Why San Leandro's censoring of its history matters

I was talking to some friends a few evenings ago, and I realized that I probably need to make a case for why the potential censoring of the book in San Leandro is such a serious matter. To me, of course, it's self evident, but that's because this issue falls right into my field of action, and it involves issues that I have worked on for years. Whether it's apartheid in South Africa, disappearances in Argentina, genocide in Rwanda or racial discrimination in the US, the central issue is always the same: how should a society that has overcome a period of massive and systematic human rights violations come to terms with them?

At the core of the question are, of course, the victims. The victims have been damaged by the violation itself - in this case being denied access to housing (and related things such as good schools) and being harassed by the police and other forces -, but also by their characterization as "the other". As "the other," the victims are told they are not good enough, clean enough, smart enough, or anything else enough to be part of the community. They are, in other words, marginalized and to some degree even dehumanized by this characterization. It's difficult for even the strongest, smartest individuals (and as a strong, minority woman living in the US I can personally attest to this) to be unaffected by this message.

But it's not just the victims who hear this message. Other members of the majority community hear it just as well. Even if they consciously reject it, they may still internalize it and they may still act on it unconsciously. In addition, the lack of exposure to other groups, cultures and points of view, makes it difficult for members of the dominant group to be receptive to the points of view of the excluded group - thus perpetuating the exclusion.

Even when the human right violation stops (i.e. when housing becomes available to blacks and they are not stopped de rigeur by the police), its sequels, including the marginalization of the excluded group, are not automatically fixed. On the one hand, the victims have often internalized the exclusionary message, and cannot be integrated into the dominant community without at least some effort and expressions of good will from that group. And on the other hand, other mechanisms of exclusion have often been created. These will include keeping the political power in the hands of a small minority, the co-option of members of the minority group so as to give the message that "you can be one of us, if you just become like us" and the imposition of social mores that are incongruent with cultural practices of the excluded group. Another just as powerful exclusionary measure is keeping silent about the period of human rights violations. By refusing to talk about the issue, the majority group is if not denying what the excluded group went through, at least minimizing its importance and its traumatic effect on the marginalized community. The dominant group is basically saying "we don't care what you went through, it's over now, get over it." But, of course, this lack of respect for the experience of the excluded group just reinforces its status as "the other". It is the dominant group, after all, who feels it has the right to tell the excluded group how they should feel and act.

So when I hear about the city manager of San Leandro commissioning a book and then cancelling the project when the writer proposes to write about housing discrimination in San Leandro in terms he doesn't like, what I hear is that the city is once again telling its black citizens, and in particular those who suffered from its discriminatory stances, that they and their history doesn't matter, that the injuries the city caused them are inconsequential and should be long forgotten, and that it's the city manager who will determine what the official history of San Leandro is.

I'm not black, but the message I hear is loud and clear: we can treat you like trash, dance on your wounds and then pretend that never happened. And to the degree that this message is directed to Brian Copeland, if indeed the city manager intimated to the writer that he should not talk to him, then the message I hear is "you can be famous, you can be popular, you can even talk about this issue, but we can just ignore you, you are powerless here". And if Brian, with his fame and all is powerless, what really has changed in San Leandro?

Other Notes about the SL History Book