I don’t drive. It shocks people here in Los Angeles, but I grew up taking trains and cabs in Philadelphia, and by the time I could afford my own vehicle, I had gotten the hang of the LA Metro system enough to prefer it over ever having to find parking, stop drinking, buy insurance, pay a ticket, fix a car, etc., etc.
So every week, almost every day, I’ll be on a train or a bus from somewhere to somewhere else. More than one, more than a couple. It’s been that way for almost the entirety of my ten years now in LA. As many times as you’ve gotten in your car and drove somewhere in the past ten years, that’s about how many bus/train rides I’ve taken in the same amount of time.
The other night, I was on the red line, which runs from Union Station downtown to North Hollywood. The red line trains tend to be populated for the most part by tourists, and younger people. It’s considered pretty “safe.” It’s the one everyone has taken at least once or twice. It’s not the blue line, as a gentleman on the red line was explaining to someone else, within earshot of me. The blue line is one you don’t want to take at night. That’s one you need to be careful on.
This struck me, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Because I take the blue line all the time. It’s my way back to my house in Huntington Beach, from my apartment in Marina Del Rey. I take Uber to the LAX green line station, take the green line to Rosa Parks station, and from there I take the blue line to Long Beach, and then an Uber home.
So I’ve been on the blue line late at night. Real late, after midnight. Many, many times. More than I can count. And I’ve never once wound up in trouble. I’ve never even seen someone else wind up in trouble on the blue line. I can think of a couple odd news stories, altercations at blue line stations, but I can think of plenty more and plenty worse that have gone down at or near Hollywood & Highland, the big red line stop. I can think of a few notably crazy people that have drifted through blue line train cars, but again, I’ve seen plenty more in Hollywood. In Philadelphia, I’d have to escape or confront some kind of trouble every month or two.
So why isn’t the blue line “safe?”
The blue line goes through Watts & Compton. Though, the green line goes through South Central too, crossing Crenshaw and on through Hawthorne. There is one and only one noticeable difference that I can confirm is unique to the blue line: Its passengers are almost always very predominantly black.
The red line is a pretty even mix of races. The gold and purple lines lean Asian, the green line has more Mexican/latino passengers typically, and the new Expo line is mostly college kids. The blue line is mostly black people. As far as I can tell, that is why some people say the blue line is less “safe.”
Obviously, I’m implying that the blue line’s reputation is racist. And I’ve been thinking about that. Working through it. Trying to understand how it got that way, and what it means. When I try to imagine being someone like that guy on the red line, I get it, to some extent. The blue line rides can be loud. People talk to each other a lot, crack jokes, guys hit on girls, and sometimes it can get obnoxious. I’ve never been scared. It’s the black culture I grew up around in Philadelphia. More often than not, I’m on the brink of laughing at whatever is going on, and more than a few times I’ve been sucked into playful conversations/arguments with random strangers on those trains. Never once has it gotten ugly. Still, I could imagine all of that being intimidating to some people. Regular nice people, who would never say anything overtly racist.
And that’s what inspires me to write this. It’s an example of the kind of racism that blacks unfortunately have to take for granted, as far as I can tell, and white people are generally completely oblivious to. They don’t see racism in anything short of calling someone a nigger or making a fucked up joke, and they think black people are overreacting to stuff like this. And it’s a small and relatively harmless example, but it’s an easy one to observe and think about, leading into a broader and more mature conversation that doesn’t happen often enough. It’s one of those little almost harmless things. Among a thousand other little almost harmless things.
I don’t think the guy on the red line was a “racist.” Let’s say, hypothetically, the guy he was talking to has a daughter. Six months down the line, the daughter is about to take the blue line down to Long Beach. Maybe he forbids it, maybe he goes out of his way to give her a ride. Maybe he just tells her to be careful, because he’s heard stories. I don’t think I’d argue it’s a “racist” remark. Maybe he’d do the same if she was taking the red line. But I imagine he wouldn’t be quite as worried, if so, and I can understand why. I heard…
This is not a sermon, nor an accusation. I’m not trying (necessarily) to make anyone feel guilty or wrong for perpetuating this sort of everyday, ho-hum racism. I’m not saying I’m any better than anyone else. I’m not talking about individual people at all, I’m just talking about the casual racism that we pass around in this society without even noticing. It’s a natural (albeit flawed) response: The blue line is scary, because the blue line is unfamiliar. Other cultures are unfamiliar, and unfamiliarity can be scary. And we often treat the environment as dangerous only because we are scared of it. That’s just the way we’re wired.
So all of this has been going through my mind since overhearing a random stranger make some seemingly harmless remark on the red line a few days ago. At the end of it all, I can only have an awkward and vague personal resolution to resist that programming, to try and be brave and to trust people. And also to trust myself to know real danger when I see it, regardless of its color. And I might get it wrong here and there. Someday, I might run into trouble somewhere. But I don’t think it does my society any good to treat every unfamiliar environment as hostile. And it doesn’t sound like the kind of thing I want to be a part of.
And I’m just hoping for the best I guess. We can all try and be better, more evolved people. Most people reading this are probably pretty switched on already and doing their best. But I don’t think we’ve seen the last tragedy just yet. One of these days, another scared, white, un-racist cop will shoot another scary, un-armed black child. Everyone will talk, and no one will listen.