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Thursday, February 23, 2006,10:20 PM
Roots of Rising Homicides Found in Forgotten Black History
by Randy Shaw, 2006-02-23

As San Francisco officials try to address the city’s rise in homicides, killings by and of young African-American men have also increased in Richmond and West Oakland across the Bay, and in Newark, Washington D.C. and other black communities across America. The roots of violence in America’s African-American neighborhoods have multiple explanations, but a critical factor was white resistance to ensuring that federal War on Poverty programs and benefits of the 1960’s and 70’s reached black recipients. Much has been written about such resistance in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston, but the all-too similar histories of West Oakland, Bayview, and the Western Addition are largely forgotten. Before Black History Month ends, it is worth looking at how the liberal Bay Area denied African-American dreams, setting in motion the problems plaguing black neighborhoods today.

Because the San Francisco Bay Area has long been known for its racial tolerance, those unfamiliar with the past forty years of local history are likely unaware of how Oakland and San Francisco city governments sought to drive African-Americans away. These governments responded to the federal War on Poverty by doing everything in their power to deny jobs and benefits to blacks, and both used anti-democratic Redevelopment Agencies to ultimately achieve their goals.

Despite Oakland’s large African-American population, its white political establishment succeeded through the end of the 1970’s in stifling black economic progress. San Francisco journalist Warren Hinckle, then editor of the national Ramparts magazine, accused Oakland’s white elites in 1966 as “making 99% of the decisions in Oakland.” Hinckle castigated the city’s “power elite” as “frightened oligarchs” afraid to come down from the Oakland hills to face “the people” in a truly democratic process.

The chief problem for Oakland’s black population was that the city’s public resources were diverted away from low-income neighborhoods to either downtown businesses or to white residents living outside the city. Over 50% of Oakland city jobs through the 1960’s went to residents in places like Fremont, San Leandro, and Milpitas---three nearby cities whose homeowners maintained strict racial covenants that prohibited sales to blacks.
The Port of Oakland, 78% of whose employees did not live in Oakland, made money hand over foot but hired few blacks and gave little back to its West Oakland neighborhood.

So during the greatest period of American economic growth, when white workers could afford a single-family home with a picket fence, African-Americans were shut out of the American dream. By the time Oakland’s hiring practices changed and racist real estate practices were illegalized, the price of East Bay homes had dramatically increased. Whites got the benefit of appreciating home values, the African-American workers forced to rent during through the late 1970’s did not.

The ability of whites to divert Oakland’s wealth from the local black population led a broad range of West Oakland activists in the 60’s and 70’s to view the white community’s economic control in colonial terms. Black activists took the War on Poverty’s mantra of “community empowerment” seriously, but were stopped at every turn from implementing any of its plans by an entrenched Oakland establishment---cheered on by the right-wing Oakland Tribune---that resented African-American’s effort to shape city policies.

But Oakland’s black community was organizing, and had a comprehensive economic development strategy for ensuring city revenue returned to the neighborhoods instead of going to downtown businesses and the Port. In 1973 and 1975, the Black Panther Party promoted a strategy for reorienting civic priorities around the rehabilitation and health of low-income neighborhoods that brought a record black voter turnout to the polls in city elections

However, no matter what strategy activists came up with to get the federal funds supposedly targeted for them (and remember, this was the last era in America when federal spending on domestic problems was a top priority), Oakland’s white power structure always had a response. Their absolute line of defense was the city’s system of at-large voting for City Council, which meant that the white voting majority could always ensure the defeat of black candidates seeking to give a voice to West Oakland concerns.

By the time Oakland elected Lionel Wilson as its first Black mayor in 1977, the debate over redirecting federal money to the black community became almost a moot point. The Nixon Administration had abruptly retreated from concern over eradicating poverty in the ghetto, having halted new federal housing construction and greatly reduced spending on community-based economic development programs. Never again has America attempted anything close to a War on Poverty, and the nation’s commitment toward spending sufficient money to solve the problems of the ghetto was over almost as soon as it had begun.

Oakland’s election of a black mayor just as urban America was being starved for money was a pattern repeated across America. Black mayors ascended to office in Newark, Gary, Detroit, Cleveland and other cities after federal money dried up and when it was too late to stem the loss of manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs.

Like Oakland and San Francisco, these cities also suffer from rising homicide rates.

A year after Lionel Wilson became mayor, California voters passed Prop 13, which shifted millions of dollars from older, poorer cities like Oakland for the benefit of large corporations and white suburban homeowners. Combined with the federal cuts, Wilson and subsequent Oakland mayors would have far less resources to address the deepening problems of the city’s long neglected black neighborhoods.

Governor Jerry Brown gave Wilson the oath of office in 1977 as a way to highlight the fruition of the city’s black political aspirations. But Brown has spent his eight years as the city’s Mayor prioritizing upscale condominium development, and declared soon after taking office that West Oakland’s chief problem was not a lack of jobs or community-based development, but rather that the area had too many tenant-occupied housing units.

Should we then be surprised when Oakland’s young African-Americans, who know they have a President, Governor, and Mayor who do not care about them, express their resignation and hopelessness in the form of violence?

San Francisco’s history is more blatant. The sole purpose of the Redevelopment Agency’s destruction of thriving African-American neighborhoods in the Fillmore and Western Addition was to drive blacks out of San Francisco.

How do we know this? Because the rationale for “urban renewal” across America in the 1950’s-70’s was to attract affluent consumers to declining downtown business districts. The Fillmore and Western Addition are nowhere near downtown, so that there is no non-racial rationale for San Francisco’s bulldozing of its historic black neighborhoods.

No wonder thirty years later the Redevelopment Agency was still trying to figure out what to build in the area. Its mission was accomplished once the African-American community was displaced, and we cannot be surprised to see anger and violence burst out when so few of the promises made to the community have been kept.

Displacing African-Americans from Bayview-Hunters Point will not require bulldozers; a rising real estate market will alone get the job done. To expedite the transformation of Bayview away from its African-American roots, the Redevelopment Agency is stimulating the construction of thousands of market rate units that current residents cannot afford to buy.

Bayview-Hunters Point lacks the rich black political organizing history of West Oakland, and time is running out for challenging future plans for the area. The longtime persistence of crime and unemployment in Bayview has broadened support for an “urban renewal” strategy that might have brought massive resistance as recently as a decade ago.

As for West Oakland, former Congressman Ronald V. Dellums has returned to his political roots in an attempt to become Oakand’s next mayor. Dellums’ election could represent the neighborhood’s—and Oakland’s-- last and best hope for economic revival without displacement.

Ron Dellums is a unique historical figure that can convince Oakland’s low-income black residents that their dreams of a better future need no longer be deferred. By replacing resignation with hope, Dellums offers Oakland the most potent homicide prevention strategy.

Unfortunately, neither Gavin Newsom nor any San Francisco local political leader has the history in the black community to play the role Dellums can perform in Oakland. This leaves San Francisco officials to craft anti-violence funding packages while awaiting new national leadership that can revive African-American hopes for the future.

(Those interested in the recent history of urban America are strongly encouraged to read Robert Self’s American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland)
posted by R J Noriega
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