Local residents and activists gathered at the County Administrator’s Office on Wednesday night to hear a three-member panel talk about ways to eliminate racism in Santa Barbara.
The nonprofit National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ) organized the event with a contribution from the Fund for Santa Barbara. On the panel were Gwen Wright, director of the Racial Justice and Race Relations Program in the National League of Cities (NLC); Shirley Strong, executive director of Project Change, a counter-racism project funded by Levi Strauss & Co.; and Maggie Potapchuk, author of Steps Toward an Inclusive Community.
The panel took questions from the 100-person audience and discussed situations in which they had dealt with racism in other parts of the country. Strong said the racism of the new millennium is subtler than that of previous years.
“Racism has a new face in the 20th century,” she said. “The best way to end racism today is to look at the disparities in wealth, health, housing, education – all across the board.”
Potapchuk discussed the problem of white privilege.
“You have to know about the phenomenon of white privilege. As I am going through my daily business, I don’t even know the obstacles I avoid by being white,” she said. “I can go shopping without being followed because people suspect I’m a shoplifter. I can drive my car through any area and not have my presence questioned.”
The panel agreed the only way to solve the problem of racism is to create an overall vision for the future. Wright said that although Santa Barbara has many different individual organizations working separately, they would have a far greater impact if they were united under a common vision.
“You’ve got five fingers on a hand doing similar work, but in order to make it a powerful fist, you need collaboration,” she said.
Local business owner Keith Marshall spoke about his experiences with racism as a black resident of Santa Barbara.
“I’ve lived here for 27 years. When I go into a restaurant in Santa Barbara, they think I’m a visitor, that I’m a tourist,” he said. “They can’t believe that I live here. I’d like to see more groups like you come here.”
William Simms, a political activist and longtime Santa Barbara resident, challenged the board to recognize the racism in his community.
“For 60 years I’ve been told that there’s no racism in Santa Barbara. Did you recognize any racism in Santa Barbara as outsiders? Because we live with it 24/7,” he said. “You see three or four of us [blacks] here tonight, but we’re tired of coming to meetings, putting our hearts on the line, and getting told that Santa Barbara is heaven on earth and there’s no racism here.”