Barbara Lee race forum April 27, 2019 at Black Repertory Theater in Berkeley
Left to right, sitting: Rep. Barbara Lee, Dr. Chinyere Oparah, professor of ethnic studies at Mills College, Vanessa Lee, executive director of Causa Justa, Rep. Mark DeSaulnier and Professor john a. powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at a town hall on race April 27 in Berkeley. Photo: Courtesy office of Congresswoman Barbara Lee

One of the final audience questions during Saturday’s town hall meeting on race at Berkeley’s Black Repertory Group Theater momentarily stumped the talkative panel.

“Is there a place in an empathy circle with Republicans on the topic of racism?” asked moderator and Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, reading from a card.

Chuckles rippled through the packed house, as the panel’s five members looked amused.

“Sure,” deadpanned Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), drawing laughter.

“I’m a member of Congress. I’m a masochist,” said Lee’s colleague and co-host, Congressman Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord). “So, yes.”

While the tone was occasionally light – no doubt due to common cause and familiarity among panel members – the topic was anything but a joke.

With a White House hostile toward immigrants, and seemingly sympathetic toward white nationalism, local leaders said Saturday it’s up to one of the most progressive areas in the country – the East Bay – to fight back with unity.

The event was one in a serious of local public conversations, hosted by Lee, on policy issues facing minorities in the United States, including the wage gap, mass incarceration, diversity in mass and social media, and climate change’s effect on low-income communities.

DeSaulnier said the idea was to create a template for the rest of the nation “and say ‘let’s do this across the country.’”

“If we can’t talk about it here and have a constructive conversation, where can we?” he asked.

Lee said people of color need to set aside differences and their own agendas to recognize that certain powers are using divide and conquer strategies against them.

“The forces that are against us, are against all of us,” she said.

Panelist John Powell, the director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, talked about gentrification and where the power lies in neighborhoods of color. He cited a recent New York Times story titled “The neighborhood is mostly black, the homebuyers are mostly white.” He said there’s a double standard among lenders when it comes to race.

“There’s nothing that we’re doing at a policy level or at an institutional level to thwart this,” he said. “We can’t just talk about it. We have to develop policies and practices that address this.”

There’s a difference between “saming” and belonging, Powell said. Shortening bridges between people of color doesn’t mean one group has to lose its identity. It’s affirming differences and moving forward with a united front to those who would divide.

“I want to extend it to beyond people of color,” Powell said. “I want to extend it to all people. We’re trying to create something where everyone belongs, but no one dominates.”

Dr. Julia Chinyere Oparah, an ethnic studies professor at Mills College in Oakland, addressed a question about Native Americans and Asians not always being included in discussions about racial disparity. She pointed out that, while African American men are the most represented demographic behind bars, Native American men are the most disproportionately represented.

As one of the ‘wokest’ areas of the country, it’s important for the East Bay to lead the nation in having frank conversations about race.

“There’s a lot of learning and a lot of unpacking to do,” she said.

The panel also discussed how climate change disproportionately affects communities of color, which Lee said is a big reason why congressional Democrats are pushing the Green New Deal.

“It addresses environmental racism as it relates to communities of color,” said Lee, who spent much of her childhood in El Paso, Texas, in a community where African Americans and Latinos suffered from the effects of a commercial smelter. “(People) died in their 30s and 40s.”

DeSaulnier said lopsided zoning laws have “real implications” for low-income people, who often share living space with industries causing health hazards. He pointed out the disparity within his own district, noting that residents of Alamo don’t deal with the same environmental impacts as those in Richmond. “Not listening to science is the definition if insanity, in my view,” he said.

The impact of social and mass media also disproportionately affects people of color, the panel said. “It’s a dangerous time for people out there,” said Lee said.

Powell said society hasn’t socially caught up to its technological advances. “Social media is not designed to cite facts,” Powell said. “It’s designed in to incite.”

At the same time, Oparah said technology gives students of color chances to create their own media. “I’m excited to see what people come up with next.”

The panel stressed, as one of the “wokest” areas of the country, it’s important for the East Bay to lead the nation in having frank conversations about race. Lee, who has sponsored legislation to appoint a commission to examine the issue of slavery reparations, said “these are tough times and tough conversations, but you’re here. Go home and have these conversations … this has got to keep going.”

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Tony Hicks is an East Bay native who spent 22 years working for Bay Area News Group, covering crime, education and the city of Berkeley. He also worked in the features department of the Contra Costa Times,...