Column: The View From Here: The Roots of a Problem: Looking at Oregon Street

By P.M. Price
Friday June 02, 2006

“Spell it!” demanded the young redhead, eyes glaring, hands on narrow hips. 

“I know how to spell it,” responded the brown boy, indignantly. 

“Then spell it!” the freckled second grader dared him. 

“I don’t have to spell it!” her classmate retorted. 

“My mom says that people who say ‘I don’t have to spell it’ are losers.” And with a flick of her long, shiny tresses, she turned on her heel and dismissed him. 

An instant of pain flickered in his dark eyes, quickly replaced with anger. His face hardened and he, too, turned away. Perhaps the eight-year-old wordsmith had touched something inside him. A nagging, resurfacing voice that many African-Americans and other oppressed people often hear. A voice whispering to him, taunting him, telling him: you’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough, you—who you are right here and right now—are simply not enough. 

This exchange—written here exactly the way it happened—is not atypical of the numerous interactions I witness while working in the Berkeley Unified School District, primarily with second and third graders. 

While Berkeley prides itself on its history of integration within the public school system (well, at least it used to), the fact is that the disparity between not just the races but the classes is growing larger, just as it has throughout our country. 

Part of the reason for the sense of distance felt between so many Americans has to do, in part, with our seeming inability to truly empathize with those who appear to be different. There’s a disconnect. An uninformed assessment. A judgment. A dismissal. 

What the little girl was telling the little boy was, in so many words, that he was stupid and they both knew it. Her mother had told her how to judge people like him and she was simply doing as she was instructed to do. 

Over time, her words combined with other disapproving words, hostile stares, repeated rejection, avoidance, fear and even repulsion, dished out by various shop- keepers, authority figures, teachers, neighbors, media and even complete strangers, all contributed to what is too often a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Kids aren’t born thinking they are inferior any more than they are born to be “bad” or indifferent. These are learned attitudes and behaviors that become internalized; they become part of a person’s hard drive, stamped onto some internal mechanism that defines who we are and what we’re about. 

While it doesn’t excuse antisocial behavior, it can explain the thought processes; the reasons why a person automatically goes from “A” to “B” to “C”.  

In my last column (May 16) I wrote about losing my firstborn child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. What I didn’t mention was this: four days after my daughter died, I was distraught. I held this searing, boomeranging pain inside of me that the four walls around me could not contain. I had to get out of the house. I needed to move, to walk. My husband took my hand and we started walking, from south Berkeley toward UC Berkeley. 

As we walked along Campus Road nearing our alma mater Boalt Hall, a jeep full of young white men, what we used to call “frat boys,” approached us. As they passed, one of them laughingly shouted at us: “Nigger!” 

I was stunned, incensed, livid. My hormones, already off-kilter with grief, went off the charts. If I had had a gun, there might be one less Corporate-CEO-Daddy’s Boy in the world today. I wasn’t thinking. I was feeling. And all I felt was rage.  

There have been countless times when I, along with every other black person I know, have been on the unwelcomed receiving end of mindless, cruel racism. I have been followed through stores as though I were a common thief. I have been ignored by clerks when clearly I was next in line. Passed over while waiting for a table. Ignored by waitresses. I recall standing at a bus stop on University Avenue, my arms laden with law books, only to have some white man in a long American car pull up and ask “How much?” 

Not long ago, I was in a popular bakery near closing time and the clerk jumped back from the register, a look of terror on her face as she stared towards the door. I turned to look. A tall black man was running toward the entry way. He stopped, bent over and scooped up his toddler who giggled as he kissed her. He had run towards the bakery door chasing his two-year-old, not planning on armed robbery. 

I live in south Berkeley, in the house my grandparents purchased in 1934. They were among the first people of color to integrate this neighborhood. As the elders in our community passed away, some of their children and grandchildren inherited their homes, debts and responsibilities but not their dreams of a better life. 

Two, some say three, generations have been lost to drugs, in particular to crack cocaine. There are those who blame this on the CIA, who insist that there was a well-orchestrated conspiracy to destroy African-Americans through drug addiction and that they have the documentation to prove it. I’m not going to debate that assertion here. Whatever the cause, it is evident that far too many in our communities have suffered the effects of drug and alcohol abuse, many beginning in utero.  

Addiction is often accompanied by depression, lack of education, diminished mental capacity, unemployment, poverty and various expressions of antisocial behavior. I wonder whether any of these factors contribute to the mess on Oregon Street. 

We’ve all read about the drug dealing emanating from 1610 Oregon St. in south Berkeley, not far from my home. We’ve read numerous articles alternately describing the owner of the property, 76-year-old Lenora Moore as a long-suffering grandmother dedicated to her ailing husband and as an irresponsible maven who has no control over her drug-dealing offspring.  

What we haven’t read about are the offspring: the source of the disruptive, illegal activity. Who are they? What are their names? Are they all merely “alleged” drug dealers? Have any of them been arrested? Convicted? Why or why not? Is anyone going after them? Has anyone asked them why they continue to use and disrespect their grandmother? There is nothing “African-American” about that. 

Quite the contrary. In African cultures, the elders are held in the highest regard; lovingingly cared for and listened to. They would never be placed at such risk by their own children or any other young people in their community.  

I recently spoke with one of the families directly affected by the Oregon Street controversy, some of whom had grown up around the children and grandchildren of Mrs. Moore. 

I wanted to know what these “alleged” drug dealers were like as kids, if there were any warning signs or predictors. I wasn’t surprised to hear that these young adults were the schoolyard bullies, the neighborhood vandals. 

Never mind school. Apparently, they are bullies still: vandalizing the property of their distraught neighbors, threatening to kill those who complain. 

There are many African-American families who do not want this activity in their neighborhood. However, they are reluctant to speak out for fear of retaliation.  

I wonder whether or not these bullies-turned-dealers are some of the same kids who were told they were stupid and worthless so often and in so many ways that they came to believe it, not only of themselves, but of everyone around them, including their grandparents, including you and me.  

Not to excuse their behavior, mind you, simply to try to understand it, so that perhaps we can do more to cut out the source of this cancerous growth—this indifference towards other human beings—at its roots.