TalkOakland.org: Narratives on Race
A few days ago, I was chatting with one of my housemates, when the conversation turned decidedly to Oakland and to why I was here. And I balked.
Don't get me wrong, I said the honest and appropriate things--that I was seeking refuge in Oakland, that I love the culture here, and that the Bay Area was my true home. I realized that I am a gentrifier in Oakland in particular, and that the presence of white people is unwelcome and potentially toxic for the existing communities of color that have always made Oakland their home--in large part because of redlining and other racist segregation techniques that are still used (albeit illegally) to this day. But that I was doing what I could to counter the difficulty of my presence, which, I'll admit, felt a little weak even to me. After all, I wouldn't tolerate that deflection from another white person who is called out for appropriating a culture in clothing, so why am I talking about land as though it is any different?
Things continued to grow in heat; I tried to stay--and to large degree, stayed-- pretty calm, but under the barrage of pointed questions, I was forced to concede that all the rationalizations of how it could be made "better" that I was here were just that: rationalizations. It didn't matter that I had read for years about how to navigate whiteness in a way that is deweaponized against communities of color. It didn't matter that many if not all of the things that I had suggested were originally brought up to me from radical folks of color.
And something else, a reminder that there are some things that will always be completely outside of what I can understand. Hearing my friend talking so passionately about Oakland--her communities, her place in them--brought home to me that I didn't know how to relate to that. At all.
That I was a refugee, and I have been for so long that I don't know the first thing about building a place in a community--or developing a relationship with a people and a place.
This isn't to say that I never had roots--for the first 22 years of my life, I lived in Tampa, in two houses in neighboring boroughs. But I never felt at home in them; I never felt safe in them once I was old enough to understand how dangerous it was to be myself. My place in them was predicated on looking like and acting like someone I wasn't. My place in the church, the closest thing I had to a community resource other than my family and friends, was predicated on being relatively quiet, straight-acting, and gender-conforming.
And once Mom died and I came out, it was only a short time before I was threatened with homelessness by my (shrinking) family, and most of my male friends (and a fair number of my female friends) slowly vanished. I felt ostracized by my dad's family, and slowly alienated by what remained of my mom's. At present, I only have a relationship with one cousin, occasionally, and my brother--who I could not be prouder of--and my uncle (godfather), on Mom's side. What was once a huge family (four sets of "grandparents", countless "aunts and uncles and cousins") is now, for me, three or four people tall.
About this time (between 15 and 20), I was slowly becoming aware of constant aggressions by strangers. Customers at work would be snippier with me than with my more conforming coworkers, to say nothing of how my male coworkers often treated me. Mothers would make noncommital noises in my direction just for being near them and their kids. Streets I had felt safe on felt less and less safe--this was especially true one fateful night when I was attacked in Ybor City for being a faggot, publicly, with friends. After I came out as trans especially, the level of violence climbed dramatically. Being a native child of the city never did me any favors so far as I can tell.
So although I had considered myself (and been considered) a relatively woke white person, I was confronted that night with my near-complete ignorance of having pride in where you come from, in part because my whiteness and my class and education privilege allow me to move basically wherever I saw fit--a luxury many people, especially people of color, don't often have. But also because where I was from in ways large and small, felt as though it had left me behind so often and with such sureness that I had never felt that it belonged to me anymore than I belonged to it. I am "from Tampa" only in the sense that I survived its constant and ongoing erasure of people like me, as any number of qt friends in Tampa can attest.
I talked with her about all of this later that night, and she talked with me about what community meant to her and to other people in Oakland, that there was a potential path for community acceptance for outsiders--even white outsiders like me--but I'm not so sure. If anything, I'm more uncertain than ever that it's possible for me to assimilate into or be accepted into a community based on shared history and land when it is so clear to me that even with the best intentions and taking the lead from activists within this community that I might not ever be able to get it.
I think I understand now why it was so important to Mom that my brother and I have roots. But in spite of that, I feel chronically adrift. Grief and patriarchy have made me a wanderer, and I'm not completely sure I can ever truly belong to a place the way my friend does. I feel so humbled, but it's not enough.
The roots of our prejudice run very deep. To begin with, we can now agree that the evils of slavery were never truly addressed or repaid. An estimated 620,000 soldiers lost their lives fighting a war that was fought on the basis of eliminating the slave economy, and African Americans were indeed declared free, but other than having a formal legal declaration, they were largely abandoned to their fate amongst a deeply divided and bigoted nation.
In the South, African Americans faced Jim Crow and segregation, as well as political terror from the Ku Klux Klan, which was largely tolerated by the authorities. In the North, African American's were hypocritically welcomed to the land of their more progressive neighbors, while outright being denied FHA loans by the US Government and shunted into neighborhoods with inferior housing, infested with loan sharks, among other discriminatory practices.
It wasn't until after the Civil Rights movement that people of color were able to secure desegregation, equal protection under the law, anti-discrimination laws and practices such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which helped to get more people of color registered and voting fairly. Certainly these gains were major victories and hard-fought, but still there was a long way to go, and much more work to be done, especially on the part of the oppressors.
Riding on the momentum of the civil rights movement, and also the counter culture movement, black radicals like the Black Panthers became more bold and militant. There were more people of color who were willing to fight for their basic rights and equal standing in society, and demand for reparations for all of the injustices inflicted against them, and not just for a couple of formal but hollow guarantees and cheap concessions like affirmative action.
The establishment had to figure out how to keep oppressing people of color without being called out as lawbreakers or even as racists.
Open discrimination and prejudice gave way to all manner of subtle prejudice and quieter means of discrimination, which continues today.
From the state, we saw the gradual expansion of the prison system, combined with a 40 year drug war that continues on. Crack cocaine was introduced into black neighborhoods, which saw skyrocketing drug sentencing and prison terms. The press has largely declared the War on Drugs a failure, but from the perspective of a racist establishment, it can only be seen as a success. Though people of color make up 30 percent of the population, they make up 60 percent of the prison population.
In the private sector, we see egregious instances of redlining by the banks, a practice in which banks mark out Black neighborhoods on a map in order to deny them financial services, or else target them with predatory loans and high interest rates. A large proportion of the middle class wealth that was destroyed after the 2008 financial crisis belonged to people of color, due to the fact that African American households were especially targeted with predatory liar's loans.
Redlining has also been used by insurance companies to deny insurance or wring out high premiums, and it has also been used to deny health care and keep higher quality stores out of certain neighborhoods.
A silent and invisible war on communities of color by the state and by the private sector has left African Americans and other minorities in stressed neighborhoods that are devoid of basic public and economic services, as well as decent food, utilities, and public parks.
In many neighborhoods where people of color move in and attempt to better their lives, affluent whites flee for outer circle suburbs further and further from the inner cities, which is how the term “inner city” has taken much of its meaning.
These inner city communities then are left to wallow in inescapable cycles of poverty, all of the cards stacked against them. They are the most heavily patrolled, where police use discriminatory tactics and brutalization to keep people of color in and out of prison and otherwise demoralized.
Today ongoing economic stress, increasing inequality, continuing discrimination and brutality, and a variety of other stressors have aggravated these issues even more, to the point at which it seems that we are actively regressing to a more backwards state of race relations.
At its base however, we refuse to address our problems at the root level. We continue to rearrange the game pieces, in the hopes that we do something right. We make formal concessions, we make legal niceties, and carry around feel good ideologies about color blindness. However, until we truly confront our race problem head on, and implement the proper reparations for people of color, we will continue to make the same mistakes. And we will show that this requires a radical change of our way of living.