By Martin Ricard, STAFF WRITER
The Daily Review
June 2, 2007
SAN LEANDRO — For years, the city has been haunted by a part of its past that most people probably would rather forget.
Housing discrimination during the 1970s, particularly against blacks, created a stigma for San Leandro that at one point garnered it the label of a “racist bastion of white supremacy.”
But a new document released Thursday by the City Council’s Human Relations Committee that chronicles the city’s efforts to address housing discrimination since then sheds new light on the alleged complicity of city leaders during that time. Meanwhile, city officials now are using the document as a first step in acknowledging the problem and are attempting to move the city, in some ways, toward reconciliation.
“Some people still have this image of San Leandro,” City Manager John Jermanis said Thursday. “But the absence of knowledge lies in what did the city officials do about it.”
Critics who have learned of the document already are skeptical of its efficacy.
Some said the chronology shows that city officials are being proactive by addressing a controversial issue, but that the council’s efforts are superficial.
One critic, Margarita Lacabe, a coordinator for the San Leandro Community Action Network, said that in recent talks about the issue, several council members have shied away from discussing the racial discrimination that existed during the 1970s, as well as the idea of making a public apology for the city’s actions of several decades ago.
“I think they have yet to see this as a big issue,” Lacabe said. “There is clearly a large interest in this, and I see them … still living in the past.”
The chronology, which was prompted by San Leandro native Brian Copeland’s memoir “Not a Genuine Black Man,” looks back on the actions city officials have taken over the past several decades to end housing discrimination in San Leandro and to promote cultural diversity.
Ironically, one of the first actions the City Council took, according to the chronology, was on July 8, 1968, when it adopted a progressive policy on community relations and responsibilities, modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
“The City Council will not ‘pass the buck’ for this matter to an appointed Commission. This would be more likely to ‘dispose’ of a ‘problem’ than to ‘solve’ it,” the policy stated. “Therefore, the City Council, in carrying out its basic responsibility, will itself act directly on matters of community and human relations.”
Coincidentally, several years later the 1971 documentary “The Suburban Wall,” produced by the Westinghouse Broadcasting Co., was aired, showing that Durant Avenue, where San Leandro meets Oakland, formed an “invisible wall” that kept blacks from living in San Leandro. Perhaps most people agreed in the ensuing years that the racial discrimination existing in San Leandro reflected the realities in most Bay Area communities at the time, and that because the city came under such scrutiny it probably had done more than most suburban towns to tackle the problem of housing discrimination.
That notion remained vague until Thursday.
Now that the chronology has revealed those efforts — which it states also included city officials over the years working to create commissions exploring diversity, actions taken by the council to combat hate crimes, and recent city-sponsored cultural events that promote diversity — Jermanis said city officials are ready to move beyond the city’s past.
“We want to move away from that action (housing discrimination) … and continue to recognize and promote the values of our diverse and truly integrated community,” he said.
Jermanis said one example of how the city has moved in a new direction is its diverse work force at City Hall.
And even with a dark shadow hovering over the city’s past, he said, San Leandro has grown more diverse and geographically integrated, just like many other cities around the state.
When Copeland, who is black, was told by a reporter that the city had released the chronology, he said he is still skeptical because he had never stumbled across the documents during his own research for his book.
“I find it interesting that the documents that may have been adversarial to the city’s position have vanished, but the documents that support a position that they tried to do something about it have been preserved,” Copeland said in a phone interview.
For true reconciliation to happen in San Leandro, he said, two things must occur first: The City Council passes a resolution saying the city fully supports promoting a diverse and fair housing policy, and the city considers changing its slogan of “Proud of Our Past, Looking to the Future.”
“If not, then the question becomes ‘What past is the city proud of?'” he said.
Jermanis said the city doesn’t have a formal plan to take any further action to address the city’s past housing discrimination, but that
any other effort should be partly spearheaded by residents.