Pride and Prejudice
"This city needs an enema!" I laughed at the remark, but I knew the seriousness of what my colleague was referring to. With a single phrase, he'd summed up my feelings about a problem looming for California: The not-so-subtle tension in the air when people of varying ethnicities and colors encounter each other.As an African-American woman, I've been particularly aware of the uncomfortableness between races. When you're black, ordinary activities, such as making a purchase, become extraordinary. One Sunday, I'm standing in line at a large and well-known bookstore, waiting to purchase a copy of VIBE magazine. The young, white salesgirl and the older white woman ahead of me are chatting about the older woman's purchase. The transaction is completed, but they continue their conversation. I am the only one waiting in line. I must be invisible to them, I think. Growing impatient, I step up to the counter and interrupt them. "Excuse me, can you ring this up for me?" I say tersely. I think, "Is this what I think it is? It sure feels like it."America's simmering pot of racial tension has again boiled over in the deep South, with nearly 200 churches burned, mostly in that region, during the past 18 months. When Sacramento's New Home Missionary Baptist Church went up in flames a few weeks ago, it seemed natural to jump to the conclusion that it was a hate crime. An accelerant was used--that much we know for sure--but there's no official word yet on whether the fire was racially motivated. The official word doesn't really matter; everyone thinks it was a hate crime, like most of the others. It's hard to deal with. My anger manifests itself as a knot in my stomach. This knot of mine is a longtime companion, and I dare say that others--especially people of color--have knots of their own. The salesclerk probably didn't mean anything by casually ignoring me as if I wasn't a paying customer. Still, I'm convinced her "unprofessionalism" is indicative of a broader problem that is getting worse.Sacramento's "old-timers," second-and third-generation African-Americans, say the city is like a quiet Mississippi. They also say you have to have a Ph.D. to know you're being discriminated against. Granted, racial tensions ebb and flow in cyclical patterns (with the economy mostly), but the "flow" can be linked to what I've been calling lately my "trickle-down theory"--when race-baited legislation is introduced and debated and passed under the Capitol dome and promoted by media, the fallout--in the form of racist, volatile rhetoric, loaded and coded words and phrases and intolerant attitudes--trickles down on the ordinary citizens of this state.Bigoted Californians are, in effect, granted permission to be intolerant and discriminatory. At the extremes, they burn churches, firebomb organizations and terrorize communities of color. While these crimes are punished on one hand, implied permission is granted on the other. "Over history, we can document the link between policy- and climate-setting by government officials," says Jennifer Grakowski, hate violence coordinator for Community United Against Violence in San Francisco. "Government officials, through debate and legislation, give voice to the hate speech and an acceptability that can result in violent actions. We hear that message and take it a step further." When you get a million or so people together of varying backgrounds and ethnicities there's the potential for conflict: racial conflict. Local officials can deal with the tension with swift, PC condemnation. But how do you quash race-baited rhetoric spewing down from on high?SAVE OUR STATEAs with all social problems, establishing a direct cause-and-effect relationship is tenuous. It could merely be coincidence that Attorney General Dan Lungren's annual report on hate crimes in California show a jump in hate crime activity in 1994 and 1995, right around the time Wilson signed "Three Strikes, You're Out" legislation and segued in to the Proposition 187 campaign.The statistics are not a true representation of the frequency of hate crime incidents since laws requiring a uniform reporting system just went into effect in mid-1994, according to DOJ information officer Michael VanWinkle.Bias-motivated incidents indicate white against black crimes occur with greater frequency in California, with 35 percent of the total 2,225 hate crime suspects committing crimes against African-Americans. About 237 hate crime suspects targeted Latinos in 1995, and 197 Asian victims were reported. The crimes vary from graffiti, vandalism, written and verbal threats, arson fires and assault."There's nothing [uniform] to compare these numbers to," says DOJ research analyst Linda Nance. "There's no way to know if the numbers are high or low or what. The first year of reporting the numbers are always low as officers are learning how to classify a hate crime as such. It takes a few years to get a database going." Statistics may not reflect the true mood of the state, but discrimination against immigrants is certainly not a new phenomenon. Some say, however, that Gov. Pete Wilson has brought it back into vogue. Proponents of Prop. 187 maintained that the issue was immigration, not race. But the entire "Save Our State" campaign was replete with the racist, demonization of Mexican-Americans, including black and white footage of faceless "illegals" stampeding across the freeways near the border. It's not surprising that radio personality Jeff Katz, formerly of Talk 650 (KSTE) thought it acceptable and amusing to encourage Californians to "aim for them." Stop Immigration Now founder Ruth Coffey told the Los Angeles Times: "I have no intention of being the object of 'conquest,' peaceful or otherwise, by Latinos, Asians, Blacks, Arabs or any other group of individuals who have claimed my country." Similar comments were made in 1954 during the "Operation Wetback" paramilitary exercise to remove Mexicans from several southwestern states. Over 51,000 Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were deported in California alone. The same was true in the 1930s when Mexicans were subjected to indiscriminate mass deportations. More than 500,000 were rounded up and dumped in Mexico. The climate was ripe then for immigrant bashing. The economic recession, unemployment and the perceived threats of immigration were uncannily similar to today. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II are other obvious examples of the trickle-down theory at work. Since the government officials were taking aim at immigrants and other minorities while fanning the flames of economic hysteria, why shouldn't the average citizen take aim, too?Proclamations, once they have the full weight of the law behind them, dictate codes of behavior, says Grakowski. On election eve of 1994, white supremists circulated fliers in white suburbs urging "yes" votes on Prop. 187. They read, in part: "First get the spics, then the gooks, and at last we get the niggers. They're going home." Gov. Wilson didn't instruct those white supremists to make those fliers and circulate them among white, middle-class Californians, but experts like Grakowski say his implied permission inspired their action.RACISTCLEARINGHOUSE"The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group, on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting." So says the proposed State Constitutional amendment, Proposition 209, and in a dangerous game of follow the "leadership," Wilson is cheering the effort and joining the fight on strategic fronts (as with the UC board of regents).The clock has been turned back, and terms such as "reverse discrimination," "quotas," "downsizing" and "affirmative action" are used in ways that divide communities along racial lines. Rolling back affirmative action policies is a national issue with other states watching and waiting to see how California handles it. In the interim, there were 846 African-American hate crime victims reported in California in 1995; 236 white victims and a total of 1,732 victims in the state.There aren't enough hours in the day to investigate all the telephone calls I get from people complaining about racial discrimination or harassment. I'm a clearinghouse of sorts. People of color call me because they know I tend to cover the "racism" beat for my newspaper. A woman is refused service at a downtown merchant's shop; a black couple is refused service at a restaurant; a black businessman is pulled over and searched by the police; junior high school students are held at juvenile hall while awaiting trial for a first offense, while white students are generally released to their parents--the flip side is 15 or so of these junior high school students assaulted a white man on their way home from school. The list is long and varied, and the pace appears to be picking up. "We're building toward some sort of crescendo," said Abby Wolff of the Anti-Defamation League in San Francisco. "There's no scientific way of collecting the numbers, but there's a tone in the state that is anti-immigrant, anti-black and certain to be anti-Jewish. This is the Central Pacific Regional Office tracking hate crimes in California, Utah,Nevada and Hawaii. We can't say that there's a direct line between Wilson and the meanness we're experiencing, but there are a lot of factors in every community giving license to say things that are insensitive and bigoted." Gov. Wilson was not available to respond to questions of a correlation between his policies and the rise in hate crimes and the intolerant mood of the state.But a recent complaint filed by the California State Employees' Association reveals the depth of this attitude. In three recently approved janitorial contracts issued by General Services for the Office of State Printing, the Department of Water Resources and the Department of Transportation, the question of whether the contracts adversely affect the state's affirmative action efforts was answered with the identical statement: "The concern is not an issue at this time--per Gov. Wilson." "We understand that there is a move to change affirmative action, but there currently are rules that contractors still must abide by," says Drew Mendelson, spokesman for CSEA."They can't just blow off affirmative action rules, but I know state agencies feel that they don't have to hold contractors to those rules because Wilson says it's not a priority. The climate Wilson creates by the statements he makes and the dismantling of affirmative action--all of that creates a climate in which these things are OK. If I were a person on the street [disregarding codes of behavior], I'd say, 'the governor says it's all right.'"FOR PETE'S SAKEThe Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission documented a 23 percent increase in hate crimes against Latinos in 1994--Mexican immigrants and Californians who supposedly look like Mexican immigrants--coinciding with anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric that targeted Latinos and aided the overwhelming passage of Prop. 187. Is the Wilson administration to blame for the increase in anti-immigrant bashing?The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles thinks so. Its report, "Hate Unleashed: Los Angeles in the Aftermath of 187," found that increased discrimination against Latinos coincided with the anti-immigrant campaign for Prop. 187. "In the days after Prop. 187, the number of phone calls to this agency increased radically," said Jill Tregor, executive director of Intergroup Clearinghouse in San Francisco. "I can only speak anecdotally, [but] I have no doubt there is a direct correlation between the Wilson administration and the rise in hate crimes. Politicians won't agree that the rhetoric they use impacts the violence on the streets. But if Wilson didn't think he could affect and directly impact and influence Californians that way, why would he want to be governor? The rhetoric he uses, the policies he implements, affects violence on the streets." Another knee-jerk reaction to a complex problem was the "Three Strikes" law implemented in 1994, which mandates a 25-year-to-life sentence for three felony convictions. This law is described by the National Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice as "The New Apartheid." Director Vincent Schiraldi said if Wilson wanted to heal California's deep and festering racial wounds, abolishing ineffective and racist laws like "Three Strikes" should be high on his agenda. The center found that while blacks make up 7 percent of the state's population, they make up 20 percent of felony arrests in California, 31 percent of state prisoners, and 43 percent of those imprisoned for a third "strike." "If one were writing a law to deliberately target blacks, one could scarcely have done it more effectively than 'three strikes,'" Schiraldi said.COME FROM ALABAMAThe decade or so that I've lived here, I've noticed a gradual change in the air. It's an atmosphere that the Southern Poverty Law Center's Morris Dees says is reminiscent of Alabama during Gov. George Wallace's stance against integration. "It's pretty clear that when Gov. George Wallace stood at the schoolhouse door and said, 'Segregation forever,' then a few months later, Klansmen blew up a church in Birmingham, he didn't blow up the church," Dees said."But he created an atmosphere in which people believed they were speaking for the community and felt they could take action like that and nobody would do anything to them. They were trying to accomplish a socially acceptable goal, since the governor took a public stand." Dees quipped that we Californians "amend your constitution out here ' bout like we change tires." "In the deep South of the '60s, politicians were using these issues as a way to drum up support," Dees recalled. "There's a lot of public anxiety over these issues [affirmative action, immigration, crime]. There's more frustration. With a smaller piece of economic pie to slice up, there are people who are frustrated and trying to find a scapegoat. There's also a democratization of hate crime. In 1993, just as many blacks killed whites for racially motivated reasons as whites killed blacks. There's more acting out. People who are oppressed and angry are fighting back."People such as the salesgirl at the bookstore get my hackles up, and nowadays, I'm about ready to brawl. Instead, I gather my family and we leave the store.I'm mad; the kids are disappointed to leave so soon, and I'm wondering if I have overreacted. Considering that this kind of thing happens with great frequency, this city and every rude salesclerk in it are lucky I have such resolve, and fortunate that I have no time to go off.Fighting back is, of course, an option. The weapon chosen, however, is what will set you apart from hatemongers. My pen is the weapon I fight back with. Millions of African-American men fought back with their feet, marching on Washington, D.C. Many are active in their communities, reaching out and making a difference. Still others simply love their children and teach them how to love themselves and respect each other as human beings. It's a powerful weapon that beats bigotry every time.