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Can’t We All Get Along? Case Studies of Racial Tensions In and Around Progressive Berkeley

September 11, 2015
by Krissy Eliot

Science tells us that race is in our heads, not in our genes; it’s all a social construct.

It’s an observation that seems to illuminate everything and nothing at once. It makes it sound so arbitrary and trivial—a trick of the mind. And yet history tells us that race has mattered enormously. And the news emphasizes how much it still matters today in terms of what researchers call “life outcomes”: Your chances of securing a loan, for example; or of getting a good education; or of being shot by the police.

Race is a point of conflict even in the famously progressive Bay Area, as the cases that follow show. They are presented not as commentary on the state of what UC Berkekely administrators call the “campus climate,” but rather to pose questions of race, which are inevitably questions about power and privilege, but also about who gets to say what about whom, and about whether differing perspectives, informed by different experiences, can ever be resolved sensibly.

There Oughta Be a Law
Strange Fruit
White Space
That’s a Rap
Free Speech
Naming Rights
The Way the Cookie Crumbles
A Racist Landscape
There Goes the Neighborhood


Earlier this year, the University of California released a guide meant to help reduce or eliminate discriminatory speech by faculty. One of the documents, titled “Tool: Recognizing Microaggressions and the Messages They Send,” urges faculty to think before using such statements as “You speak English very well” and “I’m not a racist. I have several Black friends.”


Percentage of Berkeley students who said they were “comfortable” or “very comfortable” with the climate for diversity on campus in a 2014 poll

Other “microagressions” include “America is a melting pot”; “I believe the most qualified person should get the job”; and “America is the land of opportunity.” According to the guidelines, these statements contribute to the “Myth of Meritocracy,” or the idea that “race or gender do not play a role in life successes.”

The materials also clearly state that “the context of the relationship and situation is critical” when it comes to judging whether or not a statement is appropriate.

Commentators on the right had a field day with the guidelines, but even the more moderate Los Angeles Times editorialized against what it called “heavy-handed sensitivity training.”

“It’s troubling when any institution tries to squelch debate or discourage controversial ideas,” wrote the Times editorial board, “but it’s downright alarming when this occurs at a university—and even worse when it is the University of California, whose Berkeley campus was at the center of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s.” 

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There Oughta Be a Law

In February, Ori Herschmann, Student Action Senator for Berkeley’s student government, sponsored a bill to stop anti-Semitism, after many students complained about an uptick in expressions of anti-Semitism on campus. For example, swastikas were drawn on the walls of the Clark Kerr Campus residence hall; “Death to Israel!” was seen painted on the sidewalk across from campus; and “Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber,” was scrawled in a campus restroom.


Number of classes offered by the newly founded African American Studies department at Berkeley in 1970

The ASUC Senate amended and passed Herschmann’s bill on February 23, 2015. Aptly titled A Bill Condemning Anti-Semitism, it includes the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the State Department: “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

This wasn’t the first time that Berkeley officials have had to contend with anti-Semitic issues on campus. In 2012, the federal government began investigating charges that officials at Berkeley, in failing to stop anti-Israel protests on campus, had made the campus a dangerous place for Jewish students.

In response to the investigation, campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof told the Los Angeles Times: “We completely reject any allegations that this University has failed to respond promptly and in an effective fashion any time the line that divides constitutionally protected speech from illegal activities gets crossed.”

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Strange Fruit

Last December, as Black Lives Matter protests roiled downtown Berkeley, a cardboard cutout of a black man appeared one morning hanging from Sather Gate by a noose. On it were written the words “I Can’t Breathe”—a reference to the last utterance of Eric Garner, who died in a police chokehold. It was one of three such effigies reportedly found on campus that day. The cutouts were made from historical photos of real lynching victims and, according to an anonymous collective of “queer and POC artists” that eventually took credit for the displays, they were intended to disturb.

“These images connect past events to present ones—referencing endemic fault lines of hatred and persecution that are and should be deeply unsettling to the American consciousness. … For those who think these images depict crimes and attitudes too distasteful to be seen, we respectfully disagree. Our society must never forget.”

Their message was lost on many who found the performance reprehensible, no matter the subtext. Professor Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, a social psychologist who specializes in intergroup relations, told a reporter, “It falls somewhere along the line between prank and consciously racist messaging. But it doesn’t matter. It’s absolutely thoughtless and wrong.”

Pastor Michael McBride told local news outlet Berkeleyside that, whether the displays were created by “antagonists or allies,” they contributed “to the racial terror that black people have to face in the country.”

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White Space

In January of this year, local comedian W. Kamau Bell was shooed away from the Elmwood Cafe in Berkeley by an employee who apparently mistook him for a street peddler. In fact, Bell, who is black, was talking to his white wife, her female friends, and his two children. Bell, a well-known San Francisco comic and former host of the FX series Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, was carrying a MacBook Air and a children’s book he had just purchased for his daughter.

When the café employee saw Bell through the window, she mouthed something to the effect of “Scram!” and knocked on the glass to get his attention. When that didn’t work, she came outside and told him to leave. After she realized Bell was talking to his family, she reportedly said, “Oh, we thought you were selling something.”


Year that more than half of the U.S. population will belong to a minority group, according to Census Bureau

Outraged, Bell called out Elmwood Cafe on his blog. “We were bothered by the fact that we were currently standing in Berkeley, California, a city so allegedly liberal that even the most progress-y progressives make fun of it,” Bell wrote. “And yet thanks to Elmwood Cafe, it is where I as a black man was being told to ‘GIT!’ like it was 1963, Selma, Alabama, and I was crashing a meeting of The New Moms of the Confederacy.”

The café owner subsequently fired the employee and arranged a community forum to discuss the incident. Panel member Nikki Jones, a Berkeley associate professor of African American Studies, discussed “white and black spaces,” and how cafés, movie theaters, and university campuses such as Berkeley’s are “white spaces.”

“In these white spaces, black people have a special burden,” Jones said. “Somehow they have a provisional status position. They have to prove they belong there.” 

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That’s a Rap

In February, Berkeley students staged an antiracism sit-in to protest Mental Health and Social Conflict professor Steven Segal, who told his class that the Black Lives Matter movement needed to “stop scapegoating the cops” and that more attention need be paid to “black-on-black crime.” Segal conveyed these thoughts via his lecture and through a rap song he wrote.

At the sit-in, protest organizer Erika O’Bannon ’15 told Segal: “We all experienced the emotional impact of your actions. We would not be here today if this did not really immensely impact pain on all of us.”

In a video of the sit-in posted to YouTube, superimposed text says that Segal “had a captive audience because all first-year community mental health students were required to take his course” and that “many left the class crying.”

Jeffrey Edleson, dean of the School of Social Welfare, sent out a schoolwide email in response to student complaints. “We understand that a faculty-student exchange in one of our classrooms today caused offense and great distress to some of our students and made the classroom environment feel unsafe,” Edleson wrote. “We deeply regret the reported incident. We appreciate the time students took to talk to faculty about the incident today.”

Following the protest, a teach-in was held to voice concerns about Segal and his relation to the Black Lives Matter movement. “I hope that you don’t see all faculty as adversaries,” Edleson told students, “but that you see us as potential partners and champions in change.”

Segal’s students were offered an alternate class with a different professor. 

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Free Speech

In March 2012, the Black Student Union at Berkeley asked Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, to speak at the ninth annual Afrikan Black Coalition Conference. Farrakhan has long been known for his controversial statements. “The God who taught me calls the white man the skunk of the planet Earth,” he once said. He has also stated that Jews are “sucking the blood of the black community.”


Year statistician David Blackwell joined the Berkeley faculty to become the first tenured African-American professor in the UC system

Many students opposed Farrakhan’s appearance, and student leaders penned an op-ed in The Daily Californian registering their displeasure. “Farrakhan is undoubtedly a powerful speaker for the black community,” they wrote. “But it is unacceptable to support an empowering speech for one community at the expense of countless others.”

Despite the outcry, then–UC President Mark Yudof defended Farrakhan on First Amendment grounds. “We cannot as a society allow what we regard as vile speech to lead us to abandon the cherished value of free speech,” he wrote in an open letter.

At the event, Farrakhan delivered a speech riddled with racist comments. He mimicked Asian people with a faux-Chinese accent and made anti-Semitic comments. “Why don’t you teach the Jews that the first wonder of this world was not something that Jewish people built when they were enslaved in Egypt?” he said.

Farrakhan nevertheless received a standing ovation from the nearly 700 people in attendance. 

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Naming Rights

In March, Berkeley’s Black Student Union issued a list of demands to campus administrators. One was that Barrows Hall, named after former UC President David Prescott Barrows, be renamed after Assata Shakur, a Black Panther member convicted of killing a New Jersey State Trooper. Shakur did jail time until Black Liberation Army members broke her out of prison in 1979. She resurfaced five years later in Cuba. In 2013, she was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list.


Percentage of Berkeley faculty from “under-represented” groups, i.e., African American, Chicano/Latino, and Native American/Alaska Native

According to the BSU’s communiqué, Shakur “is an icon of resistance within oppressed communities, and represents Black resilience in the face of unadulterated state-sanctioned violence.” Furthermore, they say that David Barrows was an “imperialist by way of anthropology, and participated in perpetuating American colonialism” and “the subsequent destruction of cultures in the Philippines, and several regions in Africa.”

In Race Consciousness: Reinterpretations for the New Century, Judith Jackson Fossett argues that Barrows did indeed contribute to colonization efforts in the Philippines. At the same time, she acknowledges, he also campaigned for practical and literary education to liberate enslaved peasants there.

LeConte Hall has also fallen under scrutiny. It is named after the brothers John and Joseph LeConte, famed Berkeley professors and confirmed rebels who helped manufacture munitions for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. With the recent national debate over the symbolism of the Confederate flag, it stands to reason that the LeContes’ legacy might be revisited.

No indication has been given that the names of the buildings will be changed. 

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The Way the Cookie Crumbles

In 2011, the Berkeley College Republicans announced plans to hold an Increase Diversity Bake Sale, a satirical event held in opposition to California Senate Bill 185, which would allow CSU and UC schools to consider nonacademic factors such as race, economic status, and gender when selecting students for admission.


Percentage of Berkeley freshmen who are first-generation college students

The BCR posted the event to their Facebook page: “Just like the CA Senate Bills 185 and 387,” the post said. “We will be considering RACE, GENDER, ETHNICITY, NATIONAL/GEOGRAPHIC ORIGIN and other relevant factors to ensure the EQUITABLE distribution of BAKED GOODS to our DIVERSE! student body.”

The post listed bake-sale prices, which were highest for White/Caucasians at $2.00, then Asian/Asian Americans at $1.50, Latino/Hispanics at $1.00, Black/African Americans at $0.75, and Native Americans at $0.25. Women got $0.25 off any purchase.

“We feel that discriminating against people based on their skin color for baked goods is discriminatory in the same way that judging people on the color of their skin for admissions process is discriminatory,” said BCR president Shawn Lewis in a television interview with CNN.

The University was in an uproar over the stunt. The event was held on Sproul Plaza, yards from where the Associated Students of the University of California hosted a phone bank to support SB 185. In response to the bake sale, many students lay down on the grounds of the plaza in silent protest.

In the end, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed SB 185—on the basis that it conflicted with California Proposition 209, which prohibits state governmental institutions from considering ethnicity, race, or sex when it comes to admissions, employment, and so on.

“Signing this bill is unlikely to impact how Proposition 209 is ultimately interpreted by the courts,” Brown said in a veto message he sent to the California Senate. “It will just encourage the 209 advocates to file more costly and confusing lawsuits.”

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A Racist Landscape

Last year, Berkeley’s Chicano/Latina Architectural Student Association (CASA) received a vicious email response to an inquiry sent to downtown Berkeley’s Sachi Landscaping asking for a tour of its facilities.

“Are you joking?” the response began. “Go ask a Latino based org. I am not interested in assisting anyone from a Latino based org. Its [sic] racist to even ask, and frankly my business has [been] ruined by fucking illegal immigrants,” the email ranted. “Are we clear! Don’t ever email this address again. If there weren’t so many damn illegal immigrants in this state, I would have work for myself. Now piss off!”

The email was signed by someone named “Sachi Well.”


Year Alexander Dumas Jones became the first African-American student to enroll at Berkeley

CASA president Vanessa Hernandez ’15 posted the email to social media, which got the attention of Lalo Alcaraz, M.Arch. ’92, a CASA alumnus. Alcaraz then posted the email to the Sachi Facebook page, demanding to know if the landscaping firm was responsible for the email.

“hi mr. alcaraz,” someone wrote in response, “this gmail acct was accessed without our authorization after using a public computer and some logout problems. sorry for any confusion we are in the process of securing our acct. thank [you].”

Following a deluge of negative Yelp reviews, Sachi’s Facebook page was quickly deleted, their website taken down, and their phone disconnected. 

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There Goes the Neighborhood

Last October, a video was released and went viral, showing some Dropbox employees and a group of local Latino and black youths getting into a kerfuffle over who could use the Mission Playground soccer field. The Dropbox employees showed the locals the $27 permit they’d purchased to reserve the field for an hour. Despite the paper proof, the locals wouldn’t budge.

“Just because you’ve got the money to book the field doesn’t mean you could book it for an hour,” one of them said. “I’ve been born and raised here for my 20 years, and my whole life you could just play here.”

The community responded to the incident with a rally outside City Hall prior to a Recreation and Park Commission meeting, and the youths spoke out about how gentrification of the Mission is negatively affecting the kids who live and play there, especially since they can’t afford to buy field time.

In response, Parks Department general manager Phil Ginsburg announced that permits for adult play will no longer be sold at Mission Playground soccer field, but youth teams will still be able to reserve the field after school until 7 p.m. on weekdays.

The decision may slow the tide of change somewhat. In a report entitled “Mapping Susceptibility to Gentrification: The Early Warning Toolkit,” Karen Chapple, faculty director for the Center for Community Innovation at Berkeley, says that public recreational facilities deter gentrification. According to Chapple, more research is needed to understand why, but she speculates that “it may be because they draw heavy traffic from more disadvantaged groups.” 

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