Tracy’s conversation about racism went live on Tuesday evening in a 1½-hour online town hall meeting where seven community leaders, all people of color, gathered to talk about what racism is and where it exists.

The forum was hosted by the city of Tracy, with Eric and Lynda Hawkins of WorkVine209 moderating the forum. It included a chance for people to ask questions of the panel, and for panelists to share opinions, tell stories of how they’ve seen or experienced racism, and explain the effects of racism in light of demonstrations that are taking place across the U.S.

Manual Zapata, a community organizer who set up a local protest in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25, said that some of the reactions to the event — which was a large but peaceful demonstration with mostly young people at 11th Street and Corral Hollow Road, followed by a march a few days later — revealed an undercurrent of racism in town.

“It does kind of crawl out in certain ways, like the fact that certain businesses tried to board up to protect themselves from the ‘looters’ and the ‘rioters,’” he said. “The perception of the activism here, especially with the youth, does come off as a little racist.”

Shaelyn Hawkins, a 2018 Tracy High graduate and a student at UCLA, echoed that sentiment.

“The news will only display the rioting, the looting. They’ll display the bad side or more violent side of this revolution that we’re having,” she said. “That in itself is instilling fear into these companies, but really what we’re promoting is peace. What we’re fighting for is our basic rights.”

Rob Pecot, Tracy Unified School District’s director of student services, said racism exists in schools in small ways, such as stereotypes, assumptions and generalizations about students, and big ways, such as the recent vandalism at Poet-Christian School, including spray painting of anti-Semitic messages.

“There is example after example and proof that racism exists, and there are degrees of racism like I said, and I think all of those are present,” Pecot said.

He also addressed zero-tolerance policies, in response to an audience question suggesting that such policies reveal racism in schools.

“I think that zero-tolerance policies are a problem because everyone does not come from the same point,” he said. “There are different maturity levels to students. There are different parenting backgrounds.

“You’ve got to treat everyone like they’re different. ‘Equal’ doesn’t always mean ‘the same.’”

Yolande Knight, president of the Tracy African American Association, added that schools are often where children first experience racial bias. She cited discipline in the classroom as an example of unequal treatment.

“A couple of the boys are acting up really bad and they happen to be the Black and brown kids, and the other kids are white and they’re acting up pretty bad, but what the teacher does, the teacher takes the Black and brown child and makes them leave the room even though they were all doing the same thing, so there was no equity in that punishment.

“What’s not being offered is fairness, being treated just like everyone else. Over time, that wears on a child.”

Police Chief Sekou Millington was on hand to talk about the law enforcement perspective. He responded to calls that police departments be defunded, stating that the real need is to reimagine modern policing to determine when someone with a badge and a gun is needed, versus when mental health professionals, code enforcement or other types of interventions are needed.

“These are all things when we talk about defunding police, it’s about reallocation of funds to address a lot of societal issues that we’re having where the police are not necessarily needed, but the city needs to be able have programs in place,” Millington said.

“It’s about really tailoring the response to the need, and not necessarily having police go to a situation where they’re not needed.”

Millington added later that modern training of police officers will focus on the ethical treatment of people who officers will come into contact with, and an awareness of implicit biases in how they approach people.

“We have started here at the Tracy Police Department to address sometimes the unconscious bias that we have, and just because it’s not blatant or overt doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist,” he said.

When the discussion turned to inequality in society, the Rev. Kevin James of New Creation Bible Fellowship, who is president of the California African American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that modern society still doesn’t offer fair treatment for all.

“It’s been demonstrated in the African American context, if you have rules and the rules apply to everybody and it’s the same for everybody, we function well when we have a level playing field, but when it’s not equal, then that’s where you see the racial challenges.”

He likened the experience of African Americans to that of participants in a long distance race, where those who are considered to be the top competitors start at the front and everyone else is in the pack well behind the starting line.

“It’s really not an equal race, and I think that’s how society has been for African Americans for over 400 years,” James said. “We’re in the pack and the whites have been placed out in front because of their opportunities, so we don’t have a chance because we’ve got to shove and push, because we’re not all starting from the same place.”

Robert Bivens, president of the Stockton NAACP, continued on that theme, calling it the unequal-opportunity race, with opportunities for housing and education as the trophies.

“When the Black folk take off, there’s a hole and they fall in the hole, they get up out of the hole and then they go, there’s a wall, then they go, there’s a fence, and then they go, there’s jail, and then they go coming out of jail and then there’s another brick wall that they have to go through,” he said. “The task we have as the NAACP is to take those barriers out of the way for Black people first and other people of color, because anytime Black people benefit, everybody else comes on board.”

Bivens added later that these kinds of conversations are uncomfortable, but they need to happen, especially because race and ethnicity often come up as underlying issues when he interacts with public officials.

“They are making decisions, so we have to interact and they have to respect and understand us so that we are all working together for the betterment of the community,” he said. “White people don’t know everything. Black people don’t know everything. Latinos don’t know everything. But if we come together and share our database and our knowledge, then we can progress, but if we stay separated and afraid of each other, that won’t happen.”

Contact Bob Brownne at brownne@tracypress.com or call 830-4227.

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