Brian Copeland

Jan 052015
Laython "Judge" Landis

Laython “Judge” Landis

Update 2: Campaign finance reports show that Pauline Cutter returned Judge Landis’  contribution.  Deborah Cox did not.  Landis died in November 2015.

Update: Deborah Cox has given in to public pressure, this afternoon she spoke with Brian Copeland and said she’d return the contribution.

San Leandro has a long and tortuous history of racial segregation and discrimination.  The city was almost exclusively white well into the 1990s and stories of police cars guarding the border with Oakland still linger in the memory of many African Americans. Writer and comedian Brian Copeland, who moved to San Leandro as a young child, turned his experiences growing up here into a powerful one-man show, which became the longest running solo play in San Francisco.   The book based on his play, Not a Genuine Black Man: Or, How I Claimed My Piece of Ground in the Lily-White Suburbs, has earned 5 stars on

While San Leandro has changed greatly since then, and we are now one of the most diverse cities in California, too many of the long-term residents who remain have kept their racist and xenophobic attitudes which they express unchallenged.  It was thus  not in the least surprising to hear that Laython “Judge” Landis, a former San Leandro City Council and current director of the Oro Loma Sanitary District Board, made an outright racist remark during a board meeting (which he later repeated thrice during a TV interview).  What was surprising is that someone actually called him on it and tried to hold him accountable for it.

Lands is well known in town for his racist and sexist commentaries; he once described President Obama as “just a monkey with ears” and has made indecent propositions to local female politicians.  But he has been an elected official for over four decades, his name carries weight with the older and white San Leandro population and he can be generous with his financial contributions.  This means that politicos keep inviting him to their events, using their names and taking his checks.

In the last election alone, Landis gave a $1,000 contribution to now Mayor Pauline Cutter and a $2,000 contribution to now Councilmember Deborah Cox.  On his radio show and on Facebook, Brian Copeland called on Cutter and Cox to return such contributions.  Cutter committed to doing so and has already taken Laython Landis off the list of the endorsers for her Mayoral run.  Deborah Cox has not personally addressed Copeland’s request, but the response of Angela Ramirez-Holmes‘s, Cox’ campaign manager, response is telling:  “I have no idea why giving him the money back is helpful. I don’t understand this call to action.

San Leandro deserves better.

Feb 112014

copelandThe Commonwealth Club is feting the 10th anniversary of Brian Copeland’s celebrated one-man show Not a Genuine Black Man with a special program at the Lafayette Library.  It’ll take place on February 26th from 6:30 to 7:30pm.  Tickets are $12/$22 for members/nonmembers, but SLT readers can get $5 off the nonmember price by using the code: specialcopeland. Get tickets here.

I, personally, find it deliciously ironic that Brian will be celebrated for his book and one man show about growing up black in lily white San Leandro, in what is probably currently the whitest city in the Bay Area.  Just 166 out of Lafayette’s almost 23,893 residents are African American, or about 0.7%.

May 312011

The demographics of San Leandro have changed dramatically in the last few years.  According to the 2011 census, just 27% of San Leandrans identify themselves as white, down from 51% in 2000.  In 1970, however, a full 97% of San Leandrans were white.  Africans American today make up almost 12% of the population; in 1970 they were 0.1%.  Those numbers were not happenstance, rather, they were the result of very specific and very successful policies of racial discrimination that kept non-whites, and in particular blacks, from moving into the city.   Originally, non-whites were kept out of town by restrictive covenants.  Once these were ruled unconstitutional, elected officials, the Chamber of Commerce, homeowner associations, apartment owners and realtors all conspired to prevent blacks from renting or buying property in town.  Realtors would not show houses to blacks, owners would not sell them, and anyone who refused to tow the line would feel the pressure from the rest.  Only in the late ’80s did San Leandro start to integrate.

San Leandro’s dirty history as one of the most racist town in America was definitely known to African Americans in nearby communities.  It became known to the rest of the country due to a couple of TV news stories (The Suburban Wall and the Invisible Wall) that showcased the problem.  But as time went on, and new people came to town, San Leandro’s racial history seemed to be forgotten.  It wasn’t until comedian Brian Copeland started his one-man-show “Not A Genuine Black Man”, which deals, in part, about perils he suffered as a black boy who moved into San Leandro in the 70’s, that the issue came back to light.  But not everyone was happy with that.

In 2005, City Manager John Jermanis and Public Library Director David Bohne decided to commission a book on the history of San Leandro.  They hired a young writer to do this, he produced an outline that included a chapter on this unpleasant aspect of San Leandro history.  The writer also proposed to talk to Brian Copeland about his own experiences.  Jermanis and Bohne ordered him to leave that part out of the book; when he refused on ethical grounds, they cancelled the whole book project.   Of course, they did that as quietly as possible.

I found out about the botched history book through an e-mail by Brian Copeland that a friend forwarded.  I set out to find out what had actually happened, and contacted Jermanis, Bohne and several city council members.  Jermanis originally talked to me, but when he realized that he couldn’t make his actions look in any way legitimate, he quickly stopped the conversation.  Bohne, meanwhile, made excuses for months to not accept my calls.  When I finally met him at a public event, he refused to even speak to me.  Jermanis, meanwhile, ordered the then public information officer Jane Crea to come up with a “story” to justify what they had done.  Unfortunately, her story had many holes and contradicted other facts.  What I learned from all of this, was that the racist policies that had driven this city until the 1980’s were alive and well at City Hall and at the Public Library.

I documented some of my conversations at the time on a webpage that I shared my friends and colleagues.  I’m sharing it with the public now because history – even history about the desire to censor history – needs to be known.

Jermanis retired a few years ago as City Manager, but Bohne continues to head the library.  Neither the City Council nor the Library Commission ever held either of them into account for their attempts to censor San Leandro history.

May 292011

The Black History 101 Mobile Museum is coming to San Leandro on June 4th for a 1-day-only Taste of Freedom event at the Linen Life Gallery.  The Museum travels around the country and features exhibits that highlight the historical experience of African-Americans, from the slave era to hip-hop culture.  This particular event will be commemorating Malcom X, and will feature a lecture by Professor Griff, a rapper with the group Public Enemy.

Tickets for the event start at $30, and include an all-you-can-eat taster, access to the exhibit, lecture and entertainment.  You can buy them online or at the venue. The event is for adults 21 and older.

I find it very fitting that this event will take place in San Leandro – a city that does not have a black history of its own, as African-Americans were not allowed to live within the cities until the 1980s.  Before that, both restrictive covenants and a conspiracy of homeowner associations, realtors and local politicians kept African Americans from buying property in town.  In the late 1960’s, the US Commission on Civil Rights held hearings on housing discrimination in San Leandro but they did little to solve the problem.  By 1971, Sa Leandro was known as the “most racist town in America” and its discriminatory practices were the subject of  The Suburban Wall, a TV documentary, which features San Leandro Mayor Maltester explaining how blacks don’t want to live in San Leandro because this is a boring town.  Anyone interested in this period of history should read Brian Copeland’s amazing memoir Not a Genuine Black Man: Or, How I Claimed My Piece of Ground in the Lily-White Suburbs.