The history of Black and brown communities in Palo Alto is blighted by discrimination, exclusion, unfair policing and everyday indignities that collectively make residents of color feel like they don't belong, a newly released report from the city's Human Relations Commission concludes.
Titled "Black and Brown Palo Alto: History and current experience," the report relied on both historical accounts and recent testimony from dozens of current and recent residents, many of whom spoke out about their experiences in Palo Alto in forums, rallies and commission discussions. The City Council commissioned it in May as part of a broad effort to address racial inequality in the aftermath of George Floyd's killing by a police officer in Minnesota.
For Raven Malone, who ran for City Council last year, these stories literally hit close to home. Last year, her campaign lawn sign was covered with a "White Lives Matter" sign, she told the council. She recalled being questioned at a council forum about her ability to "comprehend Palo Alto" and said people often assumed she was talking about East Palo Alto rather than her home city.
"When Black and brown people speak out about feeling unwelcome, we're told that we can leave," Malone told the council Tuesday. "We as Palo Altans have to stop trying to pretend like racism doesn't exist here or silencing Black and brown people when we speak out about it."
The Rev. Kaloma Smith, chair of the Human Relations Commission, presented the report to the council on Tuesday and outlined the commission's next planned steps to address the council's priority of addressing racial inequality. The main component of this work is a series of "community circles" — groups of about 10 people that would meet for conversations about race and belonging. The commission has a goal of meeting with 100 community leaders, who would then help facilitate 100 such circles in the next 24 months.
Smith, who serves as pastor at the University AME Zion Church, recited a litany of stories about residents of color getting treated with hostility by police officers, eyed suspiciously at Stanford Shopping Center and disrespected by strangers on the street. Smith said commissioners went far and wide to seek out stories for the reports. They were "shocked where the data led us," he said.
The report highlights four themes that stood out in people's comments: the persistence of discrimination over a long period of time; the consistency of aggressions, including daily microaggressions; a shortage of positive role models in their hometown; and denial of housing to Black and brown families.
"What we clearly have here and what another 20 pages of notes and people's lived experiences in our city (tell us) is we have a city where people of color don't feel like they belong, no matter their economic position, no matter their position in corporate spaces or academic spaces," Smith said.
Smith acknowledged the inherently limited role that city government has when it comes to influencing behavior around race. One question that he and the commission wrestled with as they put the report together was: How does policy modify behavior?
"What seemed to be interesting to me is, if we had a perfect police department and we have perfect housing — would that make it a perfect community for Black and brown folks? Would they still not feel all the microaggressions and the challenges in the culture in our city?" Smith asked.
Mayor Tom DuBois agreed with Smith that progress on racial justice will require difficult conversations and strongly supported the proposal for community circles, which he said he would gladly sign up for.
"We're talking about changing hearts," DuBois said. "It's not about laws at this point. It's not about trying to regulate."
Council member Lydia Kou called the report "sobering" and said she would like to see more education in Palo Alto about the city's history of race relations. This includes a greater awareness of significant figures like Roy Clay, who in 1970 became Palo Alto's first Black council member.
The commission's report includes a timeline of milestones, events and injustices involving Black and brown residents: from Pop Harris opening a shoeshine stand near the Stanford University campus trolley in 1892 and the Ku Klux Klan parading through Palo Alto streets and burning crosses in 1924, to Joseph Eichler applying an anti-discrimination policy to his residential communities in 1949 and the recent spate of hate crimes, including vandalism at Smith's church.
The report was part of a broad menu of actions the council approved last year in response to local and national protests against racial inequity and police brutality. Since then, the council and the Police Department revised the department's policy manual to ban all holds that restrict air flow and to include more information about de-escalation techniques, consistent with the 8 Can't Wait campaign. Council members are also considering broadening the scope of the city's independent police auditor, allowing the auditing firm OIR Group to investigate a broader range of police incidents that involve force.
Some council members suggested Tuesday that the city should go further. Vice Mayor Pat Burt cited the city's legacy of "redlining" — racial discrimination in mortgage lending — in the 1940s and 1950s, which shaped the demographics of both Palo Alto and East Palo Alto and helped determine their present composition.
"For most of my adult life, I thought of East Palo Alto as our sister community — not another city in another county, but the other community that when we put our two communities together, we get something that resembles social and economic balance. And neither of our communities, separately, do that," Burt said. "I just want to make sure we continue to have an active consciousness and engagement with building those deeper relationships with our true neighbors in East Palo Alto."
Council member Alison Cormack said that she hopes listening to the narratives in the report will help people "understand that the experience of Black and brown people in our community needs to be improved." She thanked the people who were willing to tell their stories.
"I know it's painful, but it's going to help us all do better," Cormack said.
View the full report here.