Valley Forum: Sonoma is not Hallelujah
Editor’s note: Maurice Parker is a decade-long Sonoma resident and retired U.S. Ambassador to Swaziland. He submitted this op-ed as “an open letter to the people of Sonoma,” in order to convey his observations and experiences living as a Black man in the Valley of the Moon. He offers it in the hope “that it will be an opening for dialog.”
Shortly after arriving in Sonoma I asked a person of color to tell me about the quality of life here for minorities. That person’s instantaneous response was, “It’s not hallelujah!”
That succinct and humorous comment was factual, aspirational and a warning. He was warning me that racism in Sonoma was ubiquitous and that I should be prepared to encounter it in my daily life. Ten years later, I can attest to the unvarnished veracity of his statement.
Nowhere has that comment been brought into sharper focus than at the June 3, Black Lives Matter demonstration at the Sonoma Plaza in support of justice for the murder of George Floyd. At the event, young and old Black members of our community offered their personal testimonies on living with pervasive racism in Sonoma County. Their basic message was that they have never felt safe or welcome here.
One young woman mentioned her long-term uneasiness while jogging around town. Local citizens have made rude comments and other hostile gestures toward her; another talked about how she and other minority youth are followed around when shopping; still others discussed the hostile “stares” and other toxic behaviors they have encounter in public.
In a wise move, Mayor Logan Harvey supported these young people as they bravely delivered their heartfelt stories. I’m sure their commentaries were difficult for many members of the public to hear, because, as I’ve learned, Sonomans view themselves as being fair minded, egalitarian and hospitable. There is an obvious communication gap between the Black and white residents of Sonoma. When minorities express concerns and anxieties about their safety and feelings of isolation, those tensions reveal that serious racial incidents like we have witnessed nationally could happen here. It’s not out of the question that incidents like Amy Cooper calling 911 for police assistance, because an African-American birder rightly asked her to leash her dog; or police arresting Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates in his own home for being Black; or Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery being murdered for being considered unwelcome and out of place by racist vigilantes.
It’s easy for Sonomans to feel complacent and believe members of their community are free of racial animus, but the youth who spoke at this month’s demonstration have shed light on festering problems. The testimonies of those young people are not too different from my own experiences in Sonoma.
My experiences may, or may not have been life threatening, but they certainly are soul destroying, bad business models and they exemplify racial animus against Blacks by some in this community. My mere presence in local restaurants ruins the meals of many customers. Just like the young woman’s testimony, those diners will give my wife and me uncomfortable stares to clearly signal their opposition to our invasion of their sacred space. This is very common.
My wife Connie and I have been an interracial couple for 50 years. As such, she has decades of first-hand experience observing racism and often reports to me the difference in her reception at those same restaurants when I’m not present. She is also acutely aware of contemptuous or ignorant behavior among whites even when I am choosing to ignore it.
One local winery, where we have been members since 2013, was initially reluctant to offer me tastings when I picked up our quarterly shipments, or made excuses as to why they could not serve me, when Connie was not present. My 76-year old brother and I were barred from entering a Sonoma home-goods store while searching for a bundt pan! Three salespersons blocked our entrance trying to literally corral us, while letting white customers enter and roam freely. They insisted that we identify the item we wished to purchase and they would fetch it for us. I was denied seating at a local restaurant on my first two attempts to dine there.
Through patience, persistence and familiarity my relationships with all of those aforementioned businesses have improved.
I shudder to think of how Black tourists are generally treated during their visits.
Numerous insensitive comments from local residents thread their way into too many conversations. At a dinner party, an upstanding local citizen told me that I appeared threatening, because I was a Big Black Man. He viewed me as inherently threatening in a social situation.