TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. — It was a quiet afternoon for Kari Wilson, a bartender at The Virginian Bar in Twentynine Palms, a desert town of about 26,000 people on the edge of California’s Joshua Tree National Forest and the vast Mojave Desert.
Retirees and Marine Corps pilots from the nearby Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base are the usual patrons, but on this day, it’s four journalism students on a road trip examining “Hate in America.”
Wilson, 26, joined the U.S. Navy four years ago. The Navy showed her the world, including to Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan and Syria, so she’s been around. She said she now loves working at the desert town bar and visiting with the people that stop by.
She greeted customers with a smile, but the conversation quickly turned serious when she was asked about her thoughts on the current state of America — politically and racially.
“We’re divided and anyone who thinks otherwise is really out of the loop,” Wilson said. “It’s really sad.”
Maybe the rest of America could learn from bars like hers, she said.
“In the big picture, we’re all divided and then you go to a bar and suddenly everyone is talking to each other,” Wilson said. “Why can’t that just happen big picture-wise? Everybody just needs to grab a drink and meet up or something.”
Wedda Warrick and Laurette Rogers, customers that day at the bar, overheard Wilson’s responses and chimed in.
“Sweetness,” as Warrick addressed this reporter, “the states have always had this bias” when it refers to people of color, she said. “You see bias all the time.”
She said bias turned to violence in 2015 when 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. It deeply upset her because it reminded her that hate still exists in the country.
She recalled traveling through Alabama in the early 1960s, about the time of the civil rights movement. Her family pulled up to a gas station and she remembered seeing two water fountains – one for white people and the other for black people.
“The black fountain had mucus and spit in it,” she said. “It was disgusting.”
Warrick said she grew up “old-school” as a kid in the 1950s and ‘60s, with her mother staying at home and her father working full-time. When Warrick joined the workforce, she said she was hired by companies and places that needed to meet a “diversity quota.”
“If you were a woman, they were hiring you,” Warrick said. “If you were black, they were hiring you. If you were of ethnic heritage, they were hiring you because they had to fill quotas. And, yes, I was one of the ones they had to fill a quota with.”
Rogers was at first quiet, but then she spoke up.
“I was raised on the East Coast by my parents and grandparents,” Rogers said. “If you ever said the ‘n’ word, you got your mouth washed with soap because that’s not the way we were raised.”
Warrick is hopeful there will be more love than hate in the near future. Rogers agreed with her friend, but had a final thought on the state of the country.
“It’s all about how you were raised,” Rogers said. “If you were raised by bigoted parents, you’re bigoted. If you’re not raised by bigoted parents, you take people as they are. And that’s all it’s down to.”
News21 fellows Catherine Devine, Penelope Blackwell and Lenny Martinez Dominguez contributed to this report.
Follow the News21 blog for updates as the team reports on the road.