Town hall on racism fuels local discussion

By Ryan Geller, News Editor

A town hall style forum on racism held by congressional representatives Barbara Lee (D-13th District) and Mark DeSaulnier (D-11th District) packed the Knox Center for the Performing Arts on Feb. 3.

The forum is the first of a series of town hall discussions on race with the intent to provide a template for similar discussions on race across the nation, Rep. DeSaulnier said.

The representatives and a panel of speakers from UC Berkeley presented meaningful, but concise, points to begin the conversation and community members responded with questions.

Graduate School of Education professor and director of the Institute of Governmental Studies Lisa Garcia Bedolla opened by discussing the problematic phrase “identity politics.”

She requested that this phrase be left out of the conversation entirely because “it becomes a false equivalency (in which) you can say that what it means to be African-American in this society is structurally the same as what it means to be queer in this society.”

Bedolla said, “What that term does is it flattens all of those experiences and does not let us get at the core root of the problem, which is not being in the proper box means that your opportunities, regardless of your personal capacity, are limited in the United States. It minimizes the deep structural history that we have to come to terms with if we are going to change the status of different groups in this society.”

Bedolla called for a shared set of facts noting a study from 2016 called The American Values Survey, which asked whether participants in the study agreed or disagreed with the statement: “Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”

“Half of the white respondents agreed, 60 percent of lower income whites agreed compared to 29 percent of Latinos and 25 percent of black or brown (respondents),” Bedolla said.

Another statement in the study was: “Police officers generally treat blacks and other minorities the same as whites.”

According to the study, 79 percent of blacks disagreed, 65 percent of whites agreed.

Bedolla said this question also appeared in the study: “Do you think the recent killings of African-American men by police are isolated incidents or are they part of a broader pattern of how police treat-African Americans,” to which 65 percent of whites responded that they believe the killings are isolated incidents.

“My point is,” Bedolla said. “If you don’t think that those things are a problem (or) if you can’t agree that the criminal justice system has systemic racial bias, then we can’t have a conversation about race because we don’t agree about a basic set of facts.”

UC Berkeley African-American studies department Chairperson Ula Taylor said, “Tent Cities are the epitome of racism, and they are the epitome of the contradictions and the problems of capitalism.”

She noted that during the Civil War, slaves ran away to live in tents as part of the Union army, but today, she said, “It’s not about escaping bondage, it’s about poverty.”

Professor of ethnic and African-American studies and law at UC Berkeley director of the Haas Institute for a fair and inclusive society John Powell talked about race as a verb.

“It actually involves practices that we do. It is one of the defining issues of America. It defines not only what happens to African-Americans, Filipinos, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans. It defines whiteness. Race is about whiteness,” Powell said.

“Whiteness, not white people but people who call themselves white. Whiteness is a very corrosive concept. That concept becomes charged with more anxiety in the Proud Boys or Steve Bannon or in number 45. As we talk about the country becoming majority non-white, the anxiety of whiteness is on the rise,” Powell said.

Taylor said, “the power of anti-blackness is so strong in 2018 that people will go against their own class interest.”

Powell quoted Paul Krugman, a winner of the Nobel Prize in economics as saying, “What is exceptional about America is that it is the only country where the whites have consistently aligned with the elites against people of color.”

“Fifty-four percent of children born in this country are children of color. If we do not bring those kids fully into education, we are playing with half a deck. We can’t survive without the talent, wisdom and commitment of every, race, gender and religion in this country,” Powell said.

Powell spoke about gentrification and structural inequalities that need to be addressed.

He touched on psychological issues of race when Rep. Lee brought up the point that there is only two to three percent employment of African-Americans in the tech sector.

Powell pointed to the unconscious as a driver of racist outcomes when people may not even realize racism is involved in their decision process.

Attendants were very engaged in the discussion with questions that ranged from whether the term African-American is divisive, to how we might address extreme issues of racism in local neighborhoods, to what is UC Berkeley doing about its low enrollment of African-American students.

Issues about racist U.S. foreign policy were brought up and questions were asked about what can be done by the congress members about these racist policies.

DeSaulnier responded by saying, “Our politics (as a nation) are unfortunately reflective of peoples’ perspective. This is what we need to work to change.”

Berkeley City Council member Ben Bartlett commented on the issue of wealth disparity.

In response, Lee said that much of the wealth of African-Americans has been in their homes and African-Americans were targeted by the sub prime loans of the mortgage crisis.

“We have to get pretty bold right now and not fear the term ‘reparations’,” Lee said, as the audience responded with full applause.

“I’m not necessarily talking about monetary, maybe,” she said, as she paused. “I’m talking more about this country coming to grips with the fact that African-Americans have always been economically disadvantaged since day one.”

She spoke of her work on HR40 (Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act) and how this legislation would “just begin to look at what it would take to create a level playing field.”

Taylor said wealth is generationally passed down and although there are many African- American professionals, often they are helping other members of the African-American community that have not been able to navigate the barriers that are in place.

When the time allotted for the discussion portion of the event elapsed there were still many community members lined up at microphones on either side of the stage to ask questions.

DeSaulnier said that his office would answer further questions by email.

“It’s scary the disparity in what people think,” local resident Daniel Salter, who attended the town hall, said.

“The statistics mentioned about the disagreement on the facts are alarming. The basic facts are not understood. If you consider that people do a lot of what they do based on unconscious bias or unconsciously churning out something that has accumulated over a lifetime in a society that is so biased, you realize that the need to change hearts is really important,” Salter said.