more liberal attitudes, but that was not always the case and there is certainly room for improvement in diversifying the cycling community today.

  • Thanks for the responses. Being liberal is a pain in the ass. Yes other people can make money the traditional way, but you know I hold the alt transit world and environmentalist to a different standard. I hold myself to a different standard. With cycling (or any activity that disturbs the hold that corporate capitalism has on our society) the journey is just as important as the destination. I just want to make sure the community is having the best trip possible to the final destination.

    When you tell of a great trip the vast majority of the time getting there is usually the most entertaining part of the trip.

    What’s more fun making a baby or labor?
    What’s more fun, college graduation or getting to college graduation?
    What’s more fun the wedding or the first kiss and the engagement?

    Browne

  • cph

    Probably because it was David Byrne, who is not particularly well-known outside of the alt-rock crowd (Talking Heads, etc.)

    Put some rapper up on the stage and you might get a more “ethnic” crowd…

  • the anonymous ass “cph” stated, “Put some rapper up on the stage and you might get a more “ethnic” crowd…”

    One wonders what this means. Even with the screen of anonymity provided by the Internet, “cph” cannot being up the word “nigger.”

    Perhaps there is a reason that the film “Heckler” remains so small in popularity. When the documentary was reviewed in the September/October 2009 edition of Mother Jones, James Rocchi talked about how “interviews build into a critique of how the combination of anonymity and an audience allows people to say things online that they might not if they had to put their name and face to the words.” I have talked about this numerous times over the past 15 years—on-line, in print and IN PERSON—and not one person has ever approached me to speak about such things (let alone unfavourable perspectives they possess) in person. (A few did so via post, when the USPS was still stronger and more widely available than e-mail.)

    So, “cph,” why not at least show some cyber-balls and just state what you think you have the backbone to announce?

    And in case one wonders, it were I who took the above photos that night in Little Tokyo at the Aloud event. I even had a question for Bike Kitchen guy regarding Midnight Ridazz and the hushed-up shooting event (which I am still investigating, and which there has been no coöperation from Midnight Ridazz), but I got tired of waiting for all the blatant self-promotion of others’ rides—couched in “questions” to the panel—being allowed to waste time, and so I departed after about two hours.

  • CPH I like alternative music and I like like punk rock. James Spooner the person who created the Freedom ride started a whole movement along with a documentary film about black people who liked punk music so I don’t think it’s just about there not being a “rap” singer.

    Browne

  • If rappers did hop out of their Escalades and onto a bike, it might influence the youths that listen to them.

  • I went to a jazz festival on Crenshaw once and nobody asked why there weren’t more white people there. No one said, we need to include more whites.

    I personally don’t give a shit who shows up to anything. If I like mass transit, and I show up to a transit meeting, and everybody is white or black or Eskimo, I’d join in just the same. I don’t knock this stupid bike show just because there are only whites there any more than I would knock the jazz festival for being patronized mainly by blacks. I’m sorry, it’s just not something I care about at all.

  • Sam

    I am not white nor a man. I don’t know why the majority of activities I’m drawn to are popular with white men who identify as being “liberal”. The only time I am aware of the situation of how much of an anomaly my presence at an event is when someone pointedly makes a reference to it.

    I would love it if more women and more non white people rode bicycles in San Diego (where I live). I can speculate about why this is not really the case: one would be the actual breakdown in races (possibly not the case in L.A. from what I’ve read), and the other is what is advertised as being successful – it is usually a car in the suburbs with a lawn. The image of success doesn’t happen to be a bicycle rider (yet). So I suspect striving to reach the model of success as a car owning, suburban living person is more of a goal for most non-white people.

  • Sam

    I do have a suggestion if streetsblog could implement it…I’d like to subscribe to comments so that I can follow a thread if there are responses.

  • Spokker,

    Why must rap stars lead people? That’s the problem with the alt world. It seems to think that unless they can turn it into a brand that can be bought and sold it won’t succeed. I don’t want to sell kids on the idea of riding a bike, I want kids to ride bicycles because that’s the superior way to get around along with public transit.

    And I don’t think rap stars need to do anything. I’ve gone to South LA, Compton and there are lots of kids riding their bicycles. I’m not sure how you got from my post that black kids and latino kids aren’t riding their bicycles, because that’s the complete opposite of what I was saying. Those groups are riding (I have to say maybe I’m in the wrong neighborhood, but I rarely see white kids on bicycles in LA, almost all of the people I see on bikes under the age of 18 are kids of color,) but they aren’t being represented in the mainstream/alternative cycling world.

    And also how do you know what black and Latinos kids listen to? Do you know any personally?

    And if you have found a jazz band that can eat depending on a black audience then you must be living in 1955, because my friends who play jazz their number one complaint (ok maybe number two) is that black people don’t listen to jazz and won’t support it.

    @ Sam “The only time I am aware of the situation of how much of an anomaly my presence at an event is when someone pointedly makes a reference to it.”

    Everytime I go to an event where I am a different race than most other people in the room people make it a point to say something. My friends normally don’t believe me until they hang out with me and then they are pretty amazed. I went to this eco/organic dinner once first the whole table informed me they didn’t like rap music and then later in the night someone asked me for drugs, because I looked like I would have some. This happens all of the time when I go to eco/alt events in Los Angeles and its weird, because LA didn’t used to be like this.

    browne

  • “If we want to build a community that becomes a culture, something precious that has the ability to be passed down to our children and their children and not become the next hot thing marketers try to sell, we’ll all have to work a little bit harder.”

    Browne – thank you for bringing these issues out again and again. I def think we need to talk about them more. I am too concerned about the lack of diversity and tolerance I see in the Livable Streets movement in LA.

  • cph

    “CPH I like alternative music and I like like punk rock.”

    Come over and listen to my Ipod sometime. I have about 4000 songs on there, maybe less than 1/2 of 1% is any kind of rap. Mostly pop, some rock, a bit of Latin here and there, and lots of other foreign language stuff. And I’m a 44-year old black man who grew up listening to country and western, of all things. But I have no pretense that I am in the majority.

    ” James Spooner the person who created the Freedom ride started a whole movement along with a documentary film about black people who liked punk music so I don’t think it’s just about there not being a “rap” singer.”

    I’m sure they exist. Once again though, the set of “black people who listen to punk” is small. Hell, the much larger set of “white people who listen to punk” is not huge either–it’s a niche format.

    “Why must rap stars lead people?”

    It doesn’t necessarily have to be rap. Jazz, blues, r&b, or perhaps a local preacher or politician. The point is, it ought to be *someone* people are
    familiar with, in order to attract folks. In South Central, I don’t think a Conway Twitty concert is going to get a lot of attendance….

    ” That’s the problem with the alt world. It seems to think that unless they can turn it into a brand that can be bought and sold it won’t succeed. I don’t want to sell kids on the idea of riding a bike, I want kids to ride bicycles because that’s the superior way to get around along with public transit”

    That’s a nice sentiment, but you still have to get your message out there, and compete with those who want folks to believe that a house in the suburbs, a green lawn, and three cars is “normal”, while an adult bicycling around town and renting an apartment for the rest of their lives is somehow “suspect.”

    “And I don’t think rap stars need to do anything. I’ve gone to South LA, Compton and there are lots of kids riding their bicycles. I’m not sure how you got from my post that black kids and latino kids aren’t riding their bicycles, because that’s the complete opposite of what I was saying. ”

    I worked there for 10 years, and saw lots of kids riding bikes. Whether or not they stuck with bikes after they hit legal driving age is another story.

    “Those groups are riding (I have to say maybe I’m in the wrong neighborhood, but I rarely see white kids on bicycles in LA, almost all of the people I see on bikes under the age of 18 are kids of color,) but they aren’t being represented in the mainstream/alternative cycling world.”

    Then it’s for the cycling communities to start building those bridges. Somewhere out there, cycling’s answer to Tiger Woods or Venus/Serena Williams exists….

    “And also how do you know what black and Latinos kids listen to? Do you know any personally? ”

    I used to work in a library in South Central Los Angeles. When the kids came in and pulled up pictures and lyrics of their favorite bands, it wasn’t David Byrne. And it sure wasn’t “Bad Brains” MP3’s I was deleting off the hard drives when it came time to reformat the computers….

  • CPH

    Why does the cycling community have to have a Tiger Woods, black kids do ride bikes, that’s what I’m saying. Why are people acting like cycling is like golf or some hobby that only elite people do? That’s what is portrayed, but that is not reality.

    Just because you’re black and you worked in South Central at a time doesn’t mean you know everyone who is black’s story. There is a variety of black people, latinos, white people, asian people and biracial people.

    I’m not saying you don’t know a story, but you don’t everyone’s story and I a not trying to be a butt, but from your comments it really seems like you think you know everyone’s story owing to one interaction.

    Listen to this it’s really great.

    http://www.thebusbench.com/2009/10/chimamanda-adichie-the-danger-of-the-single-story-.html

    Browne

  • “Why must rap stars lead people”

    It was a joke. I actually dislike the idea of turning celebrities into role models.

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