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December 01, 2005

Racism in Pinole

Pinole is a town under siege. An island of rusticated charm in a burgeoning megalopolis, our traditional way of life is under attack. We are hard up against the deepening crime of Richmond, the most dangerous city in California according to recent rankings. A short ride on the local bus, or in a (presumably stolen) car along Interstate 80, and the barbarian hordes are at our gates, had we gates, which we do not. So we are vulnerable.

Or so some of my neighbors would have it.

Two years ago we fought a development on church land immediately behind our house. Those neighbors who, like us, were adjacent to the project, thought mainly of engineering and traffic concerns. The plan would have shunted storm runoff into our property - likely destroying our foundation – and killed the live oak that overhangs our yard. Landslides would have threatened others' houses. Our next door neighbor would have had the project's traffic driving five feet from her bedroom window. We killed the project for those reasons.

Neighbors further up the hill, I am sad to report, objected to the target demographic of the development. It was a low-income and transitional housing unit. Being white myself, some of those neighbors decided they could speak frankly to me about their concerns. Those concerns seemed to revolve around skin color. "You see how the Alvarez Apartments turned out, a damn nest of crime and drugs!"

We watched the Alvarez Apartments being built. We watched its tenants move in. We are four houses and uphill from The Alvarez Apartments. If something happens at the Alvarez Apartments, we hear it. In the two years since that complex opened, we have heard one disturbance, a family argument. When the subject came up in discussion, aware that the theoretical Alvarez Apartments criminal element might cleverly schedule their nefarious activities for those nine-to-five hours when I am at work, I asked the Pinole Police Department daywatch captain about the crime rate there. There had been one domestic assault, and the perpetrator had been barred from the property. I relayed this information to the neighbor who'd been most adamant that the Alvarez Apartments were a drug, prostitution, and gang warfare headquarters, and he looked at me as though I were insane. Four houses in the other direction are neighbors to whom the police pay regular, unscheduled visits. They are white. There is some clucking about their antics. Still, the venom is reserved for our African American neighbors in the Alvarez Apartments.

I grew up, more or less, in Buffalo, NY: one of the most segregated places I have ever experienced. African American neighborhoods were strictly delineated. We lived in the suburbs for a few years before moving into Buffalo proper, and my parents invited my friend Kermit, a classmate, to stay with us for the weekend. His brother Stanley came along with him. I took them down to the creek for fossil hunting, and then we played kickball with some of the neighborhood kids. Kermit wanted to kiss one of the girls, who replied almost flirtatiously that she "would never kiss a darky." He told the story with a rueful laugh.

There is a peculiar splitting of the mind that takes place in racists of conservative and liberal stripes alike. One grants the existence of numerous friendly and humane individuals of the designated other, yet retains the fear of the other en masse. In school I had close black friends from about age eight, and I still feared my three-block walk through the nearby "ghetto" - a rather pleasant neighborhood, objectively speaking - on my way to school. What motivation the feared African American strangers might have had to jump an eleven-year-old I never quite spelled out in my mind. The notion that the neighborhood might merely comprise a few thousand people just like Kermit and Stanley, Christopher, Beverly, Billy, Akimi, Damon, and so forth, escaped me. It was a fear born of sheer ignorance.

That ignorance took a while to dissipate – and honestly, I'd be the last to claim it has dissipated entirely. By the late 1970s I had moved into African American neighborhoods in Buffalo, or at least into their fringes. Shopkeepers' dogs would wag their tails at me from behind their counters, then bark viciously when African American nine-year-olds entered the store. And then came a move to Berkeley-Oakland, and then to DC. DC eradicated the bulk of my reflexive racism. If you have a problem being around black folks, you won't last long in DC – at least if you live somewhere other than Georgetown, Kalorama, or the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue. Was it waiting on thousands of friendly Black folks at the florist where I worked? Was it learning a trade from wonderful, patient African American supervisors? Was it that long, unspoken crush on Juancara Bennett? Was it just me growing up? I don't know. Whatever it was, before long that stupid fear was gone, mostly.

I lived in DC twenty years ago. I have spent four fifths of the time since living in places where the majority of my neighbors were African American. This is a badge of neither merit nor phony political authenticity on my part: it is merely how things work in the East Bay if you are not rich enough to own a home. Integration, at least among the lower middle classes, is just a fact of life in Oakland. Moving to Pinole, 11 percent of its population African American according to the census, and with most of the Black folks conveniently isolated in the unincorporated Tara Hills subdivision just outside of town, has been a bit of an adjustment.

Our part of town is still more integrated than anywhere I lived in Buffalo. A few African American families live nearby, not all of them restricted to the Alvarez Apartments. There are about twice as many Asians as Blacks in Pinole, and Latinos edge out Blacks city-wide by a couple percentage points. Compared to where I grew up, Pinole enjoys paradisiacal diversity.

And yet that ignorance, that irrational fear I had already decided to root out by the time I reached 14 years of age, has a deeper hold here than I've seen in a long time.

There is a youth center near Fernandez Park, in the middle of town. The affluent in town can pay to have their children entertained: free daytime summer activities are the province of the poorer among us, which means that some of the youth spending time at the youth center live in Tara Hills. Kids cause problems: it's inevitable, especially if the kids are poor. But the talk in the neighborhood, the complaints about upended trashcans and teens leaning against cars and foul language in the park? Three guesses what the focus of those complaints is. I stopped going to one barber after one too many rants from her about Big Black Men scaring timorous young mommies away from the toddler playground. I found another barbershop with a diverse staff. A neighbor routinely stops me on the street, friendly like, and rants about the threats that "diversity" is bringing to his town. "It's too easy for people to get here from Richmond!" he yells. "We should close down the bus line! And," he continues, derailing his thought processes with little apparent discomfort, "widen the freeway!" He threatens to move to a place where there are "only white people," somehow thinking that I'll forgive him the slur against my wife.

His neighbor, a former mayor of Pinole, rants at meetings that everyone in town should carry a gun. This will be helpful, he explains, because then we can shoot suspicious people. I suspect that he doesn't really want to arm everyone.

My town most recently made the local papers when a proposal was floated, in response to perceived teenage ruffian activity in Fernandez Park, to remove the basketball courts so that they would no longer attract, as a city councilperson was quoted in the paper as saying, "the wrong element." I am pretty sure he wasn't referring to bismuth. The proposed replacement for the hoops: a bocce court. "This is a great idea," I explained to a disbelieving friend online, "because as we all know, old Italian guys are 100 percent crime-free." She scolded me.

Enough people spoke in favor of the basketball courts that they will stay, until the next manufactured crisis. The bocce court will go in sometime next year. I look forward to that, and may volunteer to teach a class in bocce at the youth center.

Despite the ignorance in Pinole, I am optimistic. An ex-mayor may be threatening vigilante justice, but the current mayor is on the board of directors of the youth center. My wingnut neighbor will move to Wyoming, change his ways, or drop dead of racial apoplexy. The Pinole old guard will senesce comfortably and pass away. As people leave their homes, through white flight or mortality or just moving on, others will move in. The neighborhood is in transition, and it won't come soon enough for me.

But the biggest reason I'm optimistic is across the creek. The town of Hercules is there, on the other side of a fence placed by the flood control district. Hercules is a typical suburban town in many ways, with cul-de-sacs and too much driving. Its homes are comfortable and well maintained. Its residents are friendly and well educated.

And whites and Blacks each make up 19 percent of the population. Hercules has the second largest African American population, by percentage, in the county – second only to the industrial sacrifice zone of Richmond. People seem to get along.

This summer we had contractors working on our house. One of the men was a redneck through and through, a nice enough blond guy though a bit of a slacker. Another was a skilled, efficient electrician, and African American. I found out a few days into the project that they were family: Blond guy's ex-wife had married the electrician and the two men had worked out their differences, become friends and co-parents. Some of my neighbors seem to have their ignorance wedged tightly into their minds, so that neither friendship nor experience will root it out. I would like to think that they are the only real minority the human race possesses. The future of Pinole lies across the fence.

Posted by Chris Clarke at December 1, 2005 12:53 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Hello Chris

I really don't remember reading a blog that flowed so well. Racism is such a strange creature. It seems to grow and thrive, even in this so called enlightened period of knowledge. With so much information available I find it hard to comprehend. Skin colour seems like the most unlikely way to judge a person. Like the old saying "never judge a book by its cover"
Looking forward to reading more.



Posted by: Gary Wallington at November 30, 2005 06:44 PM
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Buffalo has changed to some degree... its not quite as segregated as before, but only because as whites moved out of the city it opened up neighborhoods to others. The county is still something like the 4th most segregated in the country.

Every time I (or anyone else) on some of the otherwise liberal Buffalo discussion groups has tried to bring up the fact that racism is a huge problem there, we are shouted down with outrage.

A Buffalo elected official was arguing against letting Katrina victims have some of the tens of thousands of vacant city-owned houses because they were "the wrong element" and not the kind of people we want to attract, etc. He was repeating some of the worst Fox News stories about armed gangs of rapists, etc. that turned out to be untrue. He constantly referred to potentially relocated New Orleans citizens as "immigrants" and compared them to waves of people earlier came here from outside the US... saying they wouldn't assimilate, etc.

When I pointed out that they would not be foreign immigrants (though I would be just fine with immigrants coming to Buffalo) but merely fellow Americans he snarkily corrected himself but maintained that that difference was only technical in regard to "these people."

This guy is a Democrat. One of the supposedly more liberal of Buffalo's elected officials.

I was trying to be diplomatic and pursuade him and the others to see things differently - one woman just plain called him out as a racist. She was probably banned from the list, the outrage was incredible.

And that's the thing - they deny that there's racism in Buffalo when in fact the area reeks of racism. Buffalo is defined more by its racism than by just about anything else.

Snow, factory closings, Albany politics - none of these have had as dramatic an impact on the city as the racism. Its borders, the structure of city government, the housing stock, traffic patterns, where preservation and cultural groups are active - all of this is affected more by race than anything else. But nobody, nobody will ever suggest that race is a problem.

Being the 4th most segregated county is some kind of fluke. A coincidence not worth mentioning. I myself was shouted down for bringing it up.

I think the bottom like is that people equate the words racism and racist with active hate - and they don't feel that they hate anyone.
They're just sitting in their house in Orchard Park watching Everybody Loves Raymond, they don't hate anybody! Sure, they won't venture into the east side of Buffalo, but that's only because... well, you know... but they don't HATE anyone, only bad people hate people!

I remember years ago CNN's Bernard Shaw puffing up, sputtering and turning bright red when someone suggested that reporteds might have a bias. He practically screamed that it wasn't true. Forget for a moment the "liberal bias" lie that the last several years have proven untrue... at the time I realized that Shaw's reaction showed that he did have a bias.
The fact of the matter is, every reporter has a bias and its only through understanding their own bias and taking it into account that they can report objectively. If they deny their bias as Shaw did, they can't hope to be objective.

Same thing with racism. Everyone has prejudices. If you deny you have them then you can't help but have them influence your actions.

That's Buffalo's situation. There's plenty of hatred and overt racism, but mostly its basically decent people who simply refuse to even consider the problem.

4th most segregated county, but no racists there, and don't you dare bring up the subject.

Sadly I don't see things changing.

Posted by: craig at December 1, 2005 03:04 AM
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Wonderful essay, Chris. So sharp, so honest, so beautifully articulated without any articulation showing. Such a true representation of what is left to be done. And what Gary said.

Love the local point of view you chose.

I see writing ys;rmy runs in the family.

I'm still working on my contribution to today; interestingly, one of my posts is about Jack Kemp and his role as the authentic Republican voice of sensitive appreciation on matters of race, and how little action he's ever required of himself in the face of racial dustups in his sections of upstate NY.

If it was just up to the truly awful racists, racism would be over; it's only kept alive because of the decent people who just can't bear to look at its reality.

We've been talking at Corrente, inspired by your idea for this day, about starting a project on our site devoted to this subject - the particular module is called a Book, and it's basically a virtual container for posts on the same subject which can be continually edited and added to, and that can include public contritutions from readers, or other bloggers. I'll let you know as the idea evolves.

Posted by: Leah at December 1, 2005 02:02 PM
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I'm mulling over a post on the UnGhetto, which is what I see happening in my city, and in parts of my state, and is what happens when an underdeveloped white area becomes economically attractive at long last, at a time when minorities are able to increasingly move around and choose where they want to live and work. It's been very interesting watching it happen, where there is still quiet bigotry, and sometimes it spills out like in Hudson - but whenever it does, the reaction is that of daylight on mildew, and as the economic integration of the schools inner-city goes on, and mixed race marriages become more and more common as they have the last ten years, each generation here becomes less tolerant of tolerating such "genteel" bigotry when they encounter it.

A big part of it is that there is not, currently, the *widespread* perception that "They" are taking away scarce resources from "Us" - competition is behind a lot of bigotry, or bigotry is used to camouflage what is actually a fight over Stuff by people who don't dare challenge The Man, and The Man uses it to keep us all down, pit the little streets against the less instead of the great, and yet another big part of it is that without a history of competition and rivalry and thus bigotry, the influx of Strangers with their different music and food and costumes is seen not as Scary but as fascinating, at worst a bit *silly* - but mostly in an eccentric, we're all family and we all have our quirks sort of way.

IOW, the fact that it was such a 99% bland lilywhite culture has, I think, made it *easier* not harder for integration and cultural fusion. Instead of freaking out like the Freepers were doing over Cinco de Mayo celebrations nationwide, we look at it as an excuse to dress up, go dancing, and drink foreign beer...not that, admittedly, we really *need* an excuse for that here...

Posted by: bellatrys at December 2, 2005 05:30 AM
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Sometime in the 1980s, I was recruited by the NAACP or perhaps a church to be part of a revolving crew of folks who took 4 hour night shifts sitting outside the home of a Black family who had moved to Hercules or maybe San Pablo. Someone had painted KKK on their windows, and, I think (memory is faint) did some damage to their house. The sitting was completely uneventful. I merely remember being cold. But it is interesting to think that those places have both moved on. I enjoyed your confidence in their evolution which certainly seems believable.

Posted by: janinsanfran at December 2, 2005 07:02 AM
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Oh, Chris.

One day you write a post like "Doubt", then you come up with something like this.

You should have no doubt whatsoever about the fine wordsmithing we all get to enjoy here.

As usual, this post was a pleasure to read.

God Bless You Sir.

Posted by: thingfish23 at December 2, 2005 04:03 PM
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thingfish, you are absolutely correct. Chris, that is one great essay.

Posted by: Kevin at December 2, 2005 08:30 PM
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In reference to "the Pinole Police Department daywatch captain about the crime rate there (at Alvarez Apts": "There had been one domestic assault, and the perpetrator had been barred from the property. I relayed this information to the neighbor who'd been most adamant that the Alvarez Apartments were a drug, prostitution, and gang warfare headquarters, and he looked at me as though I were insane."
Truth is somewhere in the middle. The Pinole Police department failed to mentioned that over the last three years:
three residents of Alvarez Apartments have had their cars stolen (all recovered with diffent degrees of damage), and domestic disputes have ocurred at least four apartments with the police being called one or more times per apartment. One person was alledgely arrested with her boyfriend (gun and drugs) and evicted three days after move-in. There have been several evictions and many were connected with drugs. Further there continues to be a resident pot pusher who bragged at the 2005 Alvarez Christmas party that he carries a baseball bat to control the property. So is the Alverez the friendly place you mentioned or the hostile place your friend described? It is neither. It is mixture of great people with those living with chemical addictions. Some do have arrest records and may even have convictions. You sir, have been misinformed

Posted by: rather not say at December 25, 2005 12:35 PM
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As even a careless reading of this post will show, my conversation with the Pinole PD took place in 2003. Even granting the possibility that some of the above may be true, I am highly reluctant to take the word of an anonymous blog commenter who provides no evidence to back up his or her claims.

And blaming people for having their cars stolen is just plain stupid.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at December 25, 2005 12:43 PM
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