Column: Undercurrents: East Bay’s Problems Can’t Be Hidden Under the Trash

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday July 13, 2007

We continue to have odd and inexplicable gaps in our ability to discuss race and racism in an adult way in this country. 

Watch the Turner News Network (TNT) broadcasts of National Basketball Association games, and you’ll see pre-game and halftime banter between anchor Ernie Johnson (White) and color analysts (no pun intended) Kenny Smith (African-American) and Charles Barkley (African-American) that manages to throw in running jokes about race that manage to offend few, if any, of the multiracial viewing audience. 

The same is true for the Fox Sports Network’s “Best Damn Sports Show, Period,” which features a cast that is usually equally divided between whites and folks of color who bring in issues of race, from time to time, in their discussions as if it is not a dirty subject to be stuck between the pages of an old magazine that you read, by yourself, while sitting on the toilet. 

Strangely, though, turn on the average boxing match, and you begin to see the strain of our attempts to appear to be color-blind in the midst of a multi-colored world. Commentators sometimes talk about particular attributes that they believe are applicable to Mexican or Latin fighters, but put one of those Mexican fighters in a ring with an African-American opponent, both with red trunks on, and those same commentators will only be able to identify who they are talking about by bringing out the 25-pound version of the American Heritage Dictionary to find the 300 various shades of red, all to keep from saying “Hernandez is the Mexican kid and Sanders is the black guy.” 

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why it’s such a problem for them to say it. 

Same thing is true for many post-civil rights era newspaper articles, which often seem to go out of their way to mention race. 

That appears to be the case in an otherwise excellent article on the Waste Management sanitation workers lockout in the Chronicle on Thursday (“Waste Deep: Collection Erratic” by reporters Henry K. Lee, Justin Berton, Joe Garofoli, and David R. Baker). The article presents facts that tend to show that Waste Management’s replacement workers are favoring some neighborhoods over others in their pickup. The problem is the interesting way the reports describe, or don’t describe, those neighborhoods. 

“Tidy East Bay neighborhoods where garbage service is provided by the company that has locked out its drivers were still tidy Wednesday,” the article begins, “something that couldn’t be said for some scruffier areas where pickups were days overdue.” 

The “scruffier” neighborhoods, we later learn, are the Fruitvale, East Oakland and West Oakland, we learn, while the “tidy” neighborhoods are Albany, Emeryville, Livermore, San Ramon, Castro Valley, and the “largely middle-class Temescal and Montclair parts of Oakland.” The reporters also describe the neighborhoods as “poorer” or “wealthier,” but never tell us what is immediately in the minds of many readers, that while there are a lot of people of color in the “tidy” neighborhoods, the “scruffier” neighborhoods pointed out in the article are largely African-American or Latino, or both. 

The income levels of the neighborhoods are mentioned for the obvious reasons, the Chronicle and the reporters making the point that since Waste Management does not have enough replacement workers to fully serve its entire area, the company appears to be favoring the wealthy over the poor in making the decision over which pickup areas will be left out. Montclair Village Shopping Center mentions having its garbage continue to be picked up twice a week, while sections of West Oakland and the East Oakland flats had no weekly pickups at all. 

“This is about money and power and clout,” the article quoted one Albany resident as saying. “Look around this neighborhood. There’s Wall Street Journals on the doorsteps here. I’m just guessing that if the people in charge of picking up the garbage are going to decide where not to pick it up, it’s going to be in neighborhoods where people don’t vote, they don’t complain and they don’t have clout.” 

Could the Chronicle reporters find no one who might also suggest that the dumpsters in the fourplexes around 98th Avenue and Bancroft were not being picked up because the area is both low-income and black? 

But despite all our efforts to push it to the background, race and racism—particularly anti-black and anti-Latino racism—continues to be a simmering, boiling, volatile issue in the Bay Area and beyond, living just under the surface of all of our issues, threatening at any moment to—like the dream deferred in the Langston Hughes poem—to burst out and explode. 

That was the case at this week’s Oakland City Council Community and Economic Development Committee meeting during a discussion about small and minority-owned business subcontracts with the Fox Oakland restoration project. 

As reported in the Thursday Tribune (“Tempers Flare As Oakland Officials Nearly Go To Blows”), Darrel Carey, the president of the East Bay Small Business Council, criticized developer Phil Tagami for what Carey described as minimal efforts to make sure small and minority-owned businesses got those subcontracts. 

Tagami denied the allegations, and when he later stalked out of the meeting saying that “this is a shakedown!” Carey accused him of shaking down and stealing from Oakland for years, and followed him outside the hearing room. Councilmember Larry Reid had to run behind the two men and hold Carey off while Tagami stormed away from Ogawa Plaza. 

I haven’t studied the report that was submitted with the Community and Economic Development Committee item and I haven’t had the chance to talk with either Carey or Tagami, so I can’t say, yet, how much of these particular allegations are true. 

But I can say that in the post-Proposition 209 days—Prop. 209 being the 1996 California voter initiative Constitutional amendment that outlawed “Discrimination or Preferential Treatment by State and Other Public Entities”—many East Bay public entities have complained that they have been largely unable to steer a fair portion of their contract dollars to representative numbers of their own constituents, many of whom are either Latino or African-American. And that has caused a growing anger and resentment in areas of the Latino and African-American communities, as well as frustration among city and school officials. 

That has been most apparent at the Peralta Community College District, which is charged, in part, with preparing a large Latino and African-American student population for the job market, but which cannot force companies receiving millions of dollars in contracts from the district to hire those Latino and African-American students once those students have graduated from Peralta. 

Raising the issue repeatedly in the last several years, Peralta trustees have been told by the companies and Peralta’s own diversity hiring consultants that there are many, convoluted reasons why this is so, but the bottom line is that too many black and Latino Oakland youth remain unemployed or underemployed, while tax money raised from Oakland residents goes east of the hills or across the bay to employ workers living in those communities. 

You may argue whether this is right or wrong, that’s your choice. We ought to be having that argument…ummm…discussion. But do you think that because this rarely gets framed as a discrimination-against-black or discrimination-against-Latino issue in the local newspapers or the television stations that these black or Latino kids, or their parents, aren’t noticing? 

We continue to have odd and inexplicable gaps in our ability to discuss race and racism in an adult way in this country. 

Many are paying for those gaps right now. Many more will pay, before it’s all over. And before it’s through, my guess is that will probably be on a less-discriminatory nature than we’re currently seeing.