By discussing past, San Jose officials aim to temper racial bias in future
An aerial view of downtown San Jose. File photo.

With an eye toward building a more equitable San Jose, the City Council last week re-examined San Jose’s history and discussed racial inequities that have kept hundreds of immigrants — predominantly of Mexican descent — from keeping up economically with white residents.

A panel of three top experts on race and equity — Stephen Pitti, a Yale University professor, Leon Andrews, director of the educational group Race, Equity and Leadership for the National League of Cities and Julie Nelson, senior vice president of the new “racial justice” nonprofit  Race Forward — spoke at Friday’s meeting. They informed the councilmembers on San Jose’s history, the role that elected officials have had in creating equitable societies, and on the need to recognize racial prejudices.

“I think we’re all committed to listening and learning, asking questions as to why things are the way they are, and finding solutions to make things better for all members of our community,” San Jose City Manager Dave Sykes said, expressing the value of the panel’s presentation.

Pitti, a professor of history, American studies and ethnicity, race and migration, outlined how the city’s history has sometimes stoked disparities between whites and nonwhites. Despite being a city that looks toward the future, Pitti said it’s important for the city to understand its past.

“I think the past in this area is important and that we don’t do ourselves in our communities a disservice if we only look to the entrepreneurs, the forward thinkers the visionaries, and avoid thinking about the everyday people, and those whose lives have been shaped by a lack of equity or even the presence of discrimination,” Pitti said. “Issues of race have been actually central to San Jose’s identity and to the social and political dynamics that have shaped life in this valley over the last 200 years.”

Pitti said San Jose was founded on the displacement of previous landowners, mainly Mexicans, who were defrauded and denied rights. In the aftermath of the Mexican-American war, he said, San Jose was shaped by the Gold Rush and fueled by a desire to develop a farming industry that would privilege white Americans over native and Mexican people.

During the 19th century, Pitti said, Mexicans were “criminalized” and labeled “monsters.” Lynchings of Mexican immigrants were not uncommon.

“If we’re going to talk about the history of San Jose from these moments forward, we have to acknowledge that white supremacy was a key factor,” Pitti said.

For decades, Pitti said, unethical policies such as redlining, which prevented people of color from taking out loans to buy a house or business, ran rampant, dividing the city between “rich and white” and “poor and brown.”

“Over the vast majority of our country’s history, laws, policies, practices have been passed that have created racial inequities that are not just random,” added Nelson, who discussed the importance of local leaders developing a shared definition and analysis on racism and equity. “They were intentionally created so laws around who could vote, who could be a citizen, who could own property, who was property, whose land was who’s — all of those were laws that were passed century after century that created racial inequities.”

Andrews added that it’s important for local leaders to address bias, specifically discerning between implicit and explicit bias and how it influences racial stereotyping.

“(Anyone) who says, ‘I don’t see color’ when they talk about race, they’re lying,” Andrews said. “You see color just fine, it’s how you have associated color as we talked about its impact in your decision. To acknowledge that you don’t see color is only going to reinforce your bias.”

Many councilmembers discussed the study session’s importance, adding that the city needs to find more resources to address concerns about equity.

“This work should be properly resourced. If we can’t find the way to scrape up the money within our own budget, we need to find it,” Councilmember Maya Esparza said.

Earlier this year, the mayor’s budget was narrowly approved, even as some councilmembers, including Esparza, criticized it, claiming it didn’t go far enough to address the city’s racial and economic inequities.

The dissenting voters, Esparza, and Councilmembers Raul Peralez, Sergio Jimenez, Magdalena Carrasco and Sylvia Arenas — all of Latino descent — said the mayor’s budget didn’t go far enough to meet the needs of the city’s poorest and most underserved communities, despite the mayor’s idea of implementing an “equity screen” that could allocate funds to areas with the greatest economic needs. Instead, the councilmembers proposed the creation of a $500,000 equity fund, which would distribute money by need rather than equally across all districts.

“We have a historic underinvestment in our community. So equity, it’s not just about leveling the playing field, but it’s about making sure that my children are safe and that they have an opportunity to succeed in one of the wealthiest cities in the world,” Carrasco added during Friday’s study session.

While commenting on the need for more resources, Esparza expressed concern that she was not told the council members would have an opportunity to speak. She added that the city needs to move more quickly on finding money to address inequalities in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, like in District 7.

“We were told not to speak today,” Esparza said. “I don’t know if all 12 of us — or only if five of us were told that — but that makes me concerned. I was told as part of this briefing to not expect to not have any conversations, discussions, or questions.

“I think that we need a partner in this work because there is a hierarchy involved,” Esparza added. “I don’t want to slow down our work on equity.”

The City Council will hold another study session on equity early next year.

Contact Nadia Lopez at [email protected] or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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