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Digging Up White Roots: An Unsolved Murder in Long Beach Reveals Suburbia’s Long History of Racism

The impact of redlining resonates deeply in Lakewood Village.

A Sky Knight patrol from 1966. (Source: City of Lakewood’s archival photography collection)

The Taft family was attending their annual family reunion on Saturday, July 21, 2018. About 40–50 family members, mostly Black, came together at Pan American Park in the Lakewood Village neighborhood of Long Beach.

Frederick Taft, a 57-year-old Black man described by family as big-hearted and willing to help anyone in need, was at the reunion. At around 4:00 pm he walked over to the public restroom. He never returned.

Taft was murdered in the bathroom. He was shot nine times; his phone and wallet were not stolen. Witnesses saw a middle-aged white man with a rifle leave the bathroom.

Four months after his death, the Long Beach Police Department released a sketch of the suspect and a reward for information leading to his capture. The Taft family has demanded more action from the police. As of publishing time, Taft’s murderer is still on the loose.

Official sketch of suspect, released by the Long Beach Police Department (Source: LBPD)

The story of Taft’s unsolved murder reveals the deep roots of white supremacy in the area.

The Government Was Never Colorblind

In the 1930s, president Franklin D. Roosevelt steered a series of government programs, known collectively as the New Deal, to combat the Great Depression. One area targeted by the New Deal was stabilizing the housing market by addressing mortgage crises and bank failures. It had become nearly impossible for middle to lower class families to buy houses.

When Congress passed the Home Owners’ Loan Act of 1933, it created a program called the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC). HOLC began surveying real estate markets across the country, grading residential areas on a four-grade scale, color-coded to represent the level of risk for banks to provide mortgage loans.

The HOLC map of areas south of Los Angeles. (Source: Mapping Inequality Project, University of Richmond)

The lowest grade an area could receive was fourth-grade, marked with red and labeled “hazardous.” The term “redlining” refers to this practice on HOLC maps. The government lined an area in red and thereby signaled to banks and creditors to avoid investing in that area. Third-grade grade was yellow, second-grade blue and first-grade was green. An area marked with green signaled a secure place for banks to provide mortgage funds.

Different data points influenced an area’s grade, including terrain type, new construction quality, and the racial diversity of the population. The government compiled the data collected from each area surveyed into an “Area Description” sheet.

The Area Description for Lakewood Village, the area Frederick Taft was murdered, shows a “low green” grade with an upward trend. The area had a combination of favorable terrain, new construction, and an all-white population.

A close up of the HOLC map showing Lakewood Village, in green. (Source: Mapping Inequality Project, University of Richmond)

The report found that there were zero Black people or immigrants living in the area, leading to a description of the population as “homogeneous.” The reporter further notes that there was “racial protection in perpetuity,” which most likely describes the existence of racial covenants, or the inability for residents to sell their homes to Black, Asian, or Latinx people.

The homogeneously white population in 1930s Lakewood Village, in addition to the construction of new housing on level ground, accounts for the area’s green grade. It meant the government considered Lakewood Village a favorable place for banks to give mortgages to potential buyers, as long as they were white ones. Bank were willing to invest capital into Lakewood Village.

Within a decade of the report, the larger Lakewood area became home to one of the largest suburban developments for white people in the country. The high grade for the Lakewood Village area set the state for a system that valued homogeneously white populations and, in doing so, supported white supremacy.

In contrast, the large swaths of red-graded “hazardous” areas in Long Beach contained oil fields and Black, and Latinx populations. Parts of these areas are currently low-to-middle class and majority populated by BIPOC residents, a historical trend mirroring research by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC).

In 2018, the NCRC published a report documenting the lasting-effects of redlining in the country. According the report, “Redlining buttressed the segregated structure of American cities. Most of the neighborhoods (74%) … graded as high-risk or ‘Hazardous’ eight decades ago are low-to-moderate income (LMI) today. Additionally, most … graded ‘Hazardous’ areas (nearly 64%) are minority neighborhoods now.” The consequences of the redlining practice are still felt today.

While the New Deal is celebrated by many liberals and some conservatives, it is important to note that one of its lasting legacies was propelling racial economic inequity in the country. The surveying practices of real estate markets that considered the racial makeup of an area was a system that directly contributed to racial inequity. Subsequent New Deal policies, such as the GI Bill, expanded the reach of redlining.

By circumscribing the area around Lakewood Village for white people in the 1930s, the government sowed the seeds of racial discord that grew around the Lakewood area for the rest of the century. White people would feel that the land was theirs, that it needed to be protected, and that people of color, like the Taft family, who used their parks, were encroaching on their space.

Suburbia: For Whites Only

Thousands of potential homeowners lined up to consider placing a down payment on a new home in Lakewood. Black potential homeowners were persuaded to consider buying elsewhere. (Source: City of Lakewood’s archival photography collection)

The end of World War II provided a massive problem. The government had drafted the country’s traditional workforce, sending them abroad. In their place, women and people of color filled the factory jobs necessary to support the war effort. The Douglas Aircraft Company had a plant in Long Beach that employed close to 50,000 people. Most of the employees were women and eight percent were Black. After the war the number of Black employees dwindled to one percent, and the workforce became mostly male.

Postwar America centered on a massive push for the country put on a happy face. As the book Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era argues, the government and corporations harnessed genuine relief over the end of the war into a prepackaged notion of happiness: a nuclear family, a house full of appliances, a white picket fence.

Children would turn men into responsible citizens, homes would keep housewives busy, and workers would be satiated from upheaval. In short, suburbia was meant to provide a sense of safety and peace after the horrors of WWII. However, suburbia was a lifestyle reserved for white people.

The home was a crucial component of this suburban ideal. The dream of home ownership became rapidly available to millions of middle-class and working-class Americans after World War II. Due to a system predicated on redlining, the GI Bill, like other New Deal policies, ultimately benefited White Americans the most.

Columbia University professor Ira Katznelson goes as far as describing the consequences of the New Deal as “when affirmative action was white,” the title of his book that explores the history of racial inequity in the 20th century.

As families rushed to buy houses with home loans subsidized by the GI Bill, the Lakewood area became part of the historic push for planned communities in the United States. Though Lakewood Village is part of Long Beach, the area is surrounded on three sides by the city of Lakewood, making the two almost indistinguishable.

Legally, the Supreme Court had outlawed racial convents by the time developers planned out Lakewood. The practice of redlining did not continue in the same overt way it started in the 1930s. In the absence of openly racist policies, Lakewood found ways to continue racist practices in the housing market.

A former Lakewood Park sales manager explained how he deterred non-white applicants from buying in an interview cited in “The Lakewood Story.” He recounts:

“I had the responsibility of making certain that the applicants were not going to be people who would be objected to by their neighbors. People would cancel (their purchase order) by the score if they knew there was a black person going to have a house on their block… And when (African American buyers) would come… they used to turn them over to me. And I’d sit down and talk to them. I’d say, ‘Now, you’re a reasonable person, but these are the facts of life, and you know it as well as I do that if you move in there, you’re not going to have any neighbors that are going to like you. It may not be in your best interest, so you better think about it carefully before you make this decision. I can’t prevent you and I won’t, but you’d better think about it.’”

The active role white people played in dissuading Black people from purchasing homes, in addition to the intimidation when Black families did move into suburban communities, was enough to keep Lakewood mostly white. In turn, banks continued to invest in these communities, setting them up for prosperous futures.

The Suburban Surveillance State

Lakewood remained an unincorporated area until 1954. After a battle with the city of Long Beach, Lakewood became its own city. From the get-go, Lakewood identified public safety and safe parks as two of the core tenants to its identity as a city.

Lakewood does not have its own police department. Instead, it was one of the first cities to pioneer the practice of contracting municipal services, and contracts with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to this day for policing.

The partnership between Lakewood and the LASD spurred the growth of airborne police patrols around the country. Partially in reaction to the 1965 Watts Riots, the LA Sheriff’s Department used Lakewood as its test-site for the Sky Knight program in 1966.

With government funding, this test-case in expanded policing became the nation’s first airborne law enforcement program to run regularly scheduled patrols.

A criminologist evaluating Sky Knight for the government concluded: “The helicopter may be the best new police tool since the advent of the radio car.” Sky Knight continues to operate to this day, most recently used in full force during the protests in early June 2020. The program is based at the Long Beach Airport.

Lakewood’s history in police expansion moves beyond the air. The city implores its citizenry to do their part in expanding surveillance. In 1981, Lakewood began its Neighborhood Watch program. According to the city’s official history, “Lakewood has one of the largest and most active Neighborhood Watch organizations in Southern California.” Its goal now is to have one block captain per block.

An advertisement to join Lakewood’s Neighborhood Watch. (Source: City of Lakewood)

Lakewood’s push for a robust Neighborhood Watch program is troubling, considering the history of excluding Black homeowners in the area. The Pew Research Center published 5 Facts About Crime last year. Their research found that crime has dropped across the country, yet the public perceives an increase in crime.

Part of the disconnect may be the rise of Nextdoor and surveillance tech such as Amazon’s Ring, which can foster a sense of fear and allow people’s implicit racism to run unchecked.

At Lakewood’s budgetary meeting in June, a former Sheriff’s deputy “described times when he was stopped by Sheriff’s personnel while walking in Lakewood in civilian clothes, apparently because a resident called in about a ‘suspicious black man walking in the neighborhood.’” His experience highlights the racial profiling internalized by homeowners who would then work with the police through the Neighborhood Watch. Between this program and the continuous deploy of air patrols, police surveillance reigned over Lakewood.

“All of These Parks Were Supposed to Be for Us”

Place-markers around Lakewood boast the city’s slogan: “Times Change — Values Don’t.” The murder of Frederick Taft in Pan Am Park, just a stone’s throw from the city of Lakewood, calls into question just what values Lakewood has harbored.

In the 1990s, longtime Lakewood City Councilman Larry Van Nostran considered packing up and moving. After walking around Mayfair Park on the 4th of July and feeling distraught over seeing only one white family in a mix of many Latinx families, Nostran complained:

“After 19 years as an elected councilman in this city, those people did not even know who I was. I told my wife when I got back, well, what am I doing here? Why am I working so hard for this town, what is it all for now? Maybe it is just time to go.”

He recounted this to Alida Brill, a woman born and raised in Lakewood who, as an adult, critically analyzed Lakewood’s problematic relationship to diversity in her essay “Lakewood, California: ‘Tomorrowland’ at 40.

Brill noted that the increase in Black and Latinx people in local parks was a talking point for locals afraid of a “takeover” of the city, fearful that Lakewood would lose its white population the way Compton had before. “It could happen here, to us. Lakewood could become another Compton if we are not careful,” Van Nostran said.

Another resident, in reaction of Black residents’ use of local parks, lamented to Brill, “we do not have our parks any longer. You know that all of these parks were supposed to be for us, they were our parks.”

As these statements suggest, the original white residents of Lakewood hoped to keep their city white. Their racism over non-white residents runs deep, from its coded-racism in supporting police surveillance, to the city’s inception as a white suburban enclave and the area’s green grade during the redlining era.

Data from 2010–2014 indicates that Black people remain disadvantaged home buyers in Lakewood, receiving the worst subprime mortgage loans of any ethnicity in the area.

Pan Am Park, where Frederick Taft was murdered, is less than two miles from the Mayfair Park, where the late councilman Van Nostran grew frustrated over the dearth of white people in the ‘90s. The area around Pan Am Park, Lakewood Village, is known as a haven for LBPD and LASD officers because many of them live there. Lakewood Village sits like a small peninsula jutting into the city of Lakewood, sharing a culture that extends beyond city limits.

When the police arrived on the scene of Taft’s murder, the family immediately noticed a lack of professionalism. The family claims officers poorly secured the area, leaving evidence vulnerable to tampering. After the initial dispatch and investigation, the family waited for more information. They were left waiting for months.

As Black Lives Matter — Long Beach co-leader Dawn Modkins described in a radio interview with Beach City Radio, “what happened is that nothing happened.” The investigators responded so minimally to the family and with such minimal information that community organizers put together an independent investigation.

After knocking on dozens of doors in the area, they found out from residents that the area was not just a haven for law enforcement, but for white supremacists as well. This information tied together the pieces of racist acts near the time of the murder.

People found “KKK” and “F*** N******” marked around the park, a black pick-up truck drove around with a Confederate-style flag, and a driver in a Prius had racially harassed softball players at the park.

The LBPD says there is not enough evidence to consider Taft’s murder a hate crime. In response, family members and community organizers are calling for a release of records from both the LBPD and the FBI, who also investigated the case. To community members and the Taft family, Frederick’s murder carries two crimes — the murder itself, and the failure of a thorough investigation.

The long history of systemic racism, which benefited the white residents of the Lakewood area, is one way to understand the injustice surrounding the case.

This history of white supremacy supports the fears that the murder was racially motivated. The inability to find the suspect and learn his motive should not shield the white community from reconciling with its past.