Racial discrimination

Aug 172014
photo "borrowed" from Think Progress

photo “borrowed” from Think Progress

The New York Times has a story,titled “Around St. Louis, a Circle of Rage” about how police harassment and political ostracism of African-Americans has given fuel to the protests we see in Ferguson.  You can substitute “Oakland” or “San Francisco” for St. Louis and get the same story. People of color – mostly, but not exclusively, African-American – are tired of having their children shot and being the object of police harassment.

When you add to these issues, the fact that the middle class is being decimated, that jobs and opportunities for youth are disappearing and that America is no longer a democracy, we have a volatile situation.

The federal government, owned by Wall Street, has responded by militarizing the police and creating a surveillance state to try to identify leaders-in-the-making. As the NYT said in another article, the protests in Ferguson suffer from lack of leadership.

The repression of peaceful protesters and journalists in Ferguson should not be considered casual. It”s intended, at least in part, to serve as a warning to other communities that may rise up and specially to the middle class, which still has something to lose. State terror exists because it works.

Jun 172011

San Leandro is a diverse town.  The latest census numbers show that there about equal numbers of whites, Asians and Latinos in town, African-Americans making another 11% of the population.  You will see this wonderful diversity when you visit our schools, our public library, our parks or community festivities.  You will not see it, however, at City Hall.

Last Monday the City Council carried out a work session on the issue of racial diversity in the city’s workforce.  The city’s Human Resources consultant, Steve Harman,  and the Chief Police, Sandra Spagnoli, both gave very brief presentations about diversity in their departments.  The data they brought was scant but telling.  Sixty one percent of the total City workforce and 62% of the Police force is white.

These numbers, moreover, don’t tell us about the type of jobs held by members of racial minorities in San Leandro.  Are blacks and Latinos working for the city as accountants and public work specialists, or as street cleaners and gardeners? City Hall needs to make this clear.  We do know, however, that there are very few minorities at the upper echelon of city government and that 71% of the last 14 people hired at the city (which included the Chief of Police and the Finance Director) are white.

The situation at the Police Department may be even grimmer.  While Spagnoli did not disclose the number of minority sworn officers, Mike Sobek, the head of the San Leandro Police Officers Association,  spoke during public comments and mentioned that (out of the 90 or so sworn officers) only two are black and two Latino (including himself).  There doesn’t seem to be any Asians.  They did say that 13% of officers are female, while the number might look low it is better than the national average of 8% or so.

Fortunately both Chief Spagnoli and Sobek seem to understand the real importance of diversifying the force.  Spagnoli told the Council that Police forces must reflect the ethnic diversity of the communities they serve, and she’s making changes in the recruitment and promotion process at the SLPD to accomplish this goal.  Spagnoli also wants to get more officers that are bilingual, have college education, special training and live in San Leandro.   Applications for SLPD positions will now be accepted in an ongoing basis, allowing the SLPD to build a richer application pool.  It would help this process, however, if the SLPD posted job openings on their website.  Promotions to sergeant positions will no longer be based entirely on an interview with police higher ups, but on objective criteria as well, and require people from outside the SLPD in the interview panel.  This latter change comes as part of the settlement agreement with the female officers who sued the city for sexual discrimination.

During public comments, Sobek spoke of the need to not just open the process to minority applicants but to specifically recruit them.  He suggested the Police go to colleges with diverse student populations and suggest law enforcement careers to students who might not have considered them before.  Having a Police force which is diverse not only ethnically, but ideologically would likely help in establishing good relations with the community as a whole.

Sobek had many very positive things to say about Spagnoli – in particular he spoke eloquently about how she’s helping the force gain a sense of focus and purpose.  It seems she’s really bringing a level of professionalism the force was lacking.  From the outside, it’s difficult to know how she’s handling the “rotten apple” problems within the SLPD, and as head of the Police Union Sobek is not an unbiased observer, but his words of praise for Spagnoli seemed heartfelt and I’m hoping they reflect a commitment within the SLPD hierarchy and union to create a police force with is both clean and committed to the community they serve.

Back at City Hall, the idea of diversifying the workforce seems to be new and novel at the City management level.  While recruitment of individual positions varies, it seems clear that the city has not done anything to promote job openings among minority populations.  The city does not even advertise its jobs in places like Craigslist, preferring to use the San Leandro Times and its own website.   The City Council, however, seems to be listening to the tolling of the bells and sent the message that they want a more open process.   The Council’s real commitment to diversity will actually be tested in their choice of a new city manager.  Signs so far are encouraging, last month they started the city manager hiring process anew when they couldn’t find a suitable candidate with a good understanding of diversity issues.


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.