By NICK NAGATANI

I am but one of hundreds of JA Baby Boomers raised and “educated” in the Seinan/Crenshaw neighborhood. We owe our Crenshaw “roots” to restrictive racial covenants that prohibited renting to Issei and Nisei after being released from America’s concentration camps. Crenshaw and Boyle Heights were two of the few post-war Southern California enclaves affording rental housing for Japanese Americans.

Ironically, it was this continuation of systemic white racism that provided us young “Buddhaheads” with enriched experiences  that we will forever maintain and take to our grave. Post-war Crenshaw was a blue-collar mixed ethnic community—whites, Asians, and a sprinkling of Latinx were part of a predominantly African American community.

This was a time before we self-identified ourselves as Asian Americans and Afro-Americans. White America labeled us as “Orientals” and “Negros”; these were two of the “nicer” names they called us.

Seinan became the postwar hub of the JA community. The Nisei utilized the “tanomoshi” group tradition (a precursor to the JA Credit Unions) to monetarily assist members to borrow money to start business (mom-n-pop shops), gardening routes, etc. For their Sansei kids they developed JA sports leagues, providing us an opportunity to play organized basketball in the winter and baseball in the summer. JA swim school and clubs arose. Martial arts dojos instructed JA youth in the disciplines of judo, karate, aikido, and kendo, “old-school” style. JA churches and temples developed youth programs and scouting. Oh yeah, can’t forget Japanese language school.

At home, the emphasis on education and good citizenship was paramount. Living up to the “model minority” stereotype was stressed. What was not discussed in JA households was the denial of due process and concentration camp experience based on our ethnicity.

Outside our self-contained JA bubble, we were exposed to life in the “Shaw.” From kindergarten-junior high-high school we shared common experiences with our Black neighbors. Together we were classmates, teammates, student body leaders, friends, and “running partners.” Dorsey and L.A. High were the epicenters of Black-Asian unity, but it was also prevalent at Manual Arts and Washington as well.

The aftermath of the Watts Rebellion resulted in massive white flight that further solidified Crenshaw as an Asian-African American stronghold. It should be noted that during the uprising, many of our Black neighbors served vigil on Jefferson Boulevard protecting JA mom-and-pop businesses.

Our cultural differences (e.g., “You eat seaweed!” “What’s a chitlin?!”) were outweighed by our commonalities. We shared joint success in the classroom and athletic field in the name of school spirit. For young Buddhaheads, Black culture and mannerism became a way of life. We listened and partied to Motown, Little Anthony, Smokey, Marvin, Martha, Temptations, Supremes, and oldies. Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Elgin Baylor, Jim Brown, Jerry West (had to include the logo) were a few of our athletic role models. Streetwise, we adopted “jive” talk into our vocabulary, and the JA “bad cats” took the cool swagger (pimp walking) to another level.

Thanks to our upbringing, we understood that we were no closer to being “white” than our Black brothers and sisters, nor did we strive to be.

As time elapsed, we became aware of the advantages afforded to us based upon the “model minority” stereotype. Many teachers expected more from us than of our African American friends—fortunately or unfortunately, many of us disappointed these teachers! In the streets, LAPD cut us more “slack” than our Black brothers.

As we ventured out in the world, those of us who served in the military experienced the disproportional number of Blacks serving on the front lines as “grunts.” We also envied Black unity, how brothers unconditionally welcomed and took in a “cherry” fellow Black soldier entering “in country” (Vietnam) looking out for each other and having each other’s back.

The more we learned about our true history as people of color in America, the clearer we could identify with the overt systemic racism perpetrated on the Black nation. I am proud that the reparation movement afforded monetary compensation and a written apology from the president to survivors of the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans predicated on racist hysteria. I am equally dismayed at the lack of compensation and compassion afforded to African Americans based upon 400 years of oppression, which continues today.

Imagine if the seven states where the concentration camps imprisoned our people built “monuments” serving to celebrate and glorify our racist incarceration and remained erected today. It would be appalling if these reminders of systemic racism were not taken down or destroyed. Yet statues and monuments symbolizing white supremacy are daily reminders of oppression and racism Black folks are confronted with daily.

In most ways, my childhood, youth and adulthood seemed no different from those of my Black partners, teammates and friends; yet having raised two sons, I did not have a sit-down with them to instruct them the “proper protocol” when being stopped by law enforcement. Nor did their mother have to worry or wonder when they left home for an evening activity whether they would be safe, or not come home at all.

As long as white supremacy deprives people of color their basic human rights, we are all at risk. Our history and experiences as people of color in America demands us to support Black Lives Matter and demolish white supremacy. For those of us (most of us) raised in Crenshaw, Black lives have always mattered! Support the BLM movement!

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Nick Nagatani, a retired public interest attorney, is married and a jiichan. Opinions expressed in Vox Populi are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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  1. Nick, your article the JA experience in the Crenshaw area really hit a nerve for me, I remember how it was growing up during this time and spending a lot of time
    In that area. Your analysis of the racial life at that time
    still affects us now. I would like to see more of your articles.

  2. Excellent article about the multicultural experience that defined my Baby Boomer childhood. When I have opened my LA High yearbook, most people are amazed at the “diversity” of students and faculty. I certainly feel absolutely and ever grateful for those shared, yet different experiences. Thank you for writing this article!

  3. Beautiful article- I could see it all. My uncle owned a barber shop in Crenshaw Square called Tropics Barbershop. May Mervin Miyashiro rest in peace.

  4. This is my story too as a Black woman who grew up between Crenshaw, LaBrea, Adams and Jefferson and who attended Dorsey High from 1972-1974.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  5. Nick, you conveyed a beautifully written “reality” article that speaks volumes to our way of life in the Crenshaw district from the 50’s and upwards. Thank you for the memories. As I shared your article on Facebook, I’m sure the comments will pour in and heartfelt likes will continue. Your support of the BLM movement shines brightly in the fabric of our lives. Arigato gozaimasu!

  6. Perusing online to give my brother a reference to chiropractor and acupuncture folks in LA [yes, Yanagita–giving him YOUR name]…came across this article from Nick! I no longer see much with regard to LA news, except earthquakes and sudden storms (because just about two (+) days later they will hit Denver)…so was pleasantly surprised to read Nick’s reflections on the BLM movement, growing up JA in Crenshaw…and our shared “roots.”

    It’s about time folks are looking at systemic racism, historical — and current — over-reaction by white police officers, and the power of by-stander’s use of cell phones and cameras. I have been in the Denver area now for
    over 30 years… and cases like Elijah McClain — who just wanted to go home and be left alone after picking up
    ice tea from a convenience store — a threat to nobody and no one, but killed by police administration of ketamine supposedly to “calm him down” are horrific. This young black man, weighed slightly LESS than me (I am now an elder JA woman :)…so really? Four police officers felt he needed “calming down” because he just wanted to go home? Violin-playing, anemic black man needed a tranquilizer to calm down?

    I continue to work in my community here in Denver, alongside Latinx, Blacks, Asians, GLBTQ and diverse white folks to make my community better. It is not just POC wanting to fight gentrification, climate change, systemic racism or police abuse. We have come too far with our history to accept simplistic answers…or ignore historic lessons from the past. I carry my Crenshaw roots to NE Denver…because you can move, jobs can change, heck
    marriages can change! But you can’t take those roots out of me.

    The fight for justice, decent respect, sustainable living, community response…this will be on-going. If COVID has taught us anything–in the new “normal” we must be flexible, change quickly to changing information, and share resources and lessons. Thanks Nick for making my day. No such thing anymore as someone being “innocent bystanders.” You who read this, you may make a difference in someone’s life. Be active. Be a voice of change. Believe in your power of decency, truth, fairness, and action.