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By limiting access to surf spaces based on residential location, localism directly supports exclusion based on racism

By limiting access to surf spaces based on residential location, localism directly supports exclusion based on racism.


The Inertia

While there certainly aren’t many surfers who will admit to liking localism–most, in fact, outright hate it–it remains an integral part of surfing’s culture. The majority of us engage in at least some small form of localism almost every time we surf, whether it’s cutting off someone who you don’t recognize as a regular, or staring down a beginner who clearly doesn’t understand the surfing codes of conduct. While localism can seem rude but ultimately harmless, in actuality, it reinforces a culture of exclusivity and racism. As surf communities are primarily white and middle-class, exclusion from surf breaks on the basis of where a person lives emerges as a method of racial segregation. While individual and blatant racist acts are rare out in the lineup, localism can reinforce larger systemic exclusions in the housing market that keep people of color from living in coastal towns and establish surfing as a sport reserved for Whites only.

Localism establishes a group that belongs in a certain space and that the space belongs to. Often, the frequency with which an individual surfs a particular spot relies on how close they live to the break. The warnings “If you don’t live here, don’t surf here,” “Invaders must die,” “Death to Invaders, Locals Only,” painted on the path out to Trestles exhibit the hostility that non-local surfers know will await them at the break. By limiting access to surf spaces based on residential location, localism directly supports exclusion based on racism in the housing market, both historically and contemporarily. A recent study by Surf-First and the Surfrider Foundation found that the average surfer travels less than 10 miles to surf. This means that the majority of surfers live 10 miles or less from coast, and an analysis of the racial composition of Southern California coastal neighborhoods reveals that the majority of residents are White, while almost none are Black. Collectively, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Malibu, Palos Verdes, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, San Clemente, Encinitas, Del Mar, and San Diego are 62.34% White and 0.71% Black. Del Mar and La Jolla in San Diego County, two of the most popular and localized surf spots in Southern California are also two of the most racially homogenous communities. At 90.7% White / 0.2% Black and 82.5% White / 0.8% Black respectively, localized exclusion within these communities based on property becomes synonymous with exclusion based on race. Because of the extreme housing segregation in surf neighborhoods, black skin becomes a symbol of otherness and is never envisioned as an insider in surf spaces. While the ocean differs from residential markets in that waves cannot be bought and sold like houses, possession of space can be claimed and exchanged through a social currency of respectability and power. Localism exists in a perpetual state of transformation, continually mutating and adjusting with the individuals and groups that reproduce it. However, its primary function to maintain the segregation of surf spaces, although not explicitly, remains the same because residential segregation persists at extreme rates.

In response to the segregation of surf neighborhoods and lineups, surfers often employ misinformed logic to justify the whiteness of these spaces and preserve their personal innocence.  One example is the claim that Blacks have self-segregated from coastal communities, and have both chosen to live elsewhere as well as lack any interest in going to the beaches or participating in the sport of surfing. This approach individualizes racism by assuming that persisting segregation and inequality are the products of individual choices and cultural trends. It fails to recognize that Black access to surf culture has been shaped by inability to access spaces that have been historically reserved for Whites. During the 1920’s, Blacks were routinely denied access to beaches and coastal recreation sites. City officials were unable to legally make Blacks vacate Whites-only beaches so White beachgoers harassed them, verbally abusing them, and often throwing rocks or exhibiting other forms of violence until they left. Some beachfront resorts would threaten to fire all Black workers if they didn’t vacate the beaches.  Race has historically played an integral role in shaping access to beaches, surf lineups, and coastal neighborhoods, which has consequently contoured the contemporary politics that govern surf culture.

The racial segregation that still exists in neighborhoods is a construction of social attitudes and legal policies that historically subsidized White home ownership while denying the same economic opportunities to Blacks. While there were several practices that distributed funds, resources, and opportunities to Whites exclusively, Federal Housing Administration (FHA) redlining from 1934 to 1968 contributed to the specific whiteness of surf neighborhoods along the coast. Area descriptions that decided which neighborhoods received loans and subsidies marked many of the communities next to popular surf breaks as receiving the top grade (“A” neighborhoods) due to their exclusive whiteness. Descriptions such as “there is no infiltration of subversive races,” and “residents are 100% White” formed the core difference between area descriptions for neighborhoods that received the lowest grade (“D”) and no loans, which said things like “This particular area is set aside by common consent for the colored population” (T Races). Like many coastal neighborhoods, the area description for Palos Verdes was awarded an “A” grade because it boasted of “a highly homogenized population” where “residents [were] 100% white” and there were “0% Negroes.” Today Palos Verdes remains primarily White with only 3% Black residents. The contemporary disparity between Black and White residents in Palos Verdes demonstrates how the legal legitimation of white neighborhoods continued long after redlining ended.

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Palos Verdes is home to Lunada Bay, which has appeared in several recent headlines as a hugely contested surf site because of extreme locals who throw rocks, smash car windows, and slash tires of visitors who try to surf the break. These locals are comprised of primarily White surfers who live in the estate homes near the break. The majority of the teenagers who use physical violence and the older men who use verbal intimidation to keep non-local away from “their” neighborhood and “their” break have merely inherited their access to this space. Like many of the White families who live in coastal communities, these surfers have inherited family property and wealth generated through historical and contemporary racism in the housing market rather than solely through hard work, and are no more deserving of having claim to the Lunada Bay break than any other surfer. In 2015, the White residents of Palos Verdes are throwing rocks to police beach spaces and exclude people of color, using the exact same form of violence that was employed to keep Blacks off beaches in the 1920’s. The surfers at Lunada Bay do not explicitly exclude based on race, but rather on space, which has been come about from racial beginnings. A community that has remained almost exclusively White for almost a century and still today only possesses 3% Black residents, has shaped access to local beaches in a way that Black bodies are always seen as outsiders and are never welcomed. While the language used to justify these exclusions has changed, the tactics remain the same.

The loop of return for surfers who practice localism has continued for so long that empty lineups gained through localist practices have become perceived as normal and deserved rather than a luxury gained at the expense of others. The reason localism remains is because disrupting the cycle would reveal the emptiness of the logic that has developed to protect surfing as a primarily White sport. Localism is also difficult to divest from because it has become such an integral aspect to navigating the lineup. Next time you paddle out, be conscious about your attitude towards other surfers. Let’s work together to disrupt the cycle of exclusion, violence, and racism in surf culture.

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