Hints at Racism in Berkeley Library
Demolition Dispute Must End Now

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday April 27, 2011 - 09:12:00 AM

Stop. Now. It’s time, right now, to put a stop to an ugly undercurrent which has crept into the discussion of whether it’s a good idea to demolish two of Berkeley’s branch libraries in order to rebuild them.

This has absolutely nothing to do with historical preservation or architectural merit, but it has everything to do with civil discourse and what we want Berkeley to be. What is disturbing is a spate of thinly veiled accusations of racism directed against the plaintiffs in the environmental lawsuit regarding the city’s plans to replace the library buildings in South and West Berkeley.

At last night’s rally to support demolition, I heard Councilmember Max Anderson, an African-American, refer to “standing in the library door”. This publication seldom identifies speakers by race, but this time it’s relevant because of the historic associations with that choice of words.

The few younger people present last night might not have caught the allusion, but for veterans of the civil rights struggles of the 50s and 60s, who include both Anderson and me, it echoes the famous stance of segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace, who described himself as “standing in the schoolhouse door.” That’s dirty pool, and it should end right here, right now. 

Another speaker, an older African-American minister, referred to the bad old days “back in Lousiana”—nothing specific, but again, to us oldtimers, clear enough. 

These comments, sadly, confirmed what I’d picked up in the last couple of weeks on the gossip circuit. It seems that there are some demolition proponents who would like to create the impression that demolition opponents don’t want Berkeley’s children of color to have nice libraries. This canard is absolutely untrue, and any African-American or European-American Berkeleyan who wittingly or unwittingly allows himself or herself to be associated with it is doing a tremendous disservice to the public interest and to the cause of interracial harmony. 

If there’s any history of racism to be uncovered in this discussion, historians might ask why the existing South and West branch buildings were allowed to deteriorate to the point where many in good faith believe that they cannot be salvaged. Why did the citizens of North Berkeley and the Claremont district get architecturally significant and sturdy branch libraries in the first place, while South and West Berkeley seem to have gotten lesser structures which are now described by some as falling apart? That was the true racism, but what the appropriate remedy should be is open for discussion. 

The people who support renovation of branch libraries instead of replacement sincerely believe that this will result in better libraries for the people who live in South and West Berkeley. They’ve gone to the trouble of paying a well-regarded architect to draw up alternative plans, an architect who has received awards for his brilliant adaptive re-design of Richmond’s Municipal Natatorium (swimming pool). His design, whether or not it’s finally determined to be better or less expensive, is certainly larger than the buildings the city of Berkeley and the Library Foundation promise in their demolish-rebuild schema. 

Those of us who took an active part in the civil rights movement remember when “divide and conquer” was a popular strategy on the part of those who opposed progress toward racial equality. It was a normal tactic to seek out “Negro community leaders” willing to aver that what the White People In Charge were doing was just fine, and it sometimes worked for a while. But it would be a grievous mistake for Berkeley’s current generation of prominent African-Americans, some of whom I count as good friends, to allow themselves to be used by those with other agendas in a discussion which has nothing to do with race. And it verges on criminal when European-American Berkeleyans perpetrate these vicious accusations sub rosa. 

It is crucial that we all agree that everyone involved in this dispute wants nothing but the best possible branch libraries for all sections of Berkeley. It’s perfectly okay to argue strenuously on behalf of one plan or the other, and it’s even okay for the plaintiffs to seek the remedies provided for by law if they wish. We’ve published dramatic essays on all sides of the dispute in this space, and we’re happy to get more from all participants.  

But right now, let’s all agree that differences of opinion about branch library design have absolutely nothing to do with race or with racism. I’d even go so far as to say that Judith Epstein, the only person courageous enough to be a named plaintiff in the Concerned Library Users’ environmental impact lawsuit, is owed an immediate apology by anyone who has suggested, by direct statement or oblique hint, that her motives are racist in origin. She might be wrong, dead wrong, but she’s no racist, and it’s a serious injustice to suggest otherwise.