Saturday, January 16, 2010

Racism rises in Oakland: patron writes anti-black slur at bar

Racism returned to Oakland Friday night. A patron at Oakland's popular Cafe Van Kleef wrote "Happy Nigger Day" on the bathroom's wall board. The person who discovered the slur was one of the establishments' employees, who came out to tell Cafe Van Kleef owner Peter Van Kleef as he was in conversation with this blogger, who's obviously black.

The group of us, Peter, Eric, and a person who's name I do not know, talked about it and agreed that Peter, as the owner, should make a defining statement and ask for the person who did it to identify his or her self.

Peter Van Kleef made the decision to go up and take time from the blues band that was playing to tell the patrons what was done and that "Cafe Van Kleef is not a place for that." While the sound did not carry well in the crowded bar, Peter's speech was loud enough for many to hear near the stage.

Peter asked for the person who wrote the slur to step forward; that person did not. But a number of people looked around at each other. Of the near capacity crowd of over 100 people, by my scan only four were African American, three Asian, and the rest largely white.

How did I feel? Sick. I just stood in the corner that I normally occupy when I visit Peter's establishment and wondered what kind of people were around me.  I was really disappointed to see white patrons who just had white friends.  That - to be really frank - is far more common than it is for people of color, even in Oakland.  A person can't know who they are until they have friends who don't have their skin color.  That's just a fact.

By that, I mean people they invite over to their house and talk to; not people they see at the gym or at work.  I'm talking about real friends.

I walked over to the much more racially-mixed Luka's and talked to a friend of mine in law enforcement about what happened.  He - who's black - shrugged and said "It's Van Kleef's", and seemed surprised that I was shocked about what happened.

Peter Van Kleef and his employees are fine people. But someone - some coward that may also be an Internet troll - in there felt comfortable enough to write a racial slur on the bathroom wallboard.

Speaking out against it was a welcome action on Peter Van Kleef's part and he's a good man and a friend of mine, but the damage was done. Racism is rising in Oakland.

Historically, Oakland has been a town known for its racial harmony. As far back as the 1960s, Oakland never had serious racial problems. And when the Watts riots broke out, it was feared by some that Oakland would be the next city to have a major conflict because of its large black population.

It never happened, and the shock that it did not, led the production of a classic book called Oakland's Not For Burning.  But today, we have the death of Oscar Grant.

Oscar Grant

But Oakland's changing; last year some people of color thought Oakland was for burning in the wake of the Oscar Grant Murder, and that perception caused the riots that followed:

Oakland's downtown bar and dining scene has degenerated into a black versus white divide, with one Asian bar in the middle on Telegraph that draws a mixed crowd of mostly people of color: Luka's is predominantly black and Latino on the weekends, but not on weeknights. Cafe Van Kleef is mostly white. The eatery Flora's patronage is mostly white; Pican and Osumo on Broadway and Grand are mostly black. The bar "The Den at The Fox" is mostly black (and has security door people who act like thugs; a side effect of the patronage, I suppose). It's hard to find any place that's perfectly racially mixed, and that's sad.

There should not be such a pattern.

Fortunately, the bar scene on Grand Avenue - with The Alley and The Lucky Lounge - is far more racially mixed. Why that's the case may be that Grand Avenue draws much more of a local audience. This is also true at The Conga Lounge in Rockridge, and who's Haiti Benefit Party attracted a well-integrated audience, the perfect mix. While racism in Oakland is a problem, for the most part it's not generated by Oakland residents; outsiders and institutions have to be instructed on the rules of engagement in Oakland.

I write institutions because of the 2007 incident where Yoshi's Jazz Club in Oakland's Jack London Square released a CD without a single black jazz artist.  For that to happen in Oakland was just incredible.

The City of Oakland needs to make a strong and powerful statement. To this date, the Mayor and the Oakland City Council have been silent on the issue of race. Oakland needs to have a diversity policy. A statement of effort to maintain a racially-integrated city that does not tolerate racism or the creation of images of racism.

Stay tuned.