Newsreal: The white negro


By Joan Walsh

Published December 15, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

OAKLAND, CALIF. -- Heads turn as Jerry Brown enters Morning Star Baptist Church in West Oakland. He is a little late for the Sunday service and slips into a pew. Soon the praying stops and Brown takes the pulpit, telling the black congregants why a man who served as governor of the state and three times ran for president now wants to be Oakland's next mayor.

The pastor's wife introduces Brown warmly, as someone who cares about "the poor, the downtrodden, the despised, the forgotten. He could live in Beverly Hills or Palm Springs, but he chose to live here in Oakland."

"I wouldn't live anyplace but Oakland," Brown tells the crowd. "This is a great city."

Most of his speech is lackluster; he is recovering from the flu. But it is punctuated with "Amen!" and "No!" and "You tell it, Governor." In a collarless white shirt and stark blue jacket, Brown looks like a priest without a parish, exuding a lonely intensity, and the congregation rises for a standing ovation as he sits down, as if to warm his chill.

After the service, Brown greets churchgoers as they file out. "You have my vote," they say over and over -- and, almost as often, "I remember your daddy." Gov. Pat Brown is still revered for opening state posts to African-Americans in the 1960s.

In a field that includes three African-Americans, Jerry Brown is generating the strongest buzz among Oakland's blacks, who make up 43 percent of the city. The city's Asians fielded their own candidate in 1994, but many are now backing Ignacio de la Fuente, a Mexican-born labor organizer and city councilman. White business leaders, who backed the Asians' candidate last time, are divided, but few are expected to support the anti-corporate Brown.

Brown's diverse appeal frustrates his rivals. His chief black challenger, county Supervisor Mary King, calls him a "political playboy," romancing Oakland on his way back to higher office. De la Fuente says he's the choice of a few black leaders "with very little political muscle" who'd rather have a white mayor than a Latino.

Brown himself seems to be having fun. Once labeled in cartoons as "Governor Moonbeam" for his environmental and futuristic rhetoric, he now lives communally in a renovated warehouse he shares with his "We the People" organization. He's known for stopping by West Oakland's Esther's Orbit Room and dancing with the older black patrons.

But his program, he admits, is thin. His "Oakland Ecopolis" plan, which promises to make Oakland a center of "green industry," has made him the butt of jokes in the media. But voters don't seem all that interested -- and neither does Brown. "Why don't you rewrite it?" he asks a reporter, only half joking.

Later, in his book-lined office, he starts pulling down thick city planning documents.

"You want plans? This city has no shortage of plans. It needs someone to galvanize people to solve their own problems. I'm really just a place where people can come together and be creative and help this city reach its potential."

The core of Brown's appeal is his reputation as a governor who cared about black Oakland. He built a new downtown freeway, partnered with Oakland's first black mayor, Lionel Wilson, on employment and development plans and even invited Black Panthers to visit the state Capitol they had marched on, fully armed, a few years before.

If Jerry Brown does become Oakland's next mayor, it would be only the latest sign of the decline in black political representation. Blacks dominated the city council and school board for more than a decade. They're now a minority on both. The city's school superintendent and school board president once were black; both are now Chinese-American. Last year a white candidate won an Oakland state assembly seat long held by blacks, winning the black vote against a black candidate. And a white activist defeated a black city council incumbent last year, again with a majority of black support.

Longtime local activist Paul Cobb insists black power in Oakland hasn't been diminished by these trends, but redefined. "Black voters are choosing not to support black candidates who go to every cocktail party but don't visit the neighborhoods. They want results," says Cobb, who adds he's "inclined to" support Brown for mayor.

Clearly, despite its futuristic rhetoric, Brown's campaign is also a look backward, to a time when white liberals and black insurgents believed they could remake urban America. Brown talks of asking former Black Panthers to work for him, and expects to win the Latino vote with support from the United Farmworkers. "This campaign will bring people together, not divide," Brown promises.

That's unlikely, says de la Fuente. "Let's face it, Oakland has had more black representation than any city in California, and Latinos and Asians haven't yet had their fair share. Black voters are very mature, but some black leaders are still using race to divide. I spoke to an African-American group and they asked me, 'What's your African-American agenda?' and I said, 'I don't have one.' I don't have a Latino agenda. I have an Oakland agenda."

Brown and his black allies take the carping in stride. They can afford to: Although the city is at least 30 percent Asian and Latino, on election day these communities make up less than 10 percent of the vote. For the time being, Oakland's politics are still mostly played on a black and white checkerboard, and Brown is the player to beat.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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