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A Brief Racial History of Oakland
Social inequities in life outcomes that are predictable by race are the inevitable result of our nation's history. Oakland is today one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the country (1), but before the arrival of European explorers, it was the home of one group, the Ohlone, one of the many indigenous tribes who populated the territory that became California. In the late 1700s, California was home to more than 300,000 native people in more than 200 tribes, but by 1848, disease spread by contact with outsiders had reduced California's native population by more than two-thirds.
This catastrophic decline disrupted families, communities, and trading networks, weakening native resistance to Spanish, Mexican, and American intrusion. By 1860, the state's native population had been reduced to 30,000, decimated by disease, removal from their land, starvation, poverty, bounty hunters, and other historical mistreatment. Just 40 years later, in 1900, this population had plummeted to 20,000. Ultimately the fate of local tribes mirrored that of indigenous groups across the country, leading to the commonly unnamed disparity of underrepresentation in the general population, when at one time they were the majority population (2).
In more recent history, Oakland is the place where laws like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (the first law to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the United States) was first tested (3) and where in 1927 William Parker (a known KKK member) was elected to City Council (4).
In Oakland, as in cities across the nation, people of color were impacted by the 1940/50s federal housing redlining policy excluded communities of color from the wealth building opportunity of homeownership. Their neighborhoods were abandoned to urban decay after White flight to the suburbs. Highway 17 (now I-880 or Nimitz Freeway) was built through the heart of the African American community, disrupting community cohesion, and economic viability by cutting it off from Downtown. Many homes and businesses were destroyed to build the Cypress Viaduct and the rest of the Nimitz Freeway. Further urban renewal caused the destruction of the area around Market and 7th streets to make way for the Acorn High Rise apartments. This urban renewal thrust in West Oakland continued into the 1960s with the construction of BART and the Main Post Office Building at 1675 7th Street. Many African American and Latino families were displaced from West Oakland during this period. African Americans relocated to East Oakland, especially the Elmhurst district and surrounding areas; Latinos moved into the Fruitvale neighborhood.
The people of Oakland pushed back. Oakland was at the center of the general strike during the first week of December 1946, one of six cities across the country that experienced such a strike after World War II and marked the beginning of the labor movement. In the 1960s, when massive demonstrations and civil unrest resulted in the Civil Rights Acts (which made it a federal crime to discriminate against someone based on their race, color, sex, religion, or national origin in employment and housing), Oakland was again at the center of change. Community groups born in the 1960s like the Black Panther Party, Oakland Community Organizations (PICO/OCO), Unity Council, Intertribal Friendship House and many others continued to organize and demand protections and equal access to jobs, housing, employment, transportation and services (5). These laws and policies helped people to address injustice at an individual level, but it was soon realized that more needed to be done to address the deep inequities created by years of blatantly discriminatory policies and practices and to change the systems that created oppression (5).
In the 1980s and 1990s, community organizations started new efforts to influence and encourage local governments to explore how to undo the legacy of
institutionalized racism. In Oakland, PolicyLink, the Green Lining Institute and the Center for Racial Justice Innovation (Race Forward) amongst others led
these efforts. By the early 2000s racial equity initiatives and tools began to be used by local government staff and elected government officials to figure out how to change the inequities in outcomes impacting communities of color in multiple cities across the country. In 2016 the City of Oakland launched its own Department of Race and Equity to advance equity change action in the City government here. A growing number of institutions are realizing the need to measure and account for their progress towards equity and to embrace their responsibility to ensure that their programs serve all populations. Using disparity data to evaluate the impact of activities, set equity outcome goals and do racial equity impact analyses is critical to advancing equitable outcomes for communities of color (6).
Although we cannot change the past, we can learn from it to change the future. By focusing on the impacts of race, implementing intentional strategies to address disparities and measuring our progress we can eliminate rather than deepen disparities in our communities (6). If Oakland’s history of struggle to achieve equity teaches us anything, it is that we cannot do this in isolation. We understand the need to work side by side with the community and partner institutions to undo the legacy of racism to create an Oakland where there is equity in opportunity that results in equitable outcomes for all.
1 Bernanrdo,Richie. (2018.1.13) Most and Least Racial and Ethnically Diverse Cities in the U.S. https://wallethub.com/edu/cities-with-the-most-and-least-ethno-racial-and-linguistic-diversity/10264/. Oakland is the second most diverse City in the U.S.
2 University of California. (2009) Native Americans: Arts and Traditions in Everyday Life. (2009) California Cultures project
3 Zhang, Sheldon (2007). Smuggling and trafficking in human beings: all roads lead to America. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 69. ISBN 978-0-275-98951-4.
4 Deniels, Roger and Olin, C. Spencer Jr, Editors. Racism in California: A Reader in the History of Oppression. (1972) The Macmillan Company.
5 Zinn, Howard (2003). A Peoples History of the United States. Haper-Collins. P. 126-210. ISBN-0-06052842-7