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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.

At a different dinner party, I was told to “go back to where I came from.” The latter individual became quite confused when I asked him, “San Francisco?” That person assumed that because I was Black, I must have come from the south, or Africa. I have found these racially antagonistic comments surprising, because over 36 years, we have lived in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs of Washington D.C., Chicago, Illinois and El Paso, Texas, and have never heard such racially insensitive statements until our return to California. Lest you assume I am only commenting on Sonoma Valley, rest assured that the entire Bay Area is a minefield for Black well-being.

Rest assured that the entire Bay Area is a minefield for Black well-being.

My wife and I were tailed for more than three miles from the Golden Gate Bridge Toll Plaza to the Palace of Fine Arts on the San Francisco Marina Green. This recent incident was the most bothersome and dangerous. The California Highway Patrol considered me guilty of the offense of driving a new vehicle, with dealers plates and a white wife, while Black (DWB). The patrolman was hostile, and menacing. He showed he meant business when he unbuttoned his holster, placed his hand on his weapon and, while seething, informed us that it was illegal to drive a car with dealer’s plates and commanded Connie to use her fingernails to scrape the dealership’s registration documents off the windshield for his review.

When he discovered that I was the legitimate owner of the vehicle, had no outstanding warrants and that the car was equipped with a FasTrack transponder, his anger bordered on rage.

In the 1970s, when I was a student at Berkeley, I had several dangerous encounters for Driving While Black. And, by the way, I’m currently 70 years old and have never received a ticket for any of those, or this unwarranted stop. But, this most recent incident was my first DWB since turning 21. Although I have not had any negative interactions with the Sonoma County Sheriff, like most Blacks, I have little trust in their willingness to be fair or cooperative with me.

This mistrust is based upon my observation of numerous vehicle stops by police throughout Sonoma. For some reason, almost all involve Latinx people. On several occasions we have needed administrative assistance from the Sheriff’s Office, so Connie has attended to those matters. She has always received service with a smile. I do not wish to press my luck.

One of my biggest concerns is having to call 911 for assistance and being shot by a responding police officer with implicit bias who assumes that I must be the criminal because I’m Black.

Why do I bother to share my opinions on race in Sonoma and not return to wherever I came from? It’s because I love living here. There are many wonderful people in Sonoma who have accepted us as good neighbors. We have become integral members of the community. Connie works with several local volunteer groups and, for the past year, I‘ve enjoyed hosting a weekly radio program on KSVY. We savor our daily walks along the Sonoma Bike Path and regularly attend the various farmers markets. We are grateful for our friends and activities.

However, Sonoma is not hallelujah. The only way life can improve is for Sonomans to be aware that these problems exist. Blacks must feel safe, welcome everywhere and able to move freely in town without intimidation or scorn.

We must be free to jog, shop, dine, drive, watch birds, walk through all neighborhoods or whatever any other citizen can do.

Local residents must understand that we belong here too and work to change this serious, insidious and recurring problem.

Maurice S. Parker is a retired former U.S. Ambassador to Swaziland.

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