African Americans in Oakland: “We have power to make a difference”
Panel moderator and Oakland City Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney (l) with U.S.. Rep. Barbara Lee | Marilyn Bechtel/PW

OAKLAND, Calif. – Black elected officials, community and nonprofit leaders, educators, and community members came together here earlier this month in the fourth annual African American Organizations Making Connections conference. The Oct. 7 event, held at Laney College, and organized by Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, drew hundreds of participants from Oakland and surrounding communities – most but not all from the African American community.

The theme was The State of Black America 2017, and discussion focused on the work that is still needed, 50 years after the 1960s Civil Rights movement, to overcome yawning financial, educational and social gaps between the situation of black Americans and U.S. society as a whole.

Carson set the stage for the day-long discussion by noting statistics, then and now, for unemployment (twice as many blacks were, and still are, unemployed compared with the national median). He noted that comparable gaps, and in some cases worsening trends, are clear in statistics for arrest and incarceration rates, home ownership and education.

“The purpose for us at Making Connections is that we are going to have to do for ourselves,” Carson told the audience. “And we are hoping that with today’s exercise, and your ongoing participation, we will continue to go in the same direction, more united as African Americans, able to show accomplishments, outcomes and betterment for our peoples.”

An opening panel brought together U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, who represents Oakland and nearby East Bay communities; Los Angeles Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas; San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen and Don Cravins, Jr., Senior Vice President, National Urban League.

Discussion focused on the importance of addressing issues locally, nationally and internationally.

“We need to look at why we have not at least achieved parity,” Lee said. “I suggest to you that a large portion of this is institutional and systemic racism. We have not addressed racial discrimination and segregation and the vestiges of slavery in a big way. We’ve tinkered around the edges. We’ve got to get back to what reparations really means, in terms of moving forward.”

Lee noted that the median income for white households in the San Francisco Bay area is $106,000, while the median for African Americans is $46,571. In the last 20 years, she said, the black population in her district has dropped from 34 percent to 19 percent “and going down.” When she assessed what was happening in her district and around the country, she found “very comparable” rates of poverty and child poverty, unemployment and income inequality.

She emphasized the importance of working together with people of African descent from around the world, and the necessity of involving young people in every aspect of the work.

Cohen, who represents a once-predominantly African American San Francisco district now undergoing gentrification, where the black population has dropped below 5 percent, emphasized making positive change at the local level.

Among the issues she raised: The Board of Supervisors’ recent decisions to place locals who have been displaced from their housing at the top of the list for affordable housing and to make tuition at San Francisco College free. The ongoing process of reforming police use of force, the need to readjust unfair fines and fees in the criminal justice system, and the importance of registering 16-year-olds so they are already prepared to vote when they reach 18.

For Ridley-Thomas, making positive change at the local level meant addressing Los Angeles’ soaring homeless population, with African Americans disproportionately affected. He cited the success of a broad coalition in winning passage of a ballot measure to fund a $3.5 billion, decade-long program to address homelessness in a comprehensive way.

Cravins said the National Urban League is advocating a Main Street Marshall Plan focusing on jobs, education, health and justice, and is encouraging the Congressional Black Caucus – in which Lee is a longtime leader – to introduce it as a legislative package. “One component in our fight has to be legislative,” he said. “It won’t fix everything, but the Urban League is committed to being part of that fix.”

A series of five workshops gave participants the opportunity for small group discussions on community justice, community development, economic security, education, and health and wellness. Discussion ranged from steps the black community can take to advance issues such as community development and financial security, to advocating reforms in the criminal justice system, and working for the broad transformation of society as essential to overcome the yawning gaps that continue to be felt in each of the specific areas. The importance of voting was repeatedly emphasized.

“Every panelist today has said the most important thing we’ve got to do is show up, as hard as that might be,” Carson told the audience as the conference concluded. “We have the power to make a difference. We have to use that power every day.


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes for People’s World from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986 and currently participates as a volunteer. Marilyn Bechtel escribe para People's World desde el Área de la Bahía de San Francisco. Se unió al personal de PW en 1986 y actualmente participa como voluntaria.