[Editor’s note: Though the terms ‘Black’ and ‘African American’ are sometimes considered interchangeable as racial identifiers, we are using Black, as it is more inclusive. While some people identify as African American, many don’t identify as American, or do not identify with where their ancestors came from. Black is capitalized to bring it in line with AP style that capitalizes nationalities, peoples, races, tribes, and most racial and ethnic identification terms.]
Brenda Griffin was seated at the back of a restaurant in downtown Santa Cruz when there were plenty of open tables near the front. Morgan Pedford often has her bag checked at a local movie theater, despite the fact that she is a regular whom the staff know by name. Laura Turner-Essel notices others looking at her son differently when he joins the other kids running around the playground.
For Black people in Santa Cruz, these microaggressions are part of everyday life. Nuances like seating and security can be irritating to anyone, but the difference is that many don’t inherently think their race has anything to do with it. They don’t have to. There is a name for this: white privilege.
“No matter what color you are,” says Santa Cruz resident Laura Turner-Essel, “white supremacy leads you to being afraid when you see a Black man walking, being irritated when you hear a Black woman’s voice, confused when you see a Black family doing well, or nervous when you see a Black child running wild in ways that society tells you only white children are allowed to do.”
It’s not the small acts themselves that are heinously unjust, it’s the disconcerting fact that if you are a person of color, racial bias extends into every aspect of your life. This is what it is like to be Black in Santa Cruz.
“I meet people who express that they don’t see racism in Santa Cruz,” says National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Santa Cruz County President Brenda Griffin. “But if you think about it, why would they see it? It’s not directed at them. What they need to do is to consciously think about what they are being told and not look at it as ‘there’s gotta be more to the story’ or ‘it’s an isolated incident.’ Racism exists everywhere, and Santa Cruz is no exception.”
It wasn’t until recently that greeting cards with Black figures started showing up in stores, and hair products for Black hair appeared on the shelves, Griffin says. It’s the little things, likely not considered by most, that accumulate and contribute to a lack of Black visibility in Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz is liberal, but that doesn’t mean it’s diverse—1.4 percent of Santa Cruz County identifies as Black, compared to 59 percent white and 32 percent Latino. Photographs and stories about Black people rarely appear in media and newspapers, so Black visibility is limited. Picture this: you are the single Black person in a 100-person pool. How loudly would you have to shout for your voice to be heard?
“As African Americans, we have to do this just about every day of our lives—educate people. We have to teach people to be conscious, and it’s exhausting,” Griffin says. “We shouldn’t have to do it. But on the other hand, if an opportunity presents itself, then take that opportunity to teach others. But it’s a double-edged sword.”
“It’s a strange and mind-boggling experience of being culturally isolated and socially marginal in a beautiful place that pretends to welcome everyone and everything. It’s crazy-making. It’s being highly visible, yet never really seen or heard.”- Laura Turner-Essel, Ph.D., UCSC CASFS Director of Residential & Community Life.
Allison Garcia says she was particularly moved by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement, and wanted to bring more Black visibility and voice to Santa Cruz in the wake of many incidents of violence and mistreatment against Black people. Though Garcia identifies as white, she says that after attending several NAACP meetings and becoming a member over a year ago, she decided to create a photo project on Black lives and what matters to Black people in Santa Cruz.
An avid local photographer, she drew inspiration for this project from Black photographers like Zun Lee’s project on Black fatherhood and UCSC professor Lewis Watts’ work on African-American cultural landscapes. Garcia’s project, titled “Black Lives in Santa Cruz: What Matters,” spotlights the experiences and perspectives of Black people in Santa Cruz.
“I asked some members from the NAACP ‘what do you think of the project? Can I even do this as a white person? Is that okay?’” she recalls. “The NAACP has been very supportive, though I do feel like I am on the outside looking in, and that’s part of why I am doing this.”
Last fall, she began interviewing and photographing Black-identifying Santa Cruz community members. She says that her intent was to be removed from the project, given that she doesn’t share the same experiences and cultural background, and have the participants’ images and stories be the focal point.
“I had some curiosity about the fact that she was white when she first approached me, because I wondered what her intention was since she is not a person of African descent,” says project participant Laura Turner-Essel. “It could have been potentially different if it was done by someone who shares the experience of being a Black person in Santa Cruz, but I found Allison to be open and willing to listen to what I had to say, and I trusted that she would do a good job of reflecting what we shared.”
Photos in Garcia’s project show families embracing their children, a homeless Liberian Civil War refugee resting on a redwood trunk, a high school football coach running drills, and a chef smiling behind the scenes. These are the faces of the Black Santa Cruz community and what they care about most.
The 10 participants in the project vary in age, income, gender and sexual identity. They were asked what it’s like to be Black in Santa Cruz and what the Black Lives Matter movement means to them. But Garcia discovered that a white woman asking ‘what is it like to be Black in Santa Cruz?’ was at times problematic in itself.
“Although I’m sure you are trying to do a positive thing … this is also part of the problem,” one of the participants, Anita Marie, wrote Garcia in an email. “We are Black, yes … but we are people trying to survive this fucked up world like everyone else. We just have to try harder. One, to succeed and two, to educate those who are too lazy to inform themselves about other cultures.”
Marie still participated in the project, though she expressed her frustration with Santa Cruz and its liberal guise.
“It is impossible for us to simply assimilate,” she wrote. “Our skin is too dark and our upbringing is too proud, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“America has simply not lived up to its promises in regards to the rights of Black and brown people. Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us of that fact in 1963 and here we are 54 years later struggling with the same issues of race, class, education, health care and war.” -Gary Cocroft, former lifeguard and firefighter, surfboard shaper
The Santa Cruz branch of the NAACP, born from inequality in the housing market (specifically housing rentals), has been around for nearly 70 years. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which falls on Jan. 15 this year, is one of the largest annual events for the NAACP. This year, the organization partnered with the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) in a co-sponsored Martin Luther King Jr. Day March on Monday, Jan 15. While the NAACP has hosted marches before, this co-sponsorship is a first.
“My heart is still heavy from all of these police-involved shootings that have happened. We are all outraged and angry, but those shootings and those types of incidents are exactly why we should be at the table with the SCPD,” NAACP says Griffin. “That’s why we should be trying to develop a community police relationship.”
Just two months ago, SCPD hired Officer Henry Muse, the only Black officer in SCPD since 2013. SCPD Chief Andrew Mills says he hopes to have more diverse recruitment in the future.
“We need to look at what we are doing that eliminates people of color. Our hiring practices are implicitly biased, and eliminating good, capable candidates,” Mills says. “For example, we have a requirement of good credit, and when you are a person who has operated on cash, or grew up in a poor home, that’s not always possible, and may very well be eliminating good candidates.”
Along with the march, the NAACP and the Resource Center for Nonviolence will also host an annual youth day on Jan. 13, featuring live music, food and tabling from local youth activist groups. Also on Jan. 13, Gospel Night will celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, his love of gospel music, and its role in the civil rights movement. Gospel night will feature Tammi Brown, Inner Light Gospel Choir, Monterey Peninsula Community Gospel Choir, Progressive Missionary Baptist Church Men’s Choir and more. Both events will be held at the Resource Center for Nonviolence.
“It’s easy to be liberal. They never really have to define a side. They can just play in the middle and take the drugs [but with] stuff that’s going on right now, they need to take a hard stance because it’s getting bad.” -Morgan Pedford, professional chef
“My challenge to you is to educate yourself. Be mindful and interact with more people of color.” -Anita Marie, professional hair stylist and Morgan Pedford’s sister
The Black community in Santa Cruz is not invisible, says Griffin, but it can sometimes feel that way. Visibility is difficult when there is a lack of representation and inclusion everywhere from the media to data studies, she says.
For example, the recent Santa Cruz County Community Assessment Project’s (CAP) final comprehensive report outlines the Education, Health and Health Care and Economic Stability of Santa Cruz County in 2017. Though the study does list white and Latino representation, there is little to no mention of Black or African-American people in Santa Cruz anywhere, except under demographic breakdowns, incarceration and crime, and violence.
“Do we not have health needs, too?” Griffin says. “Why are we not represented anywhere but crime and violence areas?”
Susan Brutschy, president and co-founder of Applied Survey Research programs, which conducts the CAP report, says that though the report aims to cover and represent data from various backgrounds, overrepresentation from certain backgrounds leads to a lack of representation of already underrepresented groups.
“That should not be the story of African Americans, it shouldn’t be a story of incarceration,” Brutschy says. “We absolutely would consider bumping it up and oversampling certain population groups, and we have done so in the past. For example, we have looked at the South County before and looked at under- and over-representation of the Latino community. We were able to over-sample certain population groups so that we could talk to and represent them.”
Griffin says the lack of representation in these types of studies is likely what leads to a lack of resources and conversation around Black people, and it likewise perpetuates stereotypes of Black communities.
“As African Americans we cannot be racist, to be racist you have to have power over someone else, and we don’t have that power. What everyone does have is racial biases, and the first step to dismantling those biases is inner reflection,” Griffin says. “Beyond that, there are several ways that people can educate themselves about this very complex issue.”
Showing up for Racial Justice and Santa Cruz County Community Coalition to Overcome Racism are two organizations that aim to create more dialogue around racial justice issues, dismantle racial biases and address white privilege.
Maybe the flatline in the Black population in Santa Cruz is due to disinterest in relocating to a place without any ties to Black culture. Or maybe, it’s because the cost of living is twice as high as the national average.
“Racism exists here, whether you believe it or not,” says Griffin. “But now that we have this knowledge, what are we going to do? What are we going to do together to resist these unjust laws and policies coming out of Washington, and how are we going to do this together?”
The NAACP meets on the first Monday of each month at 7:30 p.m. Progressive Missionary Baptist Church Hall, 517 Center St., Santa Cruz. For more information on the Santa Cruz branch of the NAACP, visit naacpsantacruz.com.
‘Black Lives in Santa Cruz: What Matters’ runs Jan. 13-Feb. 26 with a First Friday reception Feb. 2 from 5-9 p.m. Resource Center for Nonviolence. 612 Ocean St., Santa Cruz. allisongarciaphotography.com. Free.