UnderCurrents: To Stop Crime, Strengthen Oakland’s Black Middle Class

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Wednesday March 11, 2009 - 07:23:00 PM

Over the past several years, Oakland has been using a two-prong strategy to attack its nagging and serious problem of violent crime: police-related solutions (more police, better targeted policing strategies, “community policing”) and strengthening and creating violence-prevention projects and programs. 

I would suggest a third strategy should be added to the arsenal: strengthening Oakland’s African-American middle class, particularly the black small neighborhood business-owning class. 

This suggestion was prompted by a recent Oakland Tribune article on the decline of the Fruitvale’s African-American community, but these are thoughts that have been working around in my mind for quite some time. 

Many of the black-dominated blocks—and sometimes whole sections—of West and East Oakland currently sit in the center of the city’s drug-and-violence whirlwind, but two generations ago and further, these areas were the solid, stable core of Oakland’s African-American working, professional, and small-business class. 

Oakland’s historical black community is, of course, West Oakland. My mother’s grandmother—the widow of a San Francisco bootmaker whose shop and business were advertised in that city’s African-American-oriented Elevator newspaper—moved to West Oakland following the 1906 earthquake, probably about the same time that other African-Americans were moving there. My mother remembered my grandmother saying some 30 years later that West Oakland was the area “where the best people live(d),” and even as late as the early 1960s, Seventh Street remained an African-American restaurant and nighttime entertainment center, with virtually all of the country’s top black singers and musicians—from Count Basie to Ella Fitzgerald to Nat “King” Cole to Ray Charles—making it one of the mandatory stops on their national tours. Probably as good a snapshot as any of what West Oakland must have looked like in the post-World War II years is the depiction of the Los Angeles black community—both the neighborhoods and the nightlife district—in the movie version of Walter Mosely’s Devil In a Blue Dress. 

While the flatlands of deep East Oakland south of Seminary Avenue never developed the kind of compact black business district that characterized West Oakland’s Seventh Street, the area had a briefer period as a stable African-American neighborhood when working class black families broke the restrictive, whites-only covenants in the area following the end of World War II, and for a while there was something of a boom in African-American mom-and-pop grocery stores and other small business outlets scattered throughout the community. 

So what happened? 

It’s a complicated story, far too involved and detailed for a column of this length. But briefly, the deterioration and eventual fall of West and East Oakland’s stable African-American middle- and working-class neighborhoods came in two distinct waves.  

The first destructive wave came as Oakland slowly lost the good-paying industrial jobs African-American military personnel and shipyard workers had moved into at the end of World War II. That and integration pulled much of the rug of black dollar support out from under black businesses, and began a process in which streets and neighborhoods in West and East Oakland began falling into decay. That helped spark a black middle class exodus from Oakland’s flatlands, first into the hills and later into the more affluent communities east of the hills.  

By the time the second and far fiercer destructive wave hit in the 1980s—the crack epidemic—that infrastructure of community stability had long been fractured, and the African-American neighborhoods in West and East Oakland had little ammunition with which to fight off the new drug epidemic. Couple that with a combination of land speculation and unofficial neglect of black flatlands neighborhoods running as a constant strain through Oakland’s City Hall, and you have a short version of why large sections of West and East Oakland—once thriving—are now virtual wastelands. 

That’s where a good portion of the city’s crime and violence problems are centered and spiraling out from. 

For a while, there has been a sort of underground strategy being espoused by some in Oakland that if life is made miserable enough for the city’s lawbreakers and potential lawbreakers, they will be forced out of the city and become somebody else’s problem. 

That philosophy appeared to set the unofficial direction of the city during the Jerry Brown years, from the dismantling of the independent city school system to the police excesses that led to the Allen v. Oakland federal court consent decree to the drawing of city redevelopment money out of existing neighborhoods to create Mr. Brown’s “elegantly dense” new upscale downtown neighborhood. 

The immorality of such a “class cleansing” policy aside, it never had much of a chance to work. The people who the policy was trying to drive out of Oakland—the violent, the hard-core criminals, and long-term drug users—are the ones most likely to dig in and stay, since they have less of a care about the quality of community life and, moreover, they have fewer alternatives of places to go. 

With Mr. Brown himself now gone, at least from City Hall if not as an Oakland resident, “class cleansing” is no longer Oakland’s unofficial policy, though there are elements both inside and outside city government—in portions of the Oakland Police Department, for example—who continue to carry it forward. 

I think those “class cleansing” efforts should be stopped, but that is not enough. The greatest antidote to Oakland’s epidemic of crime, drugs, and violence is to re-establish the health of the neighborhoods that are currently the breeding grounds for those elements. And that is where we need to look to strengthen the African-American middle class, particularly that element of the African-American middle class interested in the creation of small neighborhood businesses. 

It is an interesting fact of human nature that ethnic businesses tend—more often than not—to hire within their own ethnicities, sometimes for no other reason than the hiring is being done within their own extended families. Small Asian-American stores and restaurants tend to have Asian-American workers, Hispanic stores and restaurants Hispanic workers, Arab-American stores and restaurants Arab-American workers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, except in this case where one class of business owners—in Oakland, that class being African-Americans—are greatly underrepresented. In that case, many African-American young people are left out of entry-level jobs. 

Following World War II, members of my mother’s and father’s families founded Reid’s Records in Berkeley, an African-American business institution that at times grew large enough to have satellite stores in downtown Oakland, in Richmond, and in Vallejo. Many of our family members, including my brother, got their first jobs working as clerks at Reid’s.  

One of my cousins, David Reid, summed up the situation in a recent interview with the Berkeley Post. “A lot of families, a lot of people I know,” he said, “have grown up with those kinds of jobs, the starter jobs in African-American mom-and-pop businesses. The first one out of high school. But right now, for a lot of these young African-Americans, it’s a lot easier to sell crack, it’s a lot easier to sell marijuana down the street, than it is to have a job. It pays a lot better. So if we don’t have the small moms-and-pops to give these kids jobs, that’s the first line of defense. That’s taking care of our own. You go to the Hispanic community, they have business districts, they have all kinds of community support, social support for their community. You go to the Asian districts, they have all of this, too. Where is the black district? The only black districts we have are where you can go purchase drugs.” 

Another cousin, Geoffrey Pete, owned and operated Geoffrey’s Inner Circle downtown nightclub for many years, a nightspot that rivaled and even surpassed some of the fabled black Seventh Street entertainment establishments of the last century. Mr. Pete, too, established a policy of giving young African-Americans their first real jobs. Three of my daughters were among the many who worked there. 

My parents did something similar, operating a mom-and-pop grocery store for some 40 years in deep East Oakland, giving employment to family members and neighborhood residents, as well as giving business to a large number of black handymen. 

Reid’s Records is now facing declining sales—mostly due to first the integration of the record-selling business and then the penetration of the market by megastores like WalMart and Internet giants like Amazon—and Geoffrey’s Inner Circle was forced to close a few weeks ago in part because of Oakland police discouragement of downtown, black-owned entertainment venues. And my parents closed their store many years ago. 

No government intervention helped open Reid’s, Geoffrey’s, or my parents’ store. They were all started by personal initiative, money saved from employment or taken out of retirement funds, and bank loans. But personal retirement funds have been devastated by the recent economic collapse, extensive personal savings are—at least for now—a thing of the past, while the good jobs necessary to create such savings are becoming fewer and farther between. And given the law of the land in California following the passage of Ward Connerly’s Proposition 209 in 1996, government intervention specifically designed to assist African-American businesses is no longer possible. But a way needs to be found. Small business in Oakland in general always needs a boost, but we are talking about specific social and racial problems that cannot be addressed and solved by a broadband approach. If it is black-dominated blocks and neighborhoods where much of the problem is targeted, then it is partly in a black-focused approach that the solution must be found. Being diverse and multi-cultural does not mean neglect of the component communities that make up that diversity. 

To help break Oakland’s spiraling cycle of crime, drugs, and violence, I think we have to look at how our enterprising parents and grandparents did it once before.