White Man in West Oakland

So this is what I’m doing instead of studying for Con Law. I think my brain has had it’s fill of the Commerce Clause and fundamental rights for today.

Anyway, last night around midnight I was going to the bathroom. In my bathroom there is a window right near the toilet (because this house is terribly designed) and through that window I can look down on some of my street and the surrounding neighborhood. I was mid-stream when three loud pops went off from somewhere on the street below. It was two shots in quick succession and one shot after a half-second pause. I didn’t see where the shots were fired from, nor did I see who was firing or if anyone got hit. I got down quickly but no more rounds were fired after those first three.

Gun shots normally don’t bother me, but what does bother me is that gun shots ringing out at odd hours of the night has become a more frequent occurrence here in good old West Oakland, and in my neighborhood specifically. There were four shots fired around 5 am just a few days ago, and at least two shots fired a week or two before that. Someone was also robbed at knife point on my street about three weeks ago. What’s even more unnerving is that West Oakland, although an impoverished area, is not known for excessive violence. It’s mostly homeless drug addicts around here. They don’t get violent unless you come between them and their drugs; a situation that’s easy to avoid. 

I like to analyze the reasons for crime. I don’t know the specific reason why that specific person was shooting last night, but I always look to bigger cultural trends and statistics as at least part of the reason for crime in general. Now, West Oakland is the first place I have ever lived where white people are the minority. This has nothing to do with the gun shots last night (the shooter could have been any race because I didn’t see him/her), but I do want to convey the general sentiments on race around here. In the 1960s, the Black Panther’s opened their first official office on Peralta Blvd near my house. This area has been predominantly African-American since the 1940s, and the current statistics put black people as 64% of the population in West Oakland. Caucasians are second, followed closely by Asians and Latinos.

It’s different living in a place where you are no longer the majority. It’s not better, it’s not worse, just different. I have never had someone of a different race treat me differently since I’ve been here, nor has anyone given me any trouble over that fact. I’ve gotten a few interesting looks from black people I see while walking down the street, but no one can be bothered enough to express their negative sentiments towards my skin color if they actually have any. If anything I get the feeling they are more surprised to see me in the neighborhood than anything else. Strangely enough, the white people here are some of the friendliest white people I have ever met. They’ll make eye contact with me, share a smile, and even ask me how my day is going. White people in Reno, Vegas, and most other places I have lived in are much more standoffish and indifferent to me.

There is a resentment towards white people here, though. It’s not on the surface, and it’s rare that a black person here will ever talk to you about it, but it’s there. It’s below the surface. How do I know that? Well, for a few reasons. On Mandela Parkway and Grand Ave there is a graffiti piece that says, “rob whitey.” There was another one for awhile at the same intersection that said, “Kill condo yuppies.” There is also a rap song by a white dude from SF named Watsky called “Kill a Hipster”, which features a West Oakland rapper named Chinaka Hodge. In that song, she laments about the fact that white people are now more prevalent in West Oakland than they used to be, and she sees this as a bad thing. Song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jcwqs1fJ2vQ (the official video is a little weird, so thats just the audio)

It seems there is an underlying resentment towards white people here, but where does that resentment come from? My guess is that it primarily comes from gentrification. Many poor (and coincidentally black) residents of West Oakland were kicked out of their homes in the early 1990s when the governments of Oakland and California decided to re-invest in this neighborhood. Now, the government spending money to improve an area is a pretty good idea on paper, but there are a lot of negative consequences to the building of new apartments. Rent for the people already here went up a lot, and it was already high in the first place. Many of the neighborhood’s poorest could not afford to live in their houses/apartments due to the rise in property value. Many black-owned business closed, and warehouses were converted to artist’s studios. Also, many of the people who moved here (white people) wrongly looked down upon the people who were already here (black people) when they began moving here in larger numbers. Many of those black people had to relocate to government housing or just leave the area altogether. 

Now, neither party is in the right here. It’s wrong for some white people to look down on other races, and its wrong for some black people to feel resentment towards white people who move here. They should feel resentment towards politicians who made the decision to gentrify their neighborhoods, not the white people taking advantage of cheaper rent. I can understand why there would be resentment towards white people, but that doesn’t make the resentment any less wrong. 

Now, am I more likely to be a victim of crime due to my skin color? Maybe, but I don’t really know. If I was walking down the street with a black guy the same age and size as me, which of us is more likely to be robbed? I don’t know, but it could be me. What I do know is that white people are generally perceived to be “richer” in general, even though I personally am more in debt than most homeless people. That’s what I plan on telling anyone whoever tries to rob me, that they probably have more money than I do. Most of the impoverished around here do not have student loan debt. 

I just basically need to be careful going out in West Oakland at night time, and I should avoid it if possible. Am I guaranteed to get shot, robbed, or beaten up if I go out after sundown? No, but it would be foolhardy for me to believe that my race is not a potential problem for me here. I’m going to carry on being polite to everyone I see, showing respect to those who live here, and doing my best not to ruffle any proverbial feathers. That’s what I should be doing anyway, regardless of whether I live in West Oakland or Summerlin. Hopefully no one sees me as a target due to the color of my skin. 

“Can’t we all just get along?” – Rodney King