The birthstone for April is a diamond. In ancient Greek, the meaning of diamond is “unbreakable.” As the month begins, we look to the state of civil rights and intergroup relations in this city and are reminded that, while our bonds are strong, the diamond days of April hold many imperfections.
On April 29, 1992, Los Angeles erupted in riots after a jury acquitted four white police officers caught on home video clubbing Rodney King. Before it was over, 55 people were dead, more than 2,300 were injured and 1,100 buildings were destroyed. As we approach the 19th anniversary of the King riots, we wonder about the likelihood of another conflagration. We worry every year at this time.
We worry because April 20 is Hitler’s birthday, a day universally celebrated by white supremacists and neo-Nazis who use the insignia “4/20” to telegraph shorthand messages of hate. We worry because April 20 also marks the 12th anniversary of the student massacre at Columbine. We worry because April 19 marks the 16th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing and the 18th anniversary of the deadly encounter at Waco.
Every day at both the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Los Angeles Urban League, evidence comes across our desks of the socioeconomic divisions in our community, the racial rifts in our schools, the cultural divides in our dialogue. We know there are demons among us — sending messages of hate, xenophobia, homophobia, racism and anti-Semitism — and we just hope the diamonds outnumber them.
We believe in a multifaceted approach to try to gain the upper hand in the fight against bigotry and hatred. The first component of our approach, and the area where much of our work lies, involves educational programs to reach our youth. Both the ADL and the Urban League know that if young people are not guided properly, hate can seep into their hearts. But we also know hatred is learned and can be unlearned. The ADL’s anti-bias education programs reach preschoolers and their families, K-12 school-age youth, and college students to counteract bias and bigotry and teach respect for diversity. The Urban League works across the lifecycle of the student, from pre-K through high school, with education initiatives that create opportunities for academic enrichment, promote healthy relationships with positive adult role models, facilitate connections with relevant career options, and encourage a supportive peer culture.
The second element is our proactive work with local law enforcement agencies, especially the Los Angeles Police Department. The LAPD has come a long way since 1992 and has improved in policing our diverse city and in making cultural inroads both internally and externally. In an age when civics is no longer part of the classroom curriculum, it strikes us as crucial that civilians as well as guardians of the law understand what so many have forgotten: that harmony in society depends on the compact for honesty and fairness and mutual trust that we have in our day-to-day relations with one another. This is as true for the police as for the man and woman on the street — but the police will always be held to a higher standard as they set the example for the rest of us.
Finally, as leagues working toward common goals, we build bridges among the many diverse communities in Los Angeles to foster a positive environment for open and frank discussion about topics of mutual concern. There is a common experience of blacks and Jews fighting for equal rights in this country that is sometimes overlooked; the relationship between these two groups, once characterized as allies in the civil rights struggle, now can seem relegated to the history books.
While April holds many dates that are celebrated by those who hate, April 4 was a day of remembrance for those of us in the civil rights arena because of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. At a time when racism and anti-Semitism are alive and well on the streets and on the Internet, we need to carry on Dr. King’s message about our shared history and revitalize our commitment to work together.
The Anti-Defamation League and the Los Angeles Urban League, along with the entire civil rights community, have made substantial progress on basic issues of equality, civil rights and freedom. We have made huge strides in eliminating discrimination in employment, in education, in public accommodations and in housing. But there is still much work to be done. We go together into April with eyes wide open for the diamonds and the demons — and hope that our work together helps the community at large make the distinction between them.
This op-ed is being published simultaneously in the Los Angeles Sentinel, the largest subscriber-paid African American-owned newspaper on the West Coast.
Amanda Susskind is the regional director of the Pacific Southwest Region of the Anti-Defamation League. Blair H. Taylor is president and chief executive officer of the Los Angeles Urban League.