A Freeway Ran Through It, This Land of Million-Dollar Condos
As history evolves and we look back on this moment in time, will we be counted among the heroic throngs, who after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, melded together to face and heal a city devastated by unrelenting temblors?
When I was young, I recall sitting on the living room rug in front of a tube that telegraphed images, pictures devoid of color. Our black and white TV was a floor model, typical of the sets of the sixties. It was through this venue I would see the perplexing scenes of Bloody Sunday, the brutal push back by whites against southern Blacks demanding voting rights and desegregation.
In the midst of watching this incident, I remember toggling back between my parents' anguished faces and the TV set trying hard to comprehend exactly what I was seeing. But my southern parents were too distraught to comment. So, I just kept asking myself "what are they doing to the Black people who looked like me?"
On Tuesday afternoon, March 12, 2019, out here in the west, in the so-called progressive city of San Francisco, CA, a similar scene unfolded in front of me. I listened and watched a privileged crowd of well-to-dos react to the city's aim to embed transitional homeless housing into our hood, the land of million-dollar condos. To some, I guess, this endeavor would surely jeopardize neighborhood safety, but most egregious it would threaten lifetime investments.
Those fortunate enough to own homes or property in this area owe their wealth and unstoppable empires to visionary Mimi Silbert, who built a recovery center, Delancey Street Foundation in a then desolate, blighted, crime ridden bay front lot. Who could have foreseen back then, in the late seventies, the current real estate boom that soon followed the Loma Prieta earthquake, a boom advanced by the removal of the eyesore of the Embarcadero freeway? The sky and view of the bay opened up making South Beach/Mission Bay desirable property and many capitalized on this land inspired by Mimi's lead.
Those who took advantage of California's 21st century gold rush of Tech and Turf were there that night responding with cheers and jeers as city leaders, department heads described the plan of hosting SF's unsheltered folks (in dire need of city services) into a dignified center, much the way Mimi did in the seventies.
I came to watch these gold miners, terming the spectacle the “NIMBY” meltdown. I really didn’t think I’d hear and see such vitriol as I did that night. The intensity of negative sentiments made me so sober that I feared whether or not those who spoke pro to the center would be physically harmed by the opposition.
I flashed back to my childhood, on my living room rug searching my parents’ faces, next I searched the faces of those around me, trying to see if anyone felt empathy for the people who were the subject of this project. I didn’t find many. Yes, there were about five of us activists, asking for compassion for the plight of the unsheltered. After I braved the gauntlet of a frenzied “keep them out” mob, I walked to the mike and spoke, asking for the city to find its heart. I returned to my seat and did a comparison of my youthful view of intolerance and the neighbors I heard that night.
Many of the people who voiced concern over the city’s proposal did so stating the center threaten their ability to raise a family but I asked these people, what legacy are you leaving your offspring if they should view this hearing sometime in the future? Will your fear of the “other” linger in history much like the angry mobs attempting to thwart integration? Will the media record of a mostly privileged, agitated assembly reflect tolerance or the lack thereof? As history evolves and we look back on this moment in time, will we be counted among the heroic throngs, who after the 1989 Loma Prierta earthquake, melded together to face and heal a city devastated by unrelenting temblors? Will we be recorded on the right side of history like those Good Samaritans who picked up fire hoses and doused flames, who selflessly rendered aide to injured strangers?
Right now, our city is reeling from a disaster of homelessness, a crisis that demands a Good Samaritan response. Let’s dig deep in our hearts and make sure those of us with a conscience for humanity use this land to house others, this land where a freeway ran through it, this land of million-dollar condos.
 Not in My Back Yard (NIMBY)
An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure
These days there are many penitent people asking forgiveness for an errant tongue or thoughtless act, both of which set into motion cataclysmic injuries difficult to retract. I wonder how much angst could be prevented if the offensive actions never were taken. Let me expound, because I believe an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
The first time I heard swear words was outside my home. I was quite puzzled and tried to decipher the string of foreign sounds, which I took to be some unfamiliar language. I was convinced I could decipher the speech and thus place the words into some recognized idiom.
Later, as an adult, I learned these were naughty words that good Christians never spoke. The ‘”N” word was cataloged into this group of bad words, along with the word “lie." I was taught, and thus believed, that Christians never swore and that I could go to hell if I mouthed profanities. Therefore, I never spoke dirty words but left them to be uttered by less Christian kids or adults.
Therefore, I reacted with great puzzlement to hearing the "n-word” in San Francisco. Since moving here fifteen years ago, I have heard “n-word” more times in San Francisco than I have ever heard in my entire life! Most striking was the multiple barrage of “n-word” unabashedly hurled my way as I exited the underground at the Castro subway Station one sunny day after a hard day’s work. I had just spent an entire day enduring the often less than amicable interaction with members of the public, and was not prepared to endure another less than amicable situation in simply trying to make my way home.
I also found it quite paradoxical to be targeted with such epithets while the huge rainbow colored diversity flag of tolerance flew overhead. However, the man hurling the insults confirmed my suspicions when I turned to face him: “yeah, I’m talking to you bitch.”
The area was filled with other commuters who witnessed this verbal attack. From what I could see and hear, no one tried to quell his verbal assault, and he continued with the word nigger. I felt all alone, isolated to endure the harsh taunts. The emotional pain I felt dimmed as I continued my jaunt home. Resolution came later through the power of the pen, as I found my account of the incident published in a local tabloid.
Even Shelby Steele, black post-racialist writer concedes in “The Content of Our Character” that: “…Once every six months or so someone yells ‘nigger’ at me from a passing car. I don’t like to think that these solo artists might soon make up a chorus, or worse, that this chorus might one day soon sing to me from the paths of my own campus.”So again, I use the power of the pen to revisit yet another troubling incident of race bias, maybe not as overt, but nonetheless just as affecting.
Recently, while on a business trip out of state, I stayed at a popular hotel for almost a week. I had been to the establishment many times, and for this reason was accustomed to using the fitness room. After a long day of traveling, I slept well and woke up early in time to make it to the treadmill ahead of the crowd. I was a little early but was welcomed by the security officer, whom I caught relaxing in the early morning, watching TV in the workout room.
He gave me a nod of approval as I mounted the treadmill for a cardio session. At around 5:30AM or so, half way into my workout, he returned to retrieve his forgotten jacket. From these two face-to-face encounters with the guard, I felt that we had established a rapport.
Thus, I was mystified by the security officer’s reaction when, the next morning, I again rose early to get in a good workout before boarding the plane. I came into the same workout room on my final morning only to encounter the limited cardio equipment occupied by a white couple—wife on elliptical trainer and husband on treadmill.
Upon seeing this obstacle to my planned training, I pondered whether to run outside while it was still dark or wait for the couple to complete their workout. I was dressed in obvious workout clothes and had one intention; get a good run in before my flight home.
I finally decided not to run outdoors, but to wait patiently for the equipment to become free. I ran back up to my room, got my laptop, returned to the gym and starting working on reports and email. I mentioned to the guy who was running on the treadmill that I wanted to use it after he was done.
No sooner had I uttered my intentions, than my buddy the security officer stuck his head in the open door, dropped the words “at it again?" I gleamed with pride and said "yes." Then, his next actions were the most mysterious of all. The security officer returned once more, after a brief fifteen minute absence, and spoke more firmly than he had before, demanding that I prove I was indeed registered at the hotel. He said to me, unbelievably, “the front desk wants me to confirm you are a guest.”
I was taken aback at the 180-degree flip of his demeanor. Earlier he had been warm and very receptive; now he was demanding and distrustful of me. I gave protest by saying, "I’m insulted!” But begrudgingly gave him my name and showed my hotel key. All the while, I spoke firmly that his actions were outrageous.
Conversely, the guard never challenged the white couple, they didn’t have to prove their hotel registration. No one other person within the vicinity endured the humiliation I did. The only thing unique about me was not my behavior but that I was the lone black women among all the other people in that area of the hotel.
Similar to the racial profiling I endured, published accounts recently described how a visiting Kenyan English Professor, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, a registered hotel guest, was racially profiled early in November 2006 as he relaxed in the lobby of an upscale hotel in San Francisco.
Mr. Thiong’o, perceived by the wayward staff member to be an intruder, then, asked to leave, later establish that he was indeed meant to be there in the lobby, relaxing like all the other hotel guests. By the hotel owner’s personal report, hotel staff initially failed to acknowledge their actions as biased, even though a staff member repeatedly dismissed Mr. Thiong’o as a legitimate guest of the hotel.
It was refreshing to read that the hotel owner did not rationalize the employee’s actions as fair, but made a public apology declaring the entire incident to be “unacceptable.” In addition, the hotel owner pledged five thousand dollars to seed a non-profit designed to prevent racial intolerance.
I, too, received both a verbal and written apology from hotel management for the severe discomfort I experienced, but imagine avoiding such a harmful mishap by simply preventing race bias from ever occurring. A positive outcome would have resulted if service providers had been as vigilantly on guard for the subtle, but very damaging, liability of racial prejudice as they are for the possibility of hotel intruders.
I therefore suggest that the service industries prevent any future embarrassment to their businesses by exercising the wisdom found in the old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and invest in proper Cultural Awareness Training before having to pay, with public embarrassment and monetary compensation, for the costly error of proven racial profiling.
Of Flesh Colored Crayons and Skin Tone Prosthetics
As a child, I took to crayons like most kids my age and I remember when Crayola Crayons came out with an exciting new color, “periwinkle.” I was impressed that my big sister could pronounce this big word “periwinkle” because this color was all the rage!
However, Crayola’s “flesh” colored crayon puzzled me. I thought I understood the word flesh as in chicken flesh but Crayola’s “flesh” looked closer to pink than chicken.
So, naturally, I asked my Mom to solve this mystery with something like “Mom”, what’s flesh color?” I cannot completely recall her answer; she may have tried to explain that the crayon color meant white flesh or the color of white people.
I did not dwell on the perplexity much but I could tell it made my mother uncomfortable, perhaps why I have repressed the full memory of her explanation. My mom did not talk much about white people. I surmised it was because her painful memories of the south during Jim Crow. It was apparent she rather not expound on the black and white relations of her era, and I sensed this all through my childhood.
You probably can see where this essay is leading as I draft this writing on November 7, 2008 on my way back from the Washington, DC area. Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States of America on January 20, 2009 after soundly defeating the republican candidate, John Mc Cain on November 4, 2008.
I hope this would happen, I dreamed of it directly after hearing of the push for Obama to run for president, a black leader who looks like me and a first family with my skin tone.
Now, every American and the world will have to reorient to a different culture. Black hair care will be the focal point of those who want to emulate the first lady, Michelle Obama. In addition, flesh colored products will increase in production. Imagine filling an order for the Commander in Chief with a skin colored earpiece, not clear, but an earpiece that matches his complexion.
Brown band-aids in my flesh color will populate the store shelves along with crayons in several versions of brown.
Unlike me, Obama’s two young daughters will be able to pull a flesh colored crayon from the box that mirrors their complexion as well as their parents.
Update: Twelve year after penning this piece, Craolya finally created a product that includes various skin tones that premiered this year. As stated above,
the Crayola Crayons I grew up with as a child were marketed under the premise that the skin tone was peach or "flesh color." The target market in those years were white people, thus flesh color meant white people's skin tone.
Character is More Than Skin Tone
You may be saying why harp or focus on skin tone alone and I agree!
I do not particularly identify by anything other than being my mother’s child and God’s wonderful creation. However, as I leave my condo, walk outside and by the time the first automatic car door locks or the first person checks their purse or wallet in reaction to my skin tone, their non-verbal cues have classified me into an identity I did not create, that of predator. I am not a predator!
Even Obama says people do not see him as half white, they see him as black. So, it is not that I or other people of color stress appearance more than character, members of society are conditioned to select friend or foe by appearance and thus form protective clans around this reaction. Research indicates people pledged to equality and altruism consciously and unconsciously make decisions that benefit their clan. Thus, policy makers who do not control for this bias advance only members of their clan exacerbating social inequities as this passage from Siri Carpenter’s Study  “The Bigot in Your Brain,” demonstrates:
"In a second study reported in the same paper, Rudman and Ashmore set up a laboratory scenario to further examine the link between implicit bias against Jews, Asians and blacks and discriminatory behavior toward each of those groups. They asked research participants to examine a budget proposal ostensibly under consideration at their university and to make recommendations for allocating funding to student organizations. Students who exhibited greater implicit bias toward a given minority group tended to suggest budgets that discriminated more against organizations devoted to that group’s interests."Conversely, the more whites are exposed to exemplars of people of color the more the bias is mitigated. In essence, there a chance that key decisions makers will reverse their prejudice by un-training their bigotry:
"Seeing targeted groups in more favorable social contexts can help thwart biased attitudes. In laboratory studies, seeing a black face with a church as a background, instead of a dilapidated street corner, considering familiar examples of admired blacks such as actor Denzel Washington and athlete Michael Jordan, and reading about Arab-Muslims’ positive contributions to society all weaken people’s implicit racial and ethnic biases. In real college classrooms, students taking a course on prejudice reduction who had a black professor showed greater reductions in both implicit and explicit prejudice at the end of the semester than did those who had a white professor."
Character is more than skin deep but skin counts until we are able to view the volume of virtues that live beneath each individual skin tone and make judgments based solely on the inner person.
 American Mind, May 1, 2008, Buried Prejudice: The Bigot in Your Brain, Siri Carpenter
The Audacity of Hope with an Audacity to Love
Last Thursday night we filled Hearing Room 416 at San Francisco City Hall with Hero Awardees replete with ardent fans, friends, and family. An adjacent room down the hall with closed circuit simulcast captured the overflow.
San Francisco Human Rights Commission sponsors this annual event in order to bring to light people whose selfless sacrifice to advance Human Rights might have been missed save the nomination from community members aware of these heroes’ contributions to equity.
The notable acts of this year’s recipients were framed within the 50the Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and how these acts changed the climate of discrimination within San Francisco. Prior to the ceremony, Eva Patterson, Civil Rights Attorney and Equal Justice Society founder, captivated the audience with a palatable and succinct version of the history of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Eva voiced her thoughts after going through the habit colored folk have of constantly and unconsciously, counting Black faces about them. In this case, she made the unconscious habit a conscious act, she remarked that when she visits San Francisco, she does not see Black people and how happy she was to see this room filled with other Blacks faces. Emmy Award winning journalist Barbara Rodgers was among the African Americans present at this event and I recalled over the years how Barbara’s face in media signaled to me that “journalists do come in color.”
Eva didn’t shy away from using the phrase white supremacy, (for some public figures this phrase, while historically accurate, is too politically charged) in detailing the country's struggle with racial segregation and its ultimate triumph in changing legal discrimination. “Prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, you could apply for a job and the company could tell you they didn’t want to hire you because you’re Black and you could do nothing about it!” I think Eva’s description of this harsh reality stunned most of the young people in the audience and there were quite a few young people in the room.
Finally, the evening concluded with public comments, each contribution positive and brimming with gratitude. As the evening was ending Human Rights Commissioners seated on the Dais as well as the audience tensed as one of the renown and outspoken critics of city government took to the mike to pronounce sentence on the evening’s proceedings. This spokesperson is like a constant “burr in the saddle” of the Commission that not even caviler padding can mitigate.
He started with his usual poetic salutation but in a departure from his usual assailing demeanor, blessed the event with a resounding “thank you,” and stated how pleased he was with the ceremony.
This usually eloquent and challenging critic’s ovation completed the circle of hope that reigned that night and gave all of us the Audacity to Hope expressed inside our Audacity to Love Black People.
Living My Parents' Jim Crow in South Beach, San Francisco
According to a PBS News Hour segment featuring visually impaired Professor Georgia Kleege of UC Berkeley, people with disabilities feel the eyes of everyone riveted on them as they move in public. Even the visually impaired have an uncanny ability to feel the gaze of thousands of eyes singling them out. Likewise, people of color feel stigmatized as we travel throughout the social order, as if violating the unspoken rule of no black faces in white spaces. The sudden presence of police enforcing this rule confirms black folks’ suspicions.
This common white/black dance unfolded as usual last Saturday in my South Beach neighborhood choreographed by social construct, a construct my Southern parents danced until their move to California. Dance rule breakers who violate this covenant must be punished, even if it’s an eight-year old child. In a departure from the play, however, social media helped write police out of the script by a well-crafted Saturday, June 23 Instagram Post.
In short, my neighbors had a dust up and police were averted from the scene; however, the legacy left in the cloud will linger forever. Were there chances in this exchange between community members to alter the black/white dance and dismantle racism entirely or just to punish the offender? Did public outcry set in motion a possibility for healing on both sides so as not to allow for a repeat event?
If we’re not making systemic change to oppression which prevents it from operating in society, if we’re not calling out structural racism and calling in people not yet woke to defeat evil systems with us, "we are of all people most miserable." We simply perpetuate harm. A very wise man once said…
"When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil SYSTEMS. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the SYSTEM. MLK Jr."
Until we are able to address oppression as a conglomerate beloved community, I guess I will continue to live my parents’ Jim Crow in South Beach, San Francisco.
GEORGINA KLEEGE, Lecturer, UC Berkeley: “It’s a common experience for people with disabilities to feel that they are being stared at or to notice they are being stared at. And in fact, blind people can feel that, too, a kind of collective intake of breath even if nobody says anything, you can tell when you attract attention..” Jul 6, 2017, PBS News Hour
With Arms Outstretched ...(2009 Inaugural Memoir)
“Welcome to the Capitol! Ladies, don’t push!” said the young DC Police officer perched on a Y-rail to a few of the million strong, shoulder-to-shoulder throng of people staging to witness the historic swearing in of President-elect Barack Obama. His poignant salutations came as my sisters and I attempted to wade through the crowd to take our place as proud ticket holders on a standing room only day.
His comment made me smile and I genuinely felt his welcome, a warm feeling came over me and enhanced the surrealistic excitement that carried us from California to the long awaited event, “we are really here! It’s real!”
My thoughts flashed back to the evening before the event; we were convinced that watching the per-Inaugural Festivities would be much more comfortable from our well-appointed hotel room in Crystal City. However, that persuasive punctuation of “this is history” eventually made us brave the cold, so, on Monday night we took the Metro into the Capitol. I suggested to my sisters that we search out the media on the Mall to get our faces on camera so folks back home could see us.
We walked by the MSNBC site, the swinging boom with camera might have caught a glimpse of us, then we walked another quarter mile on the Mall towards the Lincoln Memorial to the CNN station where Soledad O’Brien was broadcasting, live, in the frigid temperatures.
Earlier that week, I heard her comment on the direct action strategies Martin Luther King used in Selma, Alabama, how the organizers of the March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge executed non-violent protest to “out” the hatred of others and then broadcast their actions to the world.
The violent clash between protesters, police and Selma natives over voter’s rights back in 1965 showed the true colors of Americans who had justified segregation as part of States’ rights. Nevertheless, Ms. O’Brien spun the description of this memorable occurrence around to a very important point, that when those captured in the footage of violence were shown how they appeared to the rest of the planet, they responded with “that’s not us, we will change.”
I thought again of the outstretched arms, welcoming, guiding the way, realizing how much has indeed changed.
Later I saw this same officer accompany a women carried by volunteers to the aide station, apparently, she seemed to be overcome by hypothermia from enduring hours of below freezing temperatures. I am trying to hold onto these positive actions of others during this unique occurrence, keep them in my memories and summon them up when challenged by day-to-day bias, or when the intent of others is not always well and good.
On Inaugural day, we eventually found our way to a spot directly in front of a JumboTrons set off to the side, in front of the reflecting pool, making it close to the stage, but colder when the wind whipped off the ice. We could look back and see the huge screens embedded in the Mall like highway signs. People seemed to be on their best behavior, no reports of arrest or real fighting. Our crowd of 20 or so just ahead of the screen melded together like an African village, replete with a Matriarch who watched over all of us, making sure we all could see.
In addition, she even scolded our village for booing Bush as he gracefully bowed out. She mitigated the spontaneous chorus, of “Na Na Na Na, Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye” to former President Bush with “ya’ all be nice!” At the end of the morning, she once again kept us all in place, making sure we paid attention to Joseph Lowery’s benediction that eloquently-joyfully reminded us of the journey and set us on our way at ease.
How to Recover From the Addiction to White Supremacy
How to Recover From the Addiction to White Supremacy is a work by Marvin X who lays down the blueprint for freedom from internalized racism and uses the twelve steps. He debunks the chief component of powerlessness and correctly states "we are not powerless over anything… nothing has power over you except when you allow it to have such."
Much like Dr. Carter G. Woodson's "Miseducation of the Negro" Marvin begins by defining white supremacy in that recovery groups miss-educate blacks to accept injustice as part of the process but as Marvin details here:
"For it is one thing to detox and recover, we have found in drug recovery that many persons will recover, but go no further in their consciousness. Thus, they have a new addiction called recovery; one could say it is their religion since it now consumes their entire lives, which consist of attending meetings. They are most often negative and see no need to become social activist, even though Dr. Fanon and Dr. Hare tell us the only way to regain their mental equilibrium is by joining the movement of their people.”
Chapter five has a very frank, compelling Truth and Reconciliation admission that tempts one to rush to judgment.
Marvin X's Blog