‘A Lesson in Discrimination’: Toxic Sea Level Rise Threatens West Oakland


Today, housing prices are skyrocketing in West Oakland and new construction dots the neighborhood.

“Demographically, things change, and you can buy a million dollar house in West Oakland, which never happened before when it was predominantly African American,” Lazard said.

Mitchell Schwarzer, who wrote “Hella Town,” a book about Oakland’s history, said the city needs to preserve a large percentage of housing for residents who have lived in West Oakland for decades. But, he said, that means Oakland leaders must grapple with tough questions about prioritizing people of color who have been “subjected to real, egregious harm.”

“How do you make sure these people don’t get screwed a second time?” he said. “That’s really what we’re talking about.”

“Let’s talk about repairs”

The racism that has shaped West Oakland’s economic and community life persists, according to UC Berkeley geography professor Brandi T. Summers.

“It’s so present that we can’t ignore it,” she said. “We can’t believe we can extract race from this conversation at all.”

The term “equity” has become a dominant force for change at all political levels. Equity, however, is not a word Gordon uses to describe what is needed for climate justice in West Oakland, because it is not big enough.

“Don’t talk to me about fairness anymore,” she said. “Let’s talk about repairs.”

A state reparations task force explores ways to undo the harm that emanates from slavery and post-emancipation systemic racism. For Gordon, recommendations for redress should include cleaning up toxic sites, access to affordable housing, better health care, economic opportunity, and power in planning decisions about climate resilience.

“We would have long-term sustainability,” she said. “I would know there will be accommodation for my children and grandchildren, so there will be work for them.”

Donnell McAlister and his horse JJ, named after Jesse James, attend a June 19 block party to celebrate the opening of the Women of the Black Panther Party Mini Museum in West Oakland on June 19, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Reparations would also mean environmental justice, says the Reverend Ken Chambers, a third-generation pastor who currently leads the West Side Missionary Baptist Church in a small beige rectangular building in the southwest corner of the neighborhood.

“A community with fresh air, not consumed by diesel truck traffic, boat traffic, smog” could develop green tech jobs that pay good wages and also help the environment, according to Chambers, who is black.

Repairs that strengthen the local economy, improve air quality and improve overall health could equal the potential release of tendrils from slavery even as the climate emergency worsens, said Maya Carrasquillo, professor of environmental engineering at UC Berkeley.

“Full freedom to say, ‘I can go or I can stay,'” she said. “Or, ‘I have the freedom, values ​​and finances to be able to create the future I want.'”


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