Week eleven: united colors of marathon

When I signed up to train for the LA Marathon back in September I expected a few things. I expected to raise money for AIDS Project Los Angeles. I expected to buy running shoes. I expected to run a lot, mostly by myself, but once a week with a group of other trainees at Griffith Park. What I didn’t anticipate was the company I’d be keeping on those ever-longer Saturday runs.

I’ve already written about the giving spirit of my co-runners. There’s another thing about my running group that makes me really, really happy: its racial diversity. If that sounds race-centric, it is. As a child of the 60s and 70s who grew up in an experimental community that was created in part to promote integration, I am ever-conscious of race, and rarely comfortable in a group where everyone looks and thinks like me. It feels like a failure—a failure of community, honesty and humanity. I choose to live in Los Angeles in no small part because of its racial mix. The generic labels Asian, Latin American and African American don’t begin to express the city’s rich underlays of food, culture and intellectual perspective. Yet in my day to day life, that diversity exists – at best -- in the abstract. My social peers, my journalism colleagues, my students at USC, are –by and large –white like me. I’ve been lucky in my work as a journalist to dip into LA’s sea of difference, and I’m always grateful for the visit. But most often that’s what it is: a dip, a visit, a glimpse.

So it gives me no small joy to run every Saturday morning with a group that gathers under a common goal – to run a marathon while raising money for people with AIDS – but that could not look more different from me. Of course it’s not just our skin color that is varied, but also geography, life experience, work background, marital status and political stripe. Among the group are an African-American film maker, a Chinese-American from Philadeliphia who works for Disney, a Latino couple who work in property development, a Korean acupuncturist and a Latino in her 20’s who grew up in Watts. And, of course, plenty of white people.

Running long distances creates lots of time for talking with one’s co-runners, and each week I look forward to the conversations with the runners in my group. We talk about books, art, sleep, running, food, urban planning, the environment, politics – whatever is on anyone’s mind. The conversation is rarely about race, but I always leave the run feeling like I’ve exercised not just my body but my mind.

The election of Barack Obama has brought race to the forefront of the national conversation, and there seems to be a general optimism about its value in bridging our nation’s many racial divides. But my marathon experience keeps bringing to mind the much-touted 2007 study by preeminent political scientist Robert D. Putnam, in which he shared his finding that familiarity with others races breeds not compassion but contempt. How can that be true, I keep thinking. That is not my experience at all.

I came across this assessment of Putnam's study by Gregory Rodriguez, published in the LA Times in 2007. He posits that pushing people of different races together is not enough. People must come together for a common goal, a shared experience. In the past, he observes, organized religion played that role. (Though my perception is that churches of yore were often quite racially stratified). Could it be that my running group – a self-selected group coming together for common cause -- represents a new paradigm for racial communion? I hope so.

2:18 PM Friday, December 12 2008 • Link •  
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