This week the city of Oakland has been under a spotlight – not just because of the reigning champion Golden State Warriors’ run in the NBA playoffs – but also due to racially-tinged comments from the likes of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, and to a lesser extent actress Blake Lively.
Lively, who was at the Cannes Film Festival in France promoting her role in the new Woody Allen film “Cafe Society,” infuriated many social media users by posting a photo of herself on Instagram that flaunted her curvaceous figure with the caption: “L.A. face with an Oakland booty.” The actress was referencing a lyric from Sir Mix-A-Lot’s hip-hop classic “Baby Got Back” but some even took issue with that since the song was intended to be an ode to marginalized black women, according to the artist.
Adding insult to injury, Trump was asked by The New York Times what were the most dangerous places he’d been. Reporters presumably expected the real estate mogul to name some international hot spot to boost his foreign policy bona fides. Instead he first jokingly said Brooklyn before pivoting to more earnestly mention Oakland and Ferguson, where he argued “the crime numbers are worse” than other dangerous parts of the globe. “Seriously.” The two predominately black cities have also been rocked in recent years by the deaths of unarmed black men.
“Just to be clear, Lively is a Hollywood actress and Trump is mounting a surprisingly successful campaign to be the leader of the ‘free world,’” James Peterson, Director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University and a MSNBC contributor said on Thursday. “Lively’ s comments are not as significant as Trump’s in terms of the news, but they are a bit more complex in the sense that our cultural debates around body image and the tensions between white women and women of color seem to be stuck on ‘the third rail’ at least since Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ debut.”
Still, the subtext behind both comments seemed to equate the Bay Area city with blackness, which provoked a terse response from Oakland’s mayor Libby Schaaf on Twitter: “Let me be clear, regarding @nytimes story, the most dangerous place in America is Donald Trump’s mouth.”
Local Councilman Noel Gallo also rebuked the billionaire mogul. “Mr. Trump needs to get his facts straight,” he told the East Bay Times. “Oakland has had its challenges, but we’re making progress.”
He added: “If Mr. Trump is available, I’d welcome him so he can see we’re not as violent as he thinks.”
In reality, Oakland does have a violent crime problem, but homicides are down 43 percent compared to last year, with a total of 17 on record for 2016 (the city has averaged over 100 a year for the last 45 years, according to the San Francisco Chronicle). Additionally, a Mexican non-governmental organization (Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Publica y la Justicia) that tracks murder rates in cities with a population of over 100,000 doesn’t rank Oakland among the 50 most dangerous cities internationally.
The U.S. cities that do make the list include St. Louis, Baltimore, Detroit and New Orleans.
Meanwhile, Oakland has been evolving demographically for decades. While the Bay Area is still majority-minority, there are far more Asian and Latino citizens in the community than African-Americans. In fact, the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau has shown that the black population in the Bay Area has actually dropped 10 percent in the last decade, while Latino and Asian representation has risen.
An influx of tech industry workers and rising housing costs (last year it was ranked as the fourth most expensive rental market in the country and boasted the highest increase in prices – 19 percent – of any major urban area) have been cited as the likely culprit behind “black flight” from the Oakland community. The number of homes being built for people with “moderate” incomes has dropped substantially in recent years.
“It’s almost like when you’re with somebody, and they’re not quite where they need to be. They have all this potential and they’re just bummin’,” says Denise Kees, a real estate agent from East Oakland, told the local NPR affiliate KQED back in March. “Then they go off and they become successful and then they dump you.”
According to Peterson, Trump’s comments are part of troubling pattern of behavior from a would-be Commander-in-Chief.
“For me, Trump’s hyperbolic assessment of Oakland underscores his insensitivity regarding important domestic issues like urban blight, gentrification, police brutality, concentrated poverty … while simultaneously highlighting his ignorance about foreign affairs – obviously the most dangerous places in the world are not American cities – South American cities are a different story, of course,” he said on Thursday.
“Oakland is a black city; and in fact it is one of the most diverse cities in the U.S.,” Peterson added. “More importantly though, it has a rich history of progressive activism. Its beautiful history of radical activism is what makes it scary for folks like Trump and taboo for some of the rest of white America.”