Monday Morning Thoughts: Discussions of Race in Davis Are Difficult but Important

A guest piece by Bryn Buchanan generated quite the discussion.  The African American grad student related their first Picnic Day experience, hearing a group of attendees complain about the number of “n’s” around on Picnic Day.

“So what does it mean to be Black in Davis? It feels like surveillance,” the writer said.  “It feels like a Farmer’s Market where I’ve been harassed by vendors and attendees alike for my Blackness. It feels like a town of white moderates who are more interested in order than in justice; in absence than equity; in buying their kale than defending Black lives.”

Bryan Buchanan concludes, “The story of Davis racism could be a saga. The problem is that before our words are ever heard, we have been erased. In the news, in politics, we are silenced for protecting ourselves from our attackers – criminalized for defending ourselves from systemic forms of racism. Compare this to the way it’s often referred to by Davis’s white residents: it seems as though we are living in two different worlds. And we are.”

A lot of these themes have come up before.  I recall several years ago at a rally an African American student talked about how uncomfortable they feel in town, preferring Oakland.  I remember the football player who interned for me telling me that he and his friends got stopped all the time (in a relatively new vehicle with an Aggies bumper sticker on it) to the point where they stopped coming into town.

There is the story of Eli Davis, where a resident mistook a traveling sales person for a burglar, and then the police officer mistook the 60-something African American Eli Davis, mowing his lawn, for the suspect.

And yet on Saturday, one reader responded immediately: “Sorry, not buying it.  Davis is not racist.”  Later they asked, “[D]o you think Davis is a racist community?”

My answer is I think this is the wrong question.  This isn’t Montgomery in 1955.  It’s probably not even Montgomery in 2017.

But my experience in Davis – indeed the theme of the Vanguard when it was founded 11 years ago last Sunday – was a “vivid description of the dark underbelly of the People’s Republic of Davis.”  The idea was one of a liberal or progressive veneer, that if you scratched a way you would find a regressive underbelly.

It is not that Davis is overtly racist – it is that you would expect Davis to be more progressive than it is.  Davis voted for the first African American president in overwhelming numbers – over 80 percent in 2008.  And yet the residents were, at the same time, perfectly comfortable with a letter writer telling a prominent African American pediatrician that she should move to South Africa if she wanted to fight against racial injustice.

We have heard lots of stories over the years.  Prominent African American professionals, well dressed, pulled over by the police.

When the Acme Theatre Company received a Thong Hy Huynh award, one of the high schools students receiving the award talked about “the implicit recognition of how much further we have to go.” He talked about areas where the city has progressed, but that “we cover up tragedies with flowers.”

Colin Walsh noted that he was in school when Thong Hy Huynh was murdered in 1983.  “Growing up in Davis as a white person, the issue of race was always something I had to self-evaluate and think about.”  He said, “It was not an easy place for people of color growing up here.”

As one person put it, “The racism in overwhelmingly white Davis may not be obvious, but it runs deep.”

In July a Latino spoke at public comment and said, “The problem of racism is not unique to the police or limited to potential cases of excessive force – after the Picnic Day violence occurred, there was a palpable sense that I felt in the community of vindication for many people as the kids who fought the police were one by one revealed to be out of towners.”

He said he grew up in Davis and attended school at DJUSD, and “I still never felt entirely like a normal Davis kid because of my heritage. I’m still not sure I belong here. All my friends of color that I grew up with here with me who I’ve talked to a lot about this – most even all feel the same way.”

When the Human Relations Commission in 2012 hosted a forum on “Breaking the Silence of Racism,” the Davis Community Chambers were packed.  We heard in 2012 from individuals who were indeed singled out in places of business. We heard from parents whose children felt they did not belong in the schools. We heard about incidents of bullying. These are stories of everyday experience that are not told.

A local business person came to the event – the man was white, but he spoke passionately about the experiences that his African-American grandchildren had while living in Davis.

At one point he stated that when he talks to black people, they understand.  When he talks to white people, they don’t see it.  “Oh no, Davis is very progressive, we’re very liberal, we don’t have a race problem. It’s this denial, that’s why the school district won’t respond, things won’t happen.”

As he explained, his grandchildren “did not do well” in the Davis schools. He said, “One of them was repeatedly bullied by white kids at school. Racial taunts (n-word, f-you, etc.)… when he finally did respond, verbally, not physically, the school suspended him.”

Ultimately, the child would be expelled for a situation that did not involve physically aggressive behavior. The man said, “He’s now in another district in Sacramento – low income, mostly black school – but he’s doing quite well.” His younger brothers are in a rich, private white school, “doing quite well – they didn’t do well in Davis.” He added, “It’s tough being African-American in Davis.”

Another parent talked about his African-American daughter’s problems in the classroom. “I’m in a biracial relationship,” he said. “Biracial children have a harder time than most of us. Because a lot of the times they can straddle both of the cultures.” He said they originally came up from Berkeley, which is diverse, and “when she came up here to the junior high, she realized that a lot of the kids up here who were African-American, they really hated themselves. They had a lot of self-hate for some reason.”

Another parent raised three African-American sons, and worried that there are not enough people, looking like her sons, teaching them in the classroom.

Another individual was concerned about Marguerite Montgomery Elementary and told the community that he has heard talk about “white flight” from the school and complaints from some parents that there are “too many minorities that look like gangbangers.”

Is Davis a racist community?  I don’t know what that question means – but I’ve heard enough over the years to know we aren’t nearly as good as we need to be.  We have failed many people of color over the years and I believe we can do better if we become aware of our biases.

Color blindness, by the way, is not the answer.  Color blindness becomes a way to ignore the structural inequities cooked into the system.  Instead, what we need is open and honest dialogue so that we can become aware of our differences and embrace them.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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    1. Keith O

      That’s because I’ve been busy Alan and haven’t made the outrageous statement that Davis is not a racist community.

      There you go, the comments should now pick up.

    1. David Greenwald

      I compiled a fairly extensive list of direct complaints, I think I’m only scratching the surface with them. The mowing is interesting because it’s in effect, a double whammy – the original report mistook an African American salesperson for a burglar and then they olice officer racially profiled Eli Davis.

      1. Keith O

        I’ve been stopped and questioned by police while out walking and I’m an old white guy (as Don Shor described me) because they were looking for another old white guy.  Damn that racist ageist profiling.

        1. Howard P

          Keith… sometimes… other times citing ‘nuances’ actually speaks volumes…  depends on the nuances… and context… (tongue only partly in cheek)

        2. David Greenwald

          Let’s start with the call for service – traveling sales person, caller sees an African American, somehow mistakes them for a burglar.  Calls in a very vague report to the police – basically African American male.

          The police come out to the neighborhood, police officer sees an African American, he’s mowing his lawn, the man is in 60s.

          This isn’t just a matches the description error, this is a failure to note that a man in his 60s was in fact mowing his lawn.

  1. Cindy Pickett

    So, I’ll add another one to your list David. It’s an example of what I’d consider unconscious stereotyping. When I registered my daughter for kindergarten several years ago here in Davis, I was asked to complete a Free and Reduced lunch form. I declined. And the staff person handed it to me again and said that I really should complete it. I didn’t think anything of this immediately but then as I went through the line, I noticed that she wasn’t asking the white mothers multiple times to complete the form. That’s when I had one of those, “Hmmm” moments where the thought occurred to me that she might be making some assumptions based on my skin color.

    Now, to save the racial-bias naysayers some typing,  I concede that I have no proof that this person’s behavior had anything to do with my race. It could have been purely random. And this didn’t result in any kind of negative outcome. So, I’m not saying this was a big deal. It was just one of those moments though that makes a person think that maybe they are being treated differently.

    1. Howard P

      No, probably not random… you appear to be straight-forward, and not given to exaggeration… but even if not ‘random’, suspect it is not indicative of the community as a whole… an individual who may need to develop some ‘manners’… an individual…

      BTW, until you self-disclosed, had not even thought about your possible skin color/race… it still matters not to me.

      The ‘treatment’ you recieved does concern me…

  2. Howard P

    Let’s start with the call for service – traveling sales person, caller sees an African American, somehow (?) mistakes them for a burglar.  Calls in a very vague report to the police – basically African American male.

    Yes… good place to start… was the caller a HO who was approached, or just a misguided Neighborhood Watch type who is ‘afraid’ of ‘those people’ in general? Have not heard the ‘nuance’ about the identity of the “caller”… a homeowner could ask for ID and a solicitation permit… burglars usually carry neither… don’t recall that the actual ‘suspect’ was even encountered… another missing piece of the narrative.

    The responding officer mis-handled… to be sure… possibly ‘aggravated’ by an innocent person’s over-reaction, due to what? “Inherent bias” (or fear of same? Another ‘bias’…)?  That sword can cut both ways… I’ll bet most folk here assume the ‘caller’ was “white”… I didn’t/don’t… never showed in the accounts… at least the ones I recall…

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