Commentary: Racism Continues to Lie Just Below the Surface

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right.” – Martin Luther King 

The comments made by ASUCD Ethnic and Cultural Affairs Commission on the image of the blue line flag following the tragic death of Natalie Corona definitely rubbed a number of people the wrong way, who believed that the comments coming so soon after the tragedy were poorly timed and ill-considered.

The discussion triggered a passionate but civil debate on the Vanguard as to the meaning of the flag.  But at the same time, calmer voices did not always prevail in this matter.  While the group was publicly criticized in the media, and in a statement by ASUCD student body president Michael Gofman, it also triggered a much darker response.

As noted in the guest commentary today, many either in or associated with the group started receiving death treats and anti-Black attacks on friends and families.  Some of these messages were shared with the Vanguard – they contain what can only be described as naked and blatant racism.

While a number of people shared these messages with the Vanguard, most of them ask that we not even print the message out of fear of retribution.  It is unfortunate that these acts of hatred have so intimidated their targets that they fear coming forward in this environment.

The message I get in response to this clear racism is “there will always be disgusting people in the world.”  Others point out, “I don’t believe that email is indicative of how the great majority of people feel.”

I agree that these emails are from a relatively small number of individuals who do not reflect the broader viewpoints in this community and in our nation.  However, dismissing this as a few minority views is not particularly helpful – especially given the fact that these kind of encounters can be so traumatizing to the recipients.

At the same time, here on Martin Luther King Day, we need to make a more honest assessment.  What troubles me is that in 2019, while hate is not the mainstream, it does tend to loom just below the surface.  It has not been created but rather it seems to have been given license by the current occupant of the White House.

The students have not borne these attacks alone – nor are they isolated to this particular incident.

The Latina Mayor Pro-Tem of Davis, Gloria Partida, was on the receiving end of one herself.  It is from a local resident who we have decided not to identify by name.

He writes: “I hope your pleased that your radical phoenix coalition and the racist black lives matter have desecrated the memorial for Officer Corona by stealing the flags. Maybe you should consider moving out of Davis.  Your groups are partially responsible for the death of a wonderful person.”

What is notable is the writer conflates the activities of the much more mainstream and moderate Phoenix Coalition with the comments by the student organization.  It also conflates the actions of Gloria Partida and her group to Black Lives Matter, which made a statement by asking members to take flags.

It blames the Phoenix Coalition – a group that seeks to foster racial diversity, tolerance and understanding – with these actions and argues that somehow these groups are responsible (in some way at least) for the death of Ms. Corona.

But finally it makes what I would consider a veiled racist comment, suggesting, “Maybe you should consider moving out of Davis” – as though Gloria Partida were not a legitimate member of our community.

While we are not identifying this individual, it is worth noting that this same individual made very derogatory remarks to my wife and Jann Murray-Garcia back in 2006 during some of controversy over police oversight at that time.

Indeed, on May 5, 2006, in a letter published in the Davis Enterprise, this same individual wrote, “Davis must rid itself of this antiquated, racist commission and its bully chairperson, Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald.”

Around the same time, another individual wrote this in a letter to the Davis Enterprise: “Ms. Greenwald and Ms. Garcia apply their racist views to every possible issue that confronts them. They look at the world through their prism of hate. … The mere fact that they support numerous frivolous and hate-based lawsuits against the city should be enough to invite them and the rest of the Human Relations Commission to practice their trade in a more appropriate city. I recommend Johannesburg, South Africa.”

While this was no doubt nearly 13 years ago now, times haven’t changed nearly as much as we might like to think.  The impetus for those attacks were proposals for police oversight by the Human Relations Commission and a report by the HRC and Jann Murray-Garcia who identified a number of incidents involving the police.

For those who want to downplay the significance of these kinds of measures, bear in mind that reading the email from Gloria Partida brought back all of the raw emotions from 13 years ago – those kinds of attacks stay with you far longer than you would like to believe.

In 2017, as the issue of Picnic Day arose, involving the arrests of five people of color after undercover police cars escalated a conflict by driving their unmarked van very close to a crowded corner of party-goers, attorney Mark Reichel received an angry voicemail that he shared with me.

The caller, identifying herself as a citizen of Davis, left a 93-second voicemail message on his office machine.

“Picnic Day would be fine if black people and gang members would stay out of Davis,” she said.  “If they didn’t want to get hurt they should have stayed the hell out of the road, that’s how ignorant these stupid (N-word) are…”

Mark Reichel told me he gets those messages all the time in his line of work, but a few days after he received his message, the same person left a voicemail on my phone at 12:30 am on a Friday night.  Fortunately I didn’t answer the unknown call from the (916) area code.  We were later able to track down who the caller was and confirm it was a Davis resident.

Here is the thing.  The majority of residents in this community – the vast majority – are horrified by what happened to the young officer and the outpouring of love and support is frankly heartwarming.

My concern is that there are images which have been co-opted by white supremacists and those views are not as far below the surface as we would hope – even in a community like Davis, even in 2019.

On MLK Day, for all the heartache that we have gone through over the past ten days, it is important to remember that the fight against racism even in our community is still ongoing.

—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. John Hobbs

    I stayed out of the flag discussion because of the inflammatory atmosphere. Ms Corona’s murder was awful enough without the diversion provided by the racial politics. Here’s the problem I see: “Nice ” people trying to act like there is merit to to the same old nonsense bigots have been spewing since reconstruction. Instead of inviting them to the conversation, they should be shamed and shunned.

    The “even in our community” comment illuminates Davis’ disconnect with reality.

    1. David Greenwald

      I think you get into a slippery slope on public shaming – it strikes of vigilantism.  You lose site that these are actual people – misguided as they may be – shaming has the power to proportionately destroy people’s lives.

      1. John Hobbs

        “You lose site that these are actual people – misguided as they may be – shaming has the power to proportionately destroy people’s lives.”

        No, I haven’t lost “sight” of their flawed humanity. Shame might as easily lead the benighted to question why decent society shuns them.

  2. Sharla Cheney

    I was appalled by the number of comments that were not really prompted by love or support for the Davis PD and its community, but by disdain or even hatred for the community.  Most comments appeared to come from people living outside of Davis.  But this includes people I know and work with at UCD who clearly despise the Davis community and the University that they work for.    There were many instances of the use of the Thin Blue Line flag as a slap in the face to the community rather than a message of support for the Davis police Department and its community.

    There are law enforcement groups that used the bluelivesmatter hashtag which contributes to the misuse of the blue line flag.  My daughter and her fiancé work in law enforcement – my daughter as a police dispatcher for Austin PD and her fiancé is a police officer – so I have a personal connection.   

    I thought that Officer Corona’s death would change the conversation.  I thought that people would acknowledge that the job is a dangerous one, where police are asked to respond to incidents while we all hide securely behind locked doors or run away.  I hoped that the conversation would include what we are asking our police to do for us.

    What I observe and experience is that this tragedy has brought the community together like I’ve never seen before and people on the fringes are determined to drive wedges into this.  I’m not sure what is their motivation – that they are afraid that their message is irrelevant or overlooked or that they hold grudges or are just hateful people in general.

    1. Matt Williams

      Sharla’s final paragraph resonates for me, especially the phrase, “people on the fringes are determined to drive wedges into this.”

      I sometimes feel the Vanguard overvalues the impact of the people on the fringes.  It is definitely true that those fringes are vocal, but I often wonder whether they are as powerful as they are loud.

      1. Craig Ross

        I agree with Sharla most part.  But I don’t agree with you comment, it may have applied in 2015, but in 2019, Trump shows just how dangerous shrugging off extremism actually is.

        1. Matt Williams

          Fair enough Craig.  On the national stage, I agree with you.  David’s article was not about the local stage though, and my comment was more focused on David’s observations about the Davis community.

          With that said, I have not had to walk in his or Cecilia’s shoes, so it isn’t as personal for me as it is for him.

  3. Ron Glick

    This post isn’t about who is right or who is wrong. It is about human aggression and retaliation.

    Many years ago, when I was in college, I saw a film about these tribes in Africa that had been fighting for centuries. When one side suffered a death or casualty at the hands of the other they became the aggrieved side and had to seek revenge. The film always stuck with me because it demonstrated a basic tribal instinct that is found in all sorts of conflicts. From the Israelis and Palestinians to the Union troops shouting Fredericksburg as the defeated rebels retreated during Picketts Charge at Gettysburg, this common human instinct of aggression and retaliation is widespread throughout the human condition.

    Now putting this into a local context, when Natalie Corona, whose beauty and grace shined through the one time I had the honor of meeting her, was murdered, the law enforcement community became the aggrieved group and as such they seized the high social ground of the aggrieved.

    Rather than lay low and give the law enforcement community the opportunity to grieve her death through their own process of  ritual and ceremony some decided to take on this blue line thing head on. I think the fact that it was hard for them to get published during the time Officer Corona was being mourned shows that most media outlets understand the underlying human behavior and etiquette of tragedies like this one instead of any attempt to censor these voices. 

    By taking on the Blue Lives Matters issue during the mourning period after Officer Coronas death a nasty backlash should not be found surprising. It isn’t about right and wrong, police service or civil rights violations, or the symbols being employed, its about giving a group of people the space to mourn the loss of their loved one. The activists who took on the Blue Lives Matters issue may be right on the issues they feel compelled to speak out on but by doing it while Corona was being mourned they violated the tribal grieving process of the aggrieved.

    That such a violation sparked such a raw reaction should surprise no one.

    1. David Greenwald

      “I think the fact that it was hard for them to get published during the time Officer Corona was being mourned shows that most media outlets understand the underlying human behavior and etiquette of tragedies like this one instead of any attempt to censor these voices. “

      I agree. I wanted to wait until after the memorial service before publishing this stuff. MLK Day seemed reasonable given the overall theme of the day.

  4. Edgar Wai

    Hello David,
    I agree that the caller to Mark Reichel is probably a racist, but I don’t see how the message sender to Gloria Patricia is. 

    The case for the caller was clear to me because the called referred to his target as “black people”. That is categorical prejudice. 

    The case of the message sender was inconclusive to me because the sender referred to his targets by activist group identities. Regardless what the sender understood or misunderstood about the groups that they mentioned. Activist groups are defined by their missions. An attack against the group is an attack against their mission, not to the individuals that happen to associate with the group. Other than groups, the sender was specific in calling out individuals (namely, Gloria, Ms. Greenwald, and Ms. Garcia). Therefore, the sender did not make a categorical prejudgment against all people of a certain race. I don’t see from your posting the evidence for you to call the sender a racist. Because the sender did not make any racist remark, her comment for Gloria to move out is also not racist. The sender was targeting a specific individual. 

    People are allowed to misunderstand and misassociate, or to knowingly judge the intents of groups and individuals. As long as their criticism is not applying to an entire race, they are not racist. 

    Along the same line, regardless whether the sender is actually a racist, your calling the  sender a racist targets a specific individual, so that also does not make you a racist. But if you erroneously mark a speaker racist, then you are giving evidence to the criticism that “They look at the world through their prism of hate.”

    I have no in-depth understanding of what Phoenix Coalition, Black Live Matter, etc do. I was just treating them as symbolic “Group A”, “Group B”, etc to explain how to judge whether a commented made a racist remark. I don’t know what those groups do and I am not looking into and judging whether they are good or bad.

    1. Edgar Wai

      More thoughts:

      1) Isn’t calling someone a ‘racist’ a type of name-calling? Isn’t name-calling bad, regardless whether the target matches an objective definition? Name-calling is normally considered bad because it typesets a person. It implies that a person cannot change, it makes people want to defend what they said or did because their very identity is being judged. The alternatives for calling someone a “racist” (i.e. “You are a racist.”) is “Your remark was racist.” (These are so similar. Perhaps someone knows English better could give a better example.) Or you could just rephrase the statement to let the speak realize that they said something racist, such as, “You just said you want to exclude all black people from picnic day, did you really mean that?”

      2) After identifying a comment to be racist, the next question should probably be why. We ask this question to confirm whether the speaker didn’t realize at all there was a racist comment. For example, if you ask, “Why did you want to exclude black people from picnic day?” If they say, “You can tell they are from out of town and gangbangers!” The keywords here are that the speak now narrowed the scope to “out of town” and “gangbangers.” This could mean progress. The next question you could ask to clarify could be, “What about the UCD students that are black? How do we tell who is from out of town or not?” If they say, “It doesn’t matter! Just arrest everyone that party out on the street!” What we see here is that the speaker, when they made the first statement, they were just describing what they saw on a photograph or what they pictured in their mind. When the speaker said “All the black people”, the speaker really meant “All those black people in that picture that were partying on the street.”

      3) People are allowed to make racist comments. I think that is not illegal (?) The government is not allowed to discriminate, but people are allowed to discriminate against one another. I think littering jaywalking are illegal, but making racist remarks is not. I think it is quite obvious that making racist remarks hurt a community a lot more than people jaywalking. But the problem is, people make racist remarks as jokes also. So… ????? And if racist remarks were illegal, what about other non-racist insults????

      4) What should a person do when they receive a racist remark? Should a person be more angry at a racist insult versus a non-racist insult? Should a person be angry at all? If two people are arguing and people are watching them to judge their characters, the person who de-escalates is normally considered the better person. So, despite being insulted, the receiver of the insult would not retaliate with an insult. If the receiver saw that calling someone a “racist” is a type of name-calling, the receiver would also not do so.

      So after these thoughts, it was bad of me to just refer to the caller to Mark a “racist”. There should be a step to actually talk to that caller to know exactly what they meant, instead of taking a paragraph of what they said and make a judgment on their character. I think doing so doesn’t really help anyone. If we talked to that caller would could confirm or perhaps educate them. Then we might be able to directly remove some racist comments. 

      5) Is the word “racist” more similar to “believer” or “evil”? Is the word “racist” itself a neutral term? When we call someone a “theist” or an “atheist”, we are referring to their believe in god(s). Those words do not by themselves judge whether a person is evil. Then, what does the word “racist” mean? If a person believes that “the white race is the best, they are the smartest, tallest, more beautiful,” does that automatically make that person “evil?” Why does that make that person “evil?” What if the person believes, “the white race is the strongest on average, but everyone has equal rights to life, liberty, and happiness, and I protect people of all colors, especially when we are the strongest way. We are honored that the other people accept us as their guardians.” ????? Does that make the person less evil or is that just as evil? What makes a belief evil? Does one’s belief that there are racial differences and some racial backgrounds are more suited for certain roles make them evil? Or does a belief only become evil when they use race as a reason to cause harm or to exclude? Think of a setting like StarTrek, there are alien races, so it is certainly possible that a race is better than another on some ranking scale. Why is that different on earth? Why can’t people have a civil discussion on what race is the best (on a given scale) and discuss like how people compare different brands of cars. Why does it automatically make a person evil when they try to do that? Did we just invented a way to hate one another by arbitrarily deciding that, “OH NO! You are trying to compare races! You MUST BE an EVIL MONSTER!!! EVERYBODY! COME KILL THIS MONSTER!!” Isn’t that just some kind of war-time propaganda? Nazi Germany was bad because they were KILLING other people, right. If they just believe that they were the best people, but they help others selflessly anyway, they could be scientifically wrong, but not “Evil”, right? Should we be more discerning about being scientifically/statistically wrong and being evil?

    2. Alan Miller

      While I agree with EW about the person attacking our MPT not being technically a ‘racist’, I would call them an evil, laughable, mentally-stunted f**khead.  If that makes me a name-caller, then I am a name caller.

  5. Alan Miller

    I don’t understand the point of this article.  DG says: I agree that these emails are from a relatively small number of individuals who do not reflect the broader viewpoints in this community and in our nation . . .  at the same time, here on Martin Luther King Day, we need to make a more honest assessment. 

    And then quotes, another couple of people to make his point.  Which just shows that it is still a relatively small number of individuals, which is what DG said in the first place.

    The point seems to be that these few people are racists.  On that we can pretty much all agree.  and . . . ?

    1. David Greenwald

      The other point is that it’s intimidating to receive a bunch of racist, threatening and nasty messages. Some people spoke up. Others didn’t want to. Until you’re on the receiving end of it, it’s hard to understand how much it affects you.

      1. Alan Miller

        Those f**kheads who sent those messages are vile human beings.  We all must stand up to such people, with courage.  This is stuff people have died for.

        I have been on the receiving end of anti-Jewish hate, a few years ago a vile verbal tirade in a public place.   I yelled the guy down and called him a racist and told him to take his racist rants home with him to discuss with his racist friends, but do not talk such vile words in public.  He was much larger than me.  I could have been killed.

        At the local congregation, gatherings often are complimented by one or two armed police officers.  At the Jewish center in San Francisco, they open your trunk and run a mirror under your car before you can park in the parking garage. 

        I once arrived at a meeting at the Davis congregation and the woman next to me got up and left.  There had been an antisemitic attack the day before and I came in breathing heavy from biking with backpack and she got nervous as she had never seen me before.  She later apologized to me after she realized during the meeting that I was Jewish and explained why she was so on edge.  That is the Jewish reality.

        My mother was chased and bullied and called vile names for being a Jew — this was common.  She wasn’t privileged, the family was barely able to stay housed were it not for the extended families living many persons to a flat in the Jewish slum of Boston.  And lore is that half family name was lost in the Holocaust.

        That is the Jewish experience as I have known it.

        I am not saying my experience is better or worse, but it is different.  I don’t know the black experience as such, but I am empathetic to it.  As Jews, we know marginalization, we know genocide, we know discrimination.  As such, we must speak up for civil rights.  That is why so many Jews actively supported the civil rights movement in the 60’s, including my mom and — very strongly — my sister.

        I haven’t been on the receiving end of those particular emails, but as I illustrated I’ve been on the receiving end of racism.  It isn’t the same experience, but all of it is vile.  And it all comes down to one thing:  dehumanization.  The worst of people start wars by dehumanizing the enemy.  The other tribe, the blacks, the Jews, the people who don’t believe in OUR God.

        The problem I have with the words in the recent wave against the police is that the police are being dehumanized.  There is no doubt that there are vile, racist police officers.  There is no doubt that reform must continue.  There is no doubt that blacks are targeted by f**khead police officers — and thank God for the ‘everyone has a video camera’ that has brought this to the light of all.  But in dehumanizing the profession, you will create a violent backlash.  No one stands still or should stand still for dehumanization of their group.  Be it blacks, Jews, natives, or cops.

        The KKK is an obvious exception, NAMBLA is an obvious exception — because they are pure evil.  I understand some feel the cop system is evil too.  But there is a difference.  There are good cops — TONS of them.  And if you dehumanize all cops, you turn the good ones against you, and everyone loses.

        Bottom line people:  It’s us against the f**kheads.  If we divide ourselves into tiny special groups and dehumanize decent other people, society will not progress.

        1. John Hobbs

          ” There are good cops — TONS of them.  And if you dehumanize all cops, you turn the good ones against you, and everyone loses.”

          If they are “good,” where are they when the “bad ” ones are acting out?

        2. Craig Ross

          I guess a key question is whether the profession itself is being dehumanized.  Part of it, there is a segment of the protesters, who actually don’t believe we need to have police.  Those are radicals.  There is another group that believes we need police, but the profession needs to be reformed.  There seems to be some conflating between those two groups.

    2. Matt Williams

      Without diminishing the importance of the first two points, a third point appears to be that if you choose to stand up and publicly say something that is polarizing, don’t be surprised if you produce a strong reaction.  In fact, it may be a likely outcome based on the choice you have made.

      1. David Greenwald

        Maybe. A bunch of people on the receiving end of this however were collateral fire – Gloria was not involved in this. Several students who were not involved in the committee’s statement, received fire. Moreover, should the price I pay for reporting on something be that I receive racist hate mail, phone calls, and implied threats to my family? Is that really what you are suggesting?

        1. John Hobbs

          “Moreover, should the price I pay for reporting on something be that I receive racist hate mail, phone calls, and implied threats to my family?”

          No, but it is a predictable outcome. I have spent many hours in the south western USA registering voters. When I see the Texas DPS car flashing its lights behind me and hear the loudspeaker, “Stop and put your hands on your head,” I don’t expect a certificate of appreciation.

        2. Matt Williams

          I wasn’t thinking you as much as the people who crafted and signed the letter.  And even if it applies to you as the publisher of a blog vis-a-vis letters sent directly to you, spillover to your family is beyond the pale. 

          That was a lesson I had to personally learn/experience when I chose to run for Council in 2015-16.  No hate mail, but for the most part the “We’ve got to pay our bills!” and “We’ve got to be honest about what we owe.” themes of my campaign were not particularly polarizing, but my fight for 5,000-7,000 beds at Nishi in 2018 was substantially more so.

          The collateral fire directed toward Gloria appears to me to have been brewing for a long time separate from any police issues, and the Corona tragedy simply acted as a tangential trigger for releasing that particular dose of venom, which I believe was just waiting for an excuse to be aired by its sender.  Gloria’s outstanding work creating and building the Davis Phoenix Coalition has as its original spark, the damage done to her son by that virulent strain of hate.

          1. David Greenwald

            One thing I’ll say – and I was actually caught off guard by it – the extent to which what happened 13 years ago now has really stuck with me. The letter from Gloria was a reminder of that. I was a grown man in 2006, in my 30s, some of these kids are barely 20. While I hear your about the letter as an impetus, I think the response was disproportionate to the letter and also a lot more than they bargained for.

        3. Matt Williams

          I completely agree that it was a lot more than they bargained for, but I’m not sure it was disproportionate to the letter. 

          However, if one accepts the fact that the letter was disproportionate to Natalie Corona’s life, then accepting that the response was disproportionate to the letter is probably realistic. 

          Disproportionate all around … which resonates with the assessment Ron Glick shared in his 4:53 pm comment above.

    3. John Hobbs

      “…it is still a relatively small number of individuals, which is what DG said in the first place…The point seems to be that these few people are racists.”
      Stage 1 cancer is very treatable.  Excise the first few aberrant cells and you’re in the clear. Let them reproduce unfettered for a while and you’re likely to end up dead.

  6. Tia Will

    I think John is making a valid point. Although I am cautious about over generalization, I do believe we have evidence for the concept of social contagion. One example of this phenomena is adolescent suicides which have been shown to occur in both geographic and temporal clusters. It is well documented although not as yet explained. Another example is the widespread belief that mass shooters are “inspired” by the model of those who preceded them.  In medicine, we see trends based on the behavior of friends and family members. Some of these are negative trends such as the marked increase in obesity associated with junk food and beverage usage. Some are positive such as the decrease in teen pregnancy rate associated with the usage of LARCS ( long-acting reversible contraceptives).

    I am unaware of evidence or statistics that demonstrate that the same is true of a tendency towards racist beliefs, or bigotry based on any other immutable physical characteristics. I think this might make the basis for a good article preferably by someone with more expertise in this area than I.

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