Surfing historically has been a closed society. For decades, Santa Monica Bay waves were the near-exclusive domain of white males like me. The game simply wasn’t open to all.
Anglo fathers largely handed down the sport to their sons, who had the privilege to live along Southern California’s coastal strip. When I grew up in the ‘70s, no surf camps eased kids into the lineup. There was no AYSO of surfing. You thought twice about paddling out at heavy spots like the Venice Breakwater or Topanga unless a local had bro’ed you out.
As a result, many inland athletes have been cut off from the joyous experience of catching a wave. It’s been a particular challenge for communities of color, many of which lack the resources, access and tradition to chase surf. Six out of 10 African American kids do not know how to swim, according to YMCA figures. (One recent aerial survey revealed that Beverly Hills had 2,284 pools while Watts had none.)
But the dynamic in the lineup is shifting rapidly, as in other pockets of white privilege. Paddle out in Santa Monica Bay and you’ll see increasing numbers of Asian, Latinx and African American surfers. Men and women alike.
The advent of cheap, mass-produced foamboards has reduced the first barrier to entry. YouTube videos provide tips to beginners. But most important, younger surfers of color have been emboldened by other BIPOC communities reclaiming their spots in white spaces from which they had long been excluded – be it the U.S. Senate floor or Hollywood studio canteens. Groups like the Black Surfers Collective, Black Sand and Color the Water now mobilize a new generation of board-riders and their allies.
But it’s not all kumbaya in the water.
Recent footage of white South Bay surfers circling around two African Americans north of the Manhattan Beach Pier has rocked the local surf community. Scenes of entitled jerks splashing water and hurling the N word are as shocking as they are depressing. Most surfers of color have similar stories to tell – either of outright intimidation or silent stink-eye. Many racists hide behind the shield of localism – a territorial instinct to keep kooks and outsiders off their waves. To be clear, the vast majority of surfers are mellow and reluctantly welcoming of newcomers. But Neanderthals still pollute the Bay.
Manhattan Beach is further embroiled in controversy about the future of Bruce’s Beach, oceanfront land seized from a Black family a century ago. The City Council voted recently NOT to apologize to descendants of the Bruce family, whose beachside resort catering to African American families was condemned in the 1920s to mollify White residents. The County of Los Angeles is now pursuing state legislation that will return ownership of the property – now a park and County lifeguard headquarters — to the Bruce family.
One would like to think Santa Monica would take a more progressive attitude. After all, Nick Gabaldon, the first documented surfer of color in Los Angeles County, is a native son. An accomplished board rider and lifeguard, Gabaldon smashed stereotypes before being killed in 1951 trying to shoot the Malibu Pier.
We’re also home to Bay Street Beach, which served as a rare haven for ocean-loving African Americans during the Jim Crow era. Gabaldon, a Samohi graduate, learned to surf at a spot dubbed The Inkwell. A plaque near the traffic roundabout honors this history.
And our shorelines just north and south of the Santa Monica Pier have long served as recreational playgrounds for communities of color. Millions have journeyed in cramped cars to the terminus of the 10 Freeway to escape inland smog and heat.
But Santa Monica’s beachside history and racial legacy are more complex than that, as historian Alison Rose Jefferson reminds me. Santa Monica’s City Council allowed white developers to build the Casa del Mar Resort in 1924 — on the very same land they had voted two years earlier to zone exclusively for single-family homes, all in a bid to thwart a planned Black-owned resort.
Our city has only recently begun to reckon with its post-war evisceration of a thriving African-American beachside community. City leaders used eminent domain to demolish the Belmar neighborhood in the 1940s to make way for the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and other public places.
In a sad irony, the 10 Freeway, which has become a recreational lifeline for inland BIPOC communities, was built on the back of displaced African Americans. The roadway, completed in 1964, took out more than 500 Black-owned homes and businesses in Santa Monica. Thousands of African-Americans – and their descendants — found themselves displaced from local shorelines and the chance to latch onto the growing sport of surfing. You can read about this sad saga at a history walk around the newly constructed Belmar Park near the Civic Center.
It’s probably the last thing you’d expect from an increasingly grumpy surfer like me – feeling stoked about seeing more people in already crowded surf. But more surfers of color are taking their rightful place in the lineup at Bay Street. That doesn’t serve as full reckoning for our city’s bulldozing of its Black beachside communities. But it’s a good place to start.
Matthew King grew up on the beaches of Santa Monica, where his father served as a County lifeguard for 30 years. He sneaks away from his communications and marketing consultancy as often as he can to surf Bay Street and other local breaks.