White supremacy, the notion that lighter-skinned people are naturally superior and more suited to rule over people of color, can encompass both explicit racist ideology and the habitual, unconscious ways that white people tend to dominate social relations. White supremacy serves as a unifying principle behind the historical development of distinct forms of racism targeting Africans, Native Americans, Latinx and Asians/Pacific Islanders. It is not unique to Oakland or the US, but a feature of all European settler/colonialist societies. Overt racism is the tip of an iceberg of deeply held attitudes and institutional and cultural practices that tend to operate invisibly to those who benefit from them. The following quotes from prominent scholars of racism explain how white supremacy, also known as institutional or structural racism, is not marginal but central to the production of contemporary social relations.
“Whenever a number of persons within a society have enjoyed for a considerable period of time certain opportunities for getting wealth, for exercising power and authority, and for successfully claiming prestige and social deference, there is a strong tendency for these people to feel that these benefits are theirs ‘by right.’ The advantages come to be thought of as normal, proper, customary, as sanctioned by social consensus. Proposals to change the existing situation arouse reactions of ‘moral indignation.’ Elaborate doctrines are developed to show the inevitability and rightness of the existing scheme of things.”
—Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. Vintage, 1992 , p. 8.
“It’s not easy to eradicate racism that is so deeply entrenched in the structures of our society, and this is why it’s important to develop an analysis that goes beyond an understanding of individual acts of racism and this is why we need demands that go beyond the prosecution of the individual perpetrators.”
—Angela Davis. Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016, p 17.
“I contend that whites have developed powerful explanations—which have ultimately become justifications—for contemporary racial inequality that exculpate them from any responsibility for the status of people of color.”
—Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and Racial Inequality in Contemporary America. Rowman & Littlefield, 2010, p. 2.
“Although mainstream definitions of racism are typically some variation of individual “race prejudice,” which anyone of any race can have, Whiteness scholars define racism as encompassing economic, political, social, and cultural structures, actions, and beliefs that systematize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources and power between white people and people of color.”
—Robin DiAngelo. “White Fragility.” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 3/3 2011, p. 56.
White supremacy/institutional racism in Oakland today
The City of Oakland’s 2018 Equity Indicators Report concludes that “almost every indicator of well-being shows troubling disparities by race.” The Equity Indicators Report measures inequality across themes of Economy, Education, Public Health, Housing, Public Safety and Neighborhood and Civic Life. The city-wide score, averaging indicators from the six themes, was 33.5 out of a hundred. The report acknowledges the complexity of factors producing these disparate results but concludes that inequity is produced by structural rather than individual factors.
Oakland received a 1 out of 100, or lowest possible score, indicating the highest level of inequality possible, in these areas:
- Housing displacement and homelessness
- School suspensions
- Child health
- Adult felony arrests
- Police use of force
- Incarceration (prison and jail)
- Pedestrian safety
Historical development of white supremacy/institutional racism in Oakland
Oakland’s present racial disparities are shaped by historic and continuing forms of white supremacy, and contested by active resistance to racial oppression. Gentrification (or Black displacement) today follows a historical pattern of white supremacist displacement and containment.
Anti-Native American White Supremacy
There is no trace of the Chochenyo village that once flourished near the present-day intersection of Lakeshore and Trestle Glen Road. Most of the Lisjan/Ohlone peoples who have lived in the Bay Area for at least six-thousand years are denied recognition as Native America tribes by the Federal Government. The Lisjan/Ohlone people, whose settlements concentrated around today’s Lake Merritt and Temescal Creek, were forcibly relocated by Spanish colonizers in the 1820s to Mission San Jose where they were subjected to coercive labor, confined living spaces and cruel punishments. This may be regarded as Oakland's foundation act of colonial displacement, oppressive containment, and exploitation.
Anti-Asian White Supremacy
Oakland Chinatown is one of the oldest in North America. Initially settling in West Oakland shrimp camps and several Uptown sites, local racial exclusion laws and mob violence forced relocation five times, ending with an "exclusion zone" at the current site at 8th and Webster in the 1870s. From the 1880s, white supremacist laws made it difficult for Chinese people to own land or find work. Japanese immigrants arrived in the 1890s but Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps in 1942. Few returned; the Buddhist Church of Oakland is one of few remaining institutions of Oakland’s uprooted Japantown.
- In 1874-1875, Chinese laborers built the Temescal and Lake Chabot, contributing to the building of Oakland.
- Anti-Chinese riots of 1877 in which Oakland's third city hall was burned down (see Reed, p. 128).
- In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first US law to prevent the immigration of a specific racial group, was first tested in Oakland.
- In 1913, the Alien Land Law made it impossible for a Chinese person to own land.
- In 1942, the members of Oakland's Japanese American Community, one of the largest in the US, were forcibly relocated to internment camps.
- In 2020, there have been almost daily hate crimes against Asian and Pacific Islander people in Oakland during the COVID-19 pandemic, mostly verbal harassment but also shunning, coughing or spitting on, physical assault, workplace discrimination and being barred from businesses or transportation. These actions echo earlier racial panics about an imagined “yellow peril.” This form of white supremacy is sometimes called Orientalism, which portrays Asian and Pacific Islander people as permanently foreign and threatening (see Smith 2006).
Anti-Black White Supremacy
African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow south sought opportunities in Oakland only to be restricted to redlined districts where banks made no loans. Black communities thriving against the odds were destroyed by freeways, BART and Urban Renewal. The legacy of exclusion from home ownership and equal access directly feeds Black displacement and homelessness today. Homelessness in Oakland is a crisis. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of homeless individuals in the City of Oakland increased by 26 percent. 82% of Oakland’s unhoused residents are our neighbors from Oakland and 70% are African American. In 2018, The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing described conditions in Oakland as “systemic cruelty.”
The pervasive anti-blackness of US society has been manifest in Oakland through housing covenants, redlining, urban renewal, workplace discrimination, disproportionate policing and excessive use of force among other factors, outlined below. While people of African descent bear the brunt of anti-blackness, its effects, such as aggressive cuts to social services or anti-affirmative action, have a tendency to spill over to harm other people of color as well as poor and working class white people and women (see Taylor 2016).
Racially restrictive housing covenants
In the early 1900s, Oakland developers routinely attached racial covenants to the deeds of houses forbidding their sale to people of color. Advertisements for these houses read: "No Negroids and no Mongoloids." The racial covenants remained in force until federal law rendered them unenforceable in 1948.
- The white pillars at Broadway and Rockridge Boulevard guard entrance to the whites only neighborhood of Upper Rockridge. Forty-percent whiter than the Oakland average, Rockridge remains the whitest of Oakland's 138 neighborhoods.
- In 1917, the Lakeshore Homes Association was established near Lake Merritt, with the contractual prohibition to sell or rent to Black or Asian people, or permitting them to live there except as domestic servants. The broader Lakeshore neighborhood, corresponding to the 94610 postal code, remains Oakland's seventh whitest out of 138 neighborhoods.
- Between 1910 and 1917, the The Santa Fe Improvement Club enforced racial segregation in the Santa Fe neighborhood of Oakland.
Race-based zoning, explicit and implicit
While Oakland today is a diverse city, it remains highly segregated at the neighborhood level, a fact achieved and maintained by exclusionary zoning.
After explicitly race-based zoning and covenants became illegal, the effective exclusion of Black and Brown working class people was extended by zoning and other city policies that prevented the building of apartment buildings or low-income housing in suburban areas with the justification of preserving "neighborhood character" or "property values," the same arguments used in race-based zoning and racial covenants (see Taylor 2019). In the 1960s and 70s, Oakland adopted exclusionary zoning laws in many of the city's mostly-white neighborhoods, allowing only single-family homes on most streets to block construction of apartment buildings that might rent to low-income people of color.
The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo remarked, “What Republicans want to do with I.C.E. and border walls, wealthy progressive Democrats are doing with zoning and Nimbyism,” he wrote. “Preserving ‘local character,’ maintaining ‘local control,’ keeping housing scarce and inaccessible—the goals of both sides are really the same: to keep people out.”
Ku Klux Klan
The Ku Klux Klan, which sought white Protestant dominance and the exclusion of everyone else, had a massive presence in Oakland in the 1920s.
- In 1924, the KKK held a major rally inside the Oakland Auditorium at the base of Lake Merritt.
- In 1927, William Parker, a known KKK member was elected to the Oakland City Council.
1940s-50s Federal Housing Redlining Policy
The policy known as redlining blocked access for people of color to the wealth-building strategy of home ownership. Banks would not give loans to areas marked in red, indicating populations of people of color, whose very presence was believed to bring down property values. Lack of access to loans guaranteed that these parts of town became poorly-maintained, decreasing their value by design.
Anti-Latinx White Supremacy
A vibrant Latinx community formed in West Oakland as Mexicans fled the Mexican revolution (1910-1920), and were recruited to work at the Southern Pacific Railroad during WWII, joining Puerto Ricans and other Latinx peoples. Like West Oakland’s African American “Harlem of the West,” the Latinx community was also destroyed by Urban Renewal in the 1950s and 1960s and displaced to the Fruitvale and San Antonio neighborhoods where they experienced poor schools, bad housing, poverty, and police harassment.
Black and Latinx communities managed to thrive against the odds in West Oakland until they were cut off from downtown and cut into pieces by the creation of the Nimitz Freeway, Cypress Viaduct and the BART system. Community cohesion and economic viability was severely disrupted and forced many out of the area. This was the second great displacement in Oakland.
- From the 1850s through the 1870s, Chinese people in Oakland were relegated to the most dangerous or menial and low-paid work while facing everyday hostility. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred hiring Chinese laborers.
- During WWII, when African Americans left the Jim Crow south for better opportunities, the shipyards of Oakland and Richmond dashed those hopes by relegating Black workers to menial, arduous and low-paid positions.
- After WWII, segregation persisted in most of the East Bay economy. Downtown Oakland employers in retail, restaurants, and offices resisted fair hiring and "city services, including transportation, the police force, and the fire department hired few African American workers and segregated those they did" (Self 2003, 83). While a handful of unions supported fair hiring, many conspired with management to prevent Black hiring (Self 2003, 84).
- In spite of a 1960 executive order prohibiting discrimination on federally funded construction projects, when the new central post office was built in West Oakland on land cleared by displacing 300, mostly Black families, no Black plumbers, sheet metal workers, ironworkers, electricians or steamfitters were hired and not a single Black worker was hired to construct the massive BART system in 1967. The unions, all certified by the NLRB, did not admit Black members (Rothstein, 2016, 168).
After WWII, when white neighbors failed to prevent Black and Latinx people from moving into some of the areas they had colonized, they abandoned these neighborhoods for the hills and to the privileged enclave of Piedmont or to whites-only San Lorenzo (Rothstein 2017, 115) where they could better defend racial exclusivity. White flight reduced the tax base in the former areas, further contributing to disinvestment in schools and city services, neglect and decline. In these and other ways, white supremacy has operated to dispossess and confine people of color in Oakland to limited opportunities, over-policing , under-protection and other forms of unequal treatment.
The Oakland Police Department has a long history of racial harassment and excessive use of force. The department has been under federal oversight since 2003 as a result of systemic misconduct, particularly targeting African Americans. Following a two-year study, Stanford University researchers found "a significant pattern of racial disparities in who was stopped, in who was handcuffed, in who was searched, and in who was arrested."
Gentrification in Oakland is essentially Black displacement or the resegregation/whitening of formerly mixed-race neighborhoods. Gentrification is driven on one hand by rising housing and living costs that outpace working people’s incomes, and on the other, by the violent imposition of white, middle-class aesthetic norms. While fancier restaurants or cleaner streets might seem beneficial, or at least harmless, the white supremacy that comes as part of the package takes hostile forms such as white neighbors calling the police on Black or Brown people who do not pose a threat except to white middle-class aesthetics. Because police encounters carry a higher risk of excessive or even lethal force for Black and Brown people, the imposition of white middle-class aesthetics constitutes violent aggression.
Oakland Resistance to White Supremacy
Oakland also has a powerful history and ongoing culture of resistance to racial oppression. Here are links to a few examples of anti-racist organizations and cultural projects.
- 510 Day/#WeStillHere
- Anti Police-Terror Project
- Asian Pacific Environmental Network
- Black Panther Party
- Black Power Exhibit
- Black Cultural Movement Business District
- Critical Resistance
- Community Ready Corps
- Eastlake United for Justice
- Eastside Arts Alliance
- Filipino Advocates for Justice
- Intertribal Friendship House
- Malcolm X Jazz Festival
- March to Reclaim King's Radical Legacy
- Right to Exist Curbside Community
- Sogorea Te' Land Trust
- SURJ Showing Up for Racial Justice
- Urban Peace Movement
- Xicana Moratorium Day
Arroyo, Cuahutémoc. 'Jim Crow' Shipyards: Black labor and race relations in East Bay shipyards in WWII. Ferris State University Jim Crow Museum. n.d. https://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/links/misclink/shipyards.htm
Byrd, Brian F. and Shannon DeArmond. Visualizing Indigenous Persistence during Spanish Colonization of the San Francisco Bay Area. Far Western, n.d. https://farwestern.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapJournal/index.html?appid=7e23273533a8483697ae102ac9b9d114
City of Oakland. Racial History, 2018. https://www.oaklandca.gov/topics/oaklands-history-of-resistance-to-racism
City of Oakland. Equity Indicators Report, 2018. https://www.oaklandca.gov/documents/2018-oakland-equity-indicators-report
Cove, Megan. Gentrification in Oakland is on the rise. The Pioneer. June 27, 2019. http://thepioneeronline.com/39009/metro/gentrification-in-oakland-on-the-rise/
Egelko, Bob and Megan Cassidy. Federal judge criticizes Oakland for losing ground in court-ordered policing reforms. San Francisco Chronicle, August 22, 2019. https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/article/Federal-judge-blasts-Oakland-for-losing-ground-in-14369346.php
Levin, Sam. 'We're being pushed out' The displacement of Black Oakland. The Guardian. June 1, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jun/01/from-black-panthers-to-bbq-becky-the-displacement-of-black-oakland
Manjoo, Farhad. America’s Cities Are Unlivable. Blame Wealthy Liberals: The demise of a California housing measure shows how progressives abandon progressive values in their own backyards. New York Times. May 22, 2019.https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/22/opinion/california-housing-nimby.html
PBS News Hour. Study slams troubled Oakland police department for racial bias. June 15, 2016. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/study-slams-troubled-oakland-police-department-for-racial-bias
Ramírez, Margaret M. City as Borderland: Gentrification and the policing of Black and Latinx geographies in Oakland. Society and Space 0(0) 1-20, 2019. doi.org/10.1177/0263775819843924
Reed, Ishmael. Blues City: A Walk in Oakland. New York: Crown Publishers, 2003.
Rothstein, Richard. The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. New York: Liveright, 2016.
Self, Robert O. American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003.
Smith, Andrea . Heteropatriarchy and the three pillars of white supremacy: Rethinking women of color organizing. In Ed. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, Color of violence: The INCITE! anthology (pp. 66-73). Boston, MA: South End Press, 2006.
Statistics Atlas. Race and ethnicity in Oakland, California, n.d.. https://statisticalatlas.com/place/California/Oakland/Race-and-Ethnicity
Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta.From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016.
Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta. Race for profit. How banks and the real estate industry undermined Black homeownership. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.
Ture, Kwame (Stokely Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. Vintage, 1992 .