Racial Segregation Still Exists
Just like the rest of the country, the Bay Area was redlined and we are still feeling its effects.
By Phillip | 9/30/20
I admit with embarrassment that I live in the tiny, overwhelmingly white, wealthy town of Piedmont, CA, which nestles inside of Oakland. Piedmont is a wonderful community to those that it has let in, including me; however, the issue is who it has kept out. Near the start of the George Floyd protests, I went to a Piedmont protest trying to feel good about myself, but that’s not how it worked out.
In the Bay Area, supporting Black Lives Matter is the easy thing to do. If you don’t, you are labeled a racist. At first, I was thrilled to see so many white people at the protest, but I soon realized that we were not doing enough to support Black Lives Matter by just going to one protest. I felt like I had participated in a collective pat-on-the-back parade. We didn’t cause any disruption, and we dutifully traveled the specially marked police route that took us out of sight from most of the town.
Piedmont was created during the early 1900s and was known as the “City of Millionaires.” Today, 74.8% of residents are white and only 1.9% are black, while in Oakland, 36.1% are white and 23.6% are black. The median household income is $210,889 and the average house costs $1,844,000 to buy. The city of Piedmont is a segregated, “safe” white-space: a little bubble to keep diverse Oakland out.
Piedmont has a history of racism. A hundred years ago, Sidney Dearing, a wealthy Black Piedmont homeowner, was driven out of the town by 500 white residents who planted bombs on his property. In 2017, the mayor, Jeff Wieler, resigned because of his comments on Facebook that “Black Lives Matter encourages cop killing.” There were also reports of Piedmont High School students doing “Heil Hitler” salutes and other acts of antisemitism.
The low Black population in Piedmont has several causes. Historically, banks would not finance Black families from buying houses in certain neighborhoods — a process known as red-lining. After Piedmont was effectively segregated, Blacks may have felt uncomfortable moving into the overwhelmingly white town — they would stick out to the police, their neighbors, and classmates — and the wealthy whites already there would have been hostile to their arrival. Using percentages from the census population statistics, there are only approximately four black students in each grade of around 200 at Piedmont High School. Many demographic studies show that wealthy Blacks across the country choose to live in more low-income, Black neighborhoods rather than wealthier, less diverse ones, as they fear the racism that would come from a nearly all-white community.
One of the selling points of Piedmont is the public school system. After white citizens and the government segregated the Bay Area, they immediately set about perpetuating inequality through the well-funded school system. The Oakland Unified School District is only able to spend $12,721 per pupil, while Piedmont spends $17,725. Piedmont’s citizens use the huge disparity in annual household income to further increase the disparity in educational funding through additional parcel taxes and donations.
The reason why meritocracy (as we currently imagine it) might not create equal opportunity among citizens is that the rich invest heavily in their children’s education. Better education is better (surprise!) for one’s economic prospects, which perpetuates wealth inequality. Although the first generation may have “earned” their wealth, each subsequent generation benefits from high-quality education, which gives them an unearned advantage. Part of the American dream is to give one’s children a better life than one’s own, and the rich can give their children a much more monetarily successful life than anyone else. Only 64.9% of Oakland students graduate from high school, while over 95% of Piedmont students graduate, with many going on to highly selective colleges.
One of the other selling points of Piedmont is the police. They are widely advertised as arriving within five minutes no matter what: indeed, with Piedmont’s high number of police and small area, officers can drive from the station in the downtown area to anywhere in the city quickly. However, the police are rarely needed, and I feel extraordinarily safe in Piedmont. By some measures, Piedmont is ⅕ as dangerous as Oakland. A central argument of the current movement to defund the police is that rich neighborhoods already have low numbers of police engagements and crime, and it is only poorer neighborhoods that have been heavily policed. The rich neighborhoods don’t need policing, because they have access to opportunities and social services that decrease crime.
The police chief received cheers at the event when he said that the Piedmont Police Department would stop the use of the “garrote” hold and start conducting independent investigations into misconduct. The effort was nice yet inadequate, and I found my hands being forced together into applause by my rogue brain succumbing to peer pressure.
I believe that the protesters were missing a crucial legacy of racism affecting the literal ground we were standing on: a century of racial segregation which allowed white and Asian families in, yet kept Black families out. If we want to be anti-racist, we must dismantle some of the systems that make our town so segregated and privileged.
Red-lining and segregation do not only exist in Piedmont but across the country. To solve it, we need to try imaginative and bold solutions. We could change the college process to give more merit to students who attended schools with more low-income students; this would incentivize primary school integration in both public and private schools. Or perhaps we should give grants to people seeking to buy a new house and integrating the neighborhood. Of course, all of these reforms would have to be wary of gentrification that would displace the local people.
A good, relatively simple first step is recognizing our hypocrisy in decrying racism when it exists in our backyard. I know that many Piedmonters are enthusiastic about making positive change, so we should consider all types of reforms including abolishing Piedmont. That may sound radical and will result in each family losing thousands of dollars from their houses’ value. However, getting rid of our privilege will always mean giving something up: whether a sense of status, comfort, or material wealth. Now it is time to back up the lofty talk: Black Americans have had enough of surveys, inspiring emails, corporate black squares on social media, and fifty dollar donations.