16 May 2008

Berkeley In Black And White

Apparently they're having a heat wave now, but during the three and a half days I spent in California recently, it was downright cold most of the time. It finally warmed up on Monday, though, enabling me to take a leisurely walk through South Berkeley, Telegraph, and downtown, all of which looked rather tranquil in the morning sun. I might have been less sanguine about my wanderings in light of this or this or this or this, but I figured most criminals couldn't be bothered to get up that early in the morning.

It's obvious that Berkeley is suffering from the same surge in violent street crime that San Francisco, Oakland and Richmond are, though it must be said that at least Berkeley cops have been known to arrest their murderers and robbers, unlike Oakland and Frisco, where the authorities seem to have instituted a catch-and-release program. Street robberies are very common, especially the sort where a carload of thugs rolls up on you as you're blithely strolling down what looks like a quiet and peaceful suburban street. Aaron Cometbus and I witnessed one of these a few years ago when we were walking near my old house just west of downtown Berkeley, but apparently they've become much more prevalent lately.

What's equally obvious, though largely unmentionable in Berkeley's highly charged PC climate, is that the overwhelming majority of street crime is the work of African-American offenders. There was a glaring exception the other week in the case of what has been dubbed the "Fraternity Row Murder," in which both victim and assailant were white (though it's hard in this case to ascertain who exactly was the victim, since both parties, the murdered frat boy and the West Berkeley arrestee who stabbed him seem to have been acting like or at least posing as ghetto thugs), but it's the proverbial exception proving the rule.

In theory, this shouldn't be happening, not in what is arguably the most liberal and "progressive" city in the USA. Berkeley was always ahead of the curve when it came to integrating its schools, using busing programs when demographics wouldn't cooperate, instituting affirmative action programs at all levels of government and education, naming schools after people like Malcom X, abolishing Columbus Day in favor of "Indigenous People's Day, and in general focusing with laser-like intensity on the eradication of racism and injustice.

Granted, there are limits to what one small city, particularly one run by hippies still befogged from the drugs and politics of the 60s, can accomplish in addressing such systemic and society-wide challenges. But you'd think that by now they would have managed something. If they have, however, it's hard to say what; Berkeley's ghettos on the South and West sides are if anything far meaner, and poverty and crime far more entrenched than they were nearly 40 years ago when I lived on a nearly all-black block west of San Pablo.

It was definitely poorer, and no doubt a bit rougher than the rest of Berkeley (which at that time was a very safe city overall), but I never had any hesitation about walking the streets,even late at night, something I wouldn't recommend in most parts of Berkeley nowadays. The whole time I lived there I heard one gunshot, which turned out to have been fired by a night watchman who'd surprised a burglar; friends who've lived in West Berkeley more recently tell me it's not unusual to hear gunfire on a near-daily basis.

Are race relations worse in Berkeley than elsewhere in America? Probably not, but nor are they any better, which is the disappointing part. Berkeley has certainly been far from flawless in both its vision and the execution thereof (see the aforementioned drug-befogged hippies), but I don't think anyone could deny that its intentions were good. I don't know of another city that applied itself so assiduously to the cause of redressing racial injustice, and yet 40, even 50 years on, you've got a two-tier educational system that puts whites and Asians into the nation's best universities and funnels blacks and Hispanics straight into the maw of Santa Rita and San Quentin. I'm not sure I know what the answer is, but it should be pretty obvious by now that the people in charge don't have much of a clue either.

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