By Ted Lam
Bay Area Representatives Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11) and Barbara Lee (CA-13) hosted “A Conversation on Race” at Contra Costa College in San Pablo on February 3. Nearly 450 people spent their Saturday afternoon listening to, and engaging with, a distinguished panel of experts featuring UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion Oscar Dubón Jr. and UCB Professors Lisa Garcia Bedolla, Ula Y. Taylor, and john a. powell. While a timely kickoff to Black History month, it was also a sad reminder of how far we have to go to realize the goals of racial equality.
Representative Lee pointed out ways that the current administration has created problems, rather than solutions, in our country’s ongoing discussion about race, from the theme of “Make America Great Again” – which really means “Make America White Again” – to institutional obstacles to racial equality like the current criminal justice system.
Professor Taylor spoke movingly about seeing the many homeless “tent cities” in the Bay Area, linking them to a display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. that commemorated the tents in which the first freed slaves were housed by Union soldiers at the end of the Civil War. Taylor proclaimed that “tent cities are the epitome of racism.”
Professor Bedolla struck a chord when she reminded us NOT to use the term “identity politics” because it minimizes the deep structural history and inequalities that we have to come to grips with if we’re going to change the status of different groups in American society.
The difficulty of moving forward, cautioned Professor powell, lies in the history of legalized slavery in America. He noted that in recent years most African Americans’ “wealth”, such as it was, resided in the equity on their homes. However, since the Great Recession, that equity has massively decreased and not recovered appreciably due to predatory lending practices targeted at the African American community. Professor powell sardonically noted that some of the evils of the Administration’s tax scam may unexpectedly bypass African Americans: “The recent GOP tax bill will take more wealth from others – not black people, because we don’t have a lot – and distribute it to top.”
Congresswoman Lee shared some illuminating and inspiring stories from her own history. Lee recalled being told she could not try out to be a cheerleader at San Fernando High because she was African American. In true form, Lee refused to accept this; she brought in the NAACP to help her get the school board policy changed so all cheerleaders could try out in front of, and be chosen by, the student body – and Barbara Lee became a cheerleader! The audience cheered wildly — although we could imagine the many hard moments Lee must have endured that she omitted from the story, in the end she prevailed — and as a reminder, this photo of her, triumphant in her cheerleader uniform, hangs above the door of her DC office.
During the question and answer period, several attendees spoke up about their experiences with race in their communities and asked the panel for advice or how to deal with issues related to race. Some stories were very personal and touched on a part of the American experience that is rarely aired in public. The large, engaged audience appreciated the opportunity to tell their stories to each other, their elected representatives, and the panelists.
Did you miss the event? Watch the video here. And stay tuned for more events, Reps DeSaulnier and Lee plan to make this a series.
Ted Lam is retired from the USCG and currently works as a civil engineer.