When I set out to become a surfer, I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into.
San Francisco — The first time I saw a swastika in the wild, I happened to be carrying a surfboard. The year was 1989. I’d just come home from college hungry to claim the California identity that felt like my birthright. I could not have told you what that identity was except that its highest form appeared to be something like a blue-eyed, blond surfer with a golden tan, preternaturally skilled at riding the waves of his native beach.
I was a pink-skinned redhead who’d grown up too far inland to learn the way you’re supposed to — as a kid, at the surf spot down the block. My mom and dad were more about left-wing politics than California identity, and my years at Berkeley High School involved more protest marches than beach parties.
On the upside, I had a cool surfer uncle who’d ridden all the most famous waves in Hawaii and California. I’d always wanted to be like him, and he’d obliged with a couple of lessons in my teens. My uncle taught me the lingo, too, and gave me confidence that surfing could be mine. Around the time I graduated from college, he bought me a pointy little surfboard with two fins.
To get started, I drove from Berkeley to Santa Cruz, the hippie town where locals once sued Huntington Beach over the trademark Surf City U.S.A. I parked near a sea cliff where beautiful youth strolled sunny sidewalks radiating physical well-being and belonging. Looking out over the waves, I watched somebody soar across a blue sparkling wall of water. I wanted all of it, always and forever — freedom in the Pacific, daily contact with infinity. Pulling on my wet suit, I started down concrete steps toward the sea and saw that swastika spray-painted next to the phrase, “Kooks go home.”
I remembered that swastika last month when video surfaced of high school water-polo players in affluent Garden Grove, Calif., making the Nazi sieg-heil salute and chanting an obscure Nazi marching song. This kind of idiocy has been on the rise since last year.
Anti-Defamation League statistics show anti-Semitic attacks in California up 27 percent between 2017 and 2018. Last March, in the still-wealthier-and-whiter town of Newport Beach, Calif., students arranged plastic red cups in a swastika for a drinking game, then photographed one another gleefully sieg-heiling as if that were just totally hilarious.
In April, a young man with an assault rifle marched into a Southern California synagogue, shouted anti-Semitic insanity and proved his heroic masculine bravery by murdering an unarmed 60-year-old woman. In early June, 12 miles from my own childhood home, some creep built a 10-foot-wide concrete swastika in his front yard.
Among the many disturbing things about my personal swastika memory is that I recall feeling less horrified and disgusted than intimidated. I knew exactly what a swastika signified. My grandfather flew bombing raids over Nazi Germany, and I grew up across the street from an elderly couple who’d survived the Holocaust.
But, perhaps because I was a straight white male from a nominally Christian household, I was more bothered by the word “kook,” surfer parlance for unskilled outsider — as in, me. At the time, the term “surf Nazi” often got applied to any surfer ferociously committed to the sport and territorial about his local waves. Viewed through that lens, I read the combination of swastika and “kook” like a skull-and-crossbones on a clubhouse door upon which I planned to knock loud and hard.
Surfing brought a ridiculous amount of joy to my life, still does. For 30 years, I’ve enjoyed the satori-like flow-state that comes with gliding on a pulse of wave energy, watching bottlenose dolphins silhouetted black by the setting sun as it melts red into the blue horizon. I’ve built my work schedule around being free whenever the draining tide and long-period swell line up with easterly wind. I’ve written a book about surfing, lived in the Surfer magazine house in Hawaii, binged on surf movies and chased waves in Iceland, the Galápagos, West Africa and elsewhere.
As a passionate student of surf culture and history, though, I’ve also seen a lot more swastikas. The first commercially made surfboards sold in California, in the 1930s, had swastikas burned into their tails and were marketed as the Swastika model by Pacific System Homes of Los Angeles. The 1959 edition of “Search for Surf,” a series of surf movies by Greg Noll, included Californian surfers in Nazi storm trooper uniforms riding Flexi-Flyers in a storm drain while friends held up a Third Reich flag. Ed Roth, the artist and custom-car visionary known as Big Daddy, sold plastic Nazi storm trooper helmets to surfers in the mid-1960s and told Time magazine, “That Hitler really did a helluva public relations job for me.”
Then there was Miki Dora, king of Malibu and still the greatest culture hero in all of California surfing — our very own Elvis, the last word in coastal cool. Handsome and criminally dishonest, Dora built his reputation in the 1950s and ’60s on genuine athletic brilliance, expensive cars and clothes, and vicious elitism. When the movie “Gidget” came out, also in 1959, telling the story of a cute girl taking up surfing at Malibu, hordes of beginners descended on Dora’s favorite break. Dora, who was known for spray-painting swastikas on his surfboards, pioneered the concept of localism — the idea that waves belong to surfers who grow up near them and that interlopers deserve violence.
The term “surf Nazi” was so commonplace in the 1970s and ’80s that the B-movie “Surf Nazis Must Die,” set in the dystopic aftermath of an apocalyptic California earthquake, told the story of followers of the “Führer of the New Beach” murdering a hardworking black man, and the victim’s elderly mother avenging his death by hunting them all down.
I’ve heard all the predictable excuses for this stuff, like that the swastika was an ancient Sanskrit symbol not associated with Nazis when Pacific System Homes built its surfboards. Of course, Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” published in 1925, described a Nazi flag with the hooked cross representing “the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man.”
Hitler became chancellor in 1933. That same year, the country’s sterilization laws sought to purify the “white race” through forced sterilization of social undesirables. Two years later, the swastika appeared on the German national flag. In Southern California, those flags soon showed up at rallies of the German-American Bund, an openly anti-Semitic pro-Nazi group that held youth camps in Los Angeles parks teaching Aryan supremacy and the sieg-heil salute. Pacific Home Systems didn’t give up the Swastika model until 1938, after Germany invaded Austria.
In “The History of Surfing” by Matt Warshaw, Noll, the legendary big-wave rider and filmmaker behind the “Search for Surf” films, shrugged off accusations of latent Nazi sympathy by saying, “We’d paint a swastika on something for no other reason than to piss people off. Which it did. So next time we’d paint two swastikas, just to piss ’em off more.”
Putting a swastika on something to anger people means you know that it angers them and very likely why. Allied troops liberated Auschwitz 14 years before Noll made his film. Southern California was full of veterans who’d seen death camps with their own eyes, as well as Jewish families who’d lost relatives and families of all kinds whose sons died in the fight. Angering those people for kicks meant that the slaughter of six million Jews didn’t strike you as a big deal.
As for Dora and the Malibu crew, according to Matt Warshaw, they eventually figured out that Kathy Kohner, the real-life inspiration for the character Gidget, was Jewish. Her father, Frederick Kohner, fled Nazi Germany for California and, when his daughter took up surfing, wrote the novel that became the film. A member of the Malibu crew responded to the news about the Kohners’ ethnicity by planting a burning cross in their driveway.
According to the book “All for a Few Perfect Waves: The Audacious Life and Legend of Rebel Surfer Miki Dora,” by David Rensin, Dora often used racial slurs and advised acquaintances to put all their money in gold before Mexicans and blacks poured over the borders and ruined the economy. While serving prison time, Dora (who had been convicted of both check and credit-card fraud) wrote to a friend that he loved American Nazis. Dora eventually relocated to apartheid-era South Africa.
The famed surfboard designer Dale Velzy told Mr. Rensin that he recalled Dora boasting, in that period: “I have a black man who wakes me up in the morning, gives me my orange juice, gives me my robe, carries my board to the beach. Everybody ought to live in Africa. I have a coolie for everything I do. Everyone should own a coolie.” In a later letter, as the anti-apartheid movement grew, Dora wrote that black South Africans were “flesh-eaters,” adding, “Give these guys the rights and you’ll get white-man jerky for export.”
Nat Young, world surfing champion in 1966 and 1970, knew Dora. As Young told an interviewer: “Dora’s take is push the black man under. He’s a supreme racist, always has been. When I was younger, I believed it was all just in mirth, that he was just jivin’ it all; but no, he believes absolutely in white supremacy.”
So it doesn’t take much imagination to recognize the blue-eyed, blond surfer ideal for what it is: a white racial fantasy rooted, like most such tropes, in spurious claims of authentic connection to land. Indigenous wave-riding cultures are known to have emerged in several places around the world, including Peru, Polynesia and West Africa. Not one is in Europe. California, furthermore, was one of the most densely populated places in North America when Spaniards came in the 18th century, and was part of Spain and Mexico for nearly 80 years before the United States claimed it in the Mexican-American War. Before the 1848 Gold Rush, out of a total California population of about 150,000, there were perhaps 1,000 Anglos in the entire state.
Put another way, nothing about either the sport of wave-riding or California itself is intrinsically white, much less blond.
Then there’s the story of how both came to be viewed that way. While other territories of the Western United States displaced indigenous people, California politicians openly discussed outright extermination. Between 1850 and 1861, the California government spent an estimated $1.5 million reimbursing bounty hunters and militias for deliberate mass murder of Native Californians.
The first California Legislative Assembly, in 1850, effectively established California as a kind of white ethno-state with laws legalizing enslavement of Native Californian children and barring people of color from voting. Other laws prohibited nonwhites from testifying against whites in courts of law. This effectively immunized whites from prosecution for violence against people of color.
During the Civil War, California was so lousy with Confederate sympathizers that the Union Army garrisoned troops in Los Angeles to guard against insurrection. In the early 20th century, when immigration from eastern and southern Europe stoked Anglo-American anxiety over racial purity, California became a leader in the so-called eugenics movement aimed at preserving white identity through forced sterilization of social undesirables. Thirty-two states enacted compulsory sterilization laws, but California enforced its own with such enthusiasm that it ultimately sterilized approximately 20,000 people, one- third of the national total.
In 1934, a California eugenics promoter named Charles M. Goethe returned from Nazi Germany to tell a colleague, “Your work has played a powerful part in shaping the opinions of the group of intellectuals who are behind Hitler in this epoch-making program.” Germany’s racial-hygiene laws were based on a Model Compulsory Sterilization Law developed in the United States.
Forced sterilization continued in California until at least 1973, when a Latina named Dolores Madrigal, who had given birth at the University of Southern California medical center, walked out with a tubal ligation she didn’t want from an obstetrics ward in which the head physician had been heard to say, according to the testimony of a hospital technician, that “poor minority women in L.A. County were having too many babies, that it was a strain on society and that it was good that they be sterilized.” (The head physician has denied any wrongdoing.)
Today, I don’t know how to think about my youthful yearning to become the great blue-eyed, blond surfer. One view, I suppose, would be to say that racial and political biases and power relations can ride seemingly innocuous notions into one’s unconscious mind, then infect one’s worldview in ways that come to seem natural.
That sea wall swastika in Santa Cruz, after all, wasn’t just a skull-and-crossbones any more than the genocidal racism it represented was a German import. Like Noll’s and Dora’s swastikas, and also the more recent swastikas and sieg-heils and Confederate flags throughout California, it was, rather, pus from a boil festering since the Anglo-American invasion of this glorious place. My reading of that swastika as no more than a toothless warning — like my confidence that it would not apply to me for long — was an act of historical ignorance and naked racial privilege.
I’d like to say that everything has changed and that my mind is now pure. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until last year that I began to wonder why so few African-American men surf my local break. That thought came up only because I heard about a nonprofit called Brown Girl Surf and realized I’d met exactly one African-American female surfer ever — in Australia, of all places, where we’d both gone for a literary conference.
My first glimmers of an answer came a few months ago, when I happened across a book called “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” by Richard Rothstein. The many factors include, of course, redlining that made it impossible for African-Americans to buy homes on the California coast, plus white delusions about black bodies leading to Jim Crow segregation of swimming pools and the outright lack of swimming pools in black neighborhoods. The Southern California town of Manhattan Beach, childhood home of one of my closest surf buddies, used taxpayer money in 1924 to claim eminent domain over beach-side homes of taxpaying African-American residents in order to evict them and make the area whiter.
For 20 years, while driving from San Francisco to my favorite surf spot, I’ve passed through a mid-20th-century subdivision called Westlake, on the coast. Not until a few weeks ago did I learn that Westlake homes were developed and sold in the 1950s with the following clause in their covenant: “The real property above described, or any portion thereof, shall never be occupied, used or resided on by any person not of the white or Caucasian race, except in the capacity of a servant or domestic employed thereon as such by a white Caucasian owner, tenant or occupant.”
Few of us consider ourselves evil, fewer still truly are, but that’s beside the point. Murderous hatred and delusional bias hide and self-replicate inside our cultural forms, inside our language. A hundred and fifty years of white people like myself have helped make white-supremacist racism as Californian as panning for gold and hanging ten. Allowing ourselves to see this doesn’t make us good people, but it’s a baby step toward breaking the cycle.