Community members talk past, present racism and prejudice in Nevada County
Special to The Union
What: Color Me Human
What: Communities Beyond Bias
Protests over the last few weeks have sprung in places around the country and the world, sometimes in spaces one would not expect.
After the filmed death of George Floyd — a black man who was killed while in custody of the Minneapolis police as other officers stood by — protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice more broadly have occurred in Normal, Illinois; Laramie, Wyoming; Naples, Florida; and Bend, Oregon.
Nevada County — about 84.9% white (not Hispanic), 9.7% Hispanic or Latino, 1.4% Asian, 1.3% American Indian, 0.6% black and the remainder mixed-race, according to the 2019 U.S. Census — has seen hundreds of supporters rallying, mostly young, to promote racial justice and equality under the law.
But according to many community members, along with recent and historical events, a small percentage of non-white residents in Nevada County doesn’t mean the area hasn’t been marred by racist incidents.
In 2014, the family of a local reporter was threatened at the Yuba River. The individuals told his family they would “sic their dog on them if they didn’t leave, yelling a racial slur, then demanding they go to another part of the river.” (The reporter awoke the next morning to more than 100 responses offering apologies and supporting him and his family.)
In 2015, racist comments were directed at a black family while at Rollins Lake and had to flee the scene as a man reportedly ran toward them with a shotgun.
In 2017, a young black man was walking in downtown Grass Valley when white people yelled “n*****” repeatedly at him.
This year, a racial epithet was written on the car of Ralph Lewis, the former Bear River High School basketball coach who later died in May.
At a protest last week, a Chicago Park resident also said she has been called “n*****” in this area.
Tracy Pepper, president of Color Me Human, a local organization that priorities marginalized voices and works to dismantle systems of oppression through education and cross-movement solidarity building, said, as a black woman, she encounters subtle yet present racist and ignorant remarks that “feel like death by a thousand cuts.”
One of the reasons Pepper began her organization was so she would be well known and therefore more protected by others in the community.
A retired law enforcement agent, Pepper first came to Grass Valley from Fresno about 25 years ago and believed it to be breathtaking, but decided not to move because she didn’t want to subject her children to racism. Now living in the community and watching the national protests, Pepper feels an amalgam of emotions, both exhausted at doing the work for so many years and seeing little progress, but also excited by the diversity of the protesters. Her organization plans to do more educating on themes of race and racism.
“For us, it’s a matter of education, communication, and also a matter of celebrating diversity,” she said.
For Pepper, like some other non-white residents in the area, community members often miss the context and historical precedence of racial prejudice. Protests that recently erupted after Floyd’s killing did not occur in isolation of that one event, but happened alongside the killing of Breonna Taylor in her own home, the shooting of Sean Reed in Indiana, the shooting of Tony McDade in Florida, and the extrajudicial killing of Ahmaud Arbery.
Nevada County itself has a long history of racial prejudice against Asian Americans and indigenous people that, Pepper says, “most people I talk with don’t know (about).” Never learning the history, she said, has become a “serious assault and affront on the Nisenan.”
The Nisenan tribe, native to Nevada County, is still is not recognized by the federal government, after losing the status decades ago, preventing them tribal sovereignty and the ability to receive federal benefits owed to indigenous Americans.
In the early parts of the 19th century, the Nisenan consisted of thousands of people and hundreds of settlements, according to “History of Us,” a book on Nisenan history by Tribal Chairman Richard B. Johnson.
“Prior to the gold rush,” Johnson writes, “the Nevada County Indian population was estimated conservatively at around 7,000.” But due to disease, starvation and slaying, by 1934, a people that had survived thousands of years or longer were reduced to 18.
Today, the Nisenan tribe has about 150 members and has become more public, educating others about their historical and contemporary culture. The Nisenan’s rise in publicity has come alongside the rescinded endorsements of a tribe that spuriously claimed to be from the area — the Tsi-Akim Maidu — from institutions like the Nevada County Historical Society and the Nevada County Board of Supervisors, per Historical Society records.
‘TALK, LISTEN, UNDERSTAND’
Pepper noted that her organization, Color Me Human, recognizes there are many white allies supporting racial justice in the area.
One of them includes Riley Sether, a recent graduate of Nevada Union High School who helped organize local racial justice protests. Sether, who said the movement is not about white people, but, rather, demonstrating support for the black community, hopes people begin to reeducate themselves on racism with articles and videos. She recommends digesting information from different sources, both liberal and conservative, as not to be boxed in to one viewpoint.
Bill Drake, the founder of Creating Communities Beyond Bias and a white resident who supports anti-racism efforts, said it’s hard for white people to challenge racism at times because the prejudice is part of the waters in which they swim, “like smog or air, it sort of permeates everything.” Still, he said, nothing will change until people are aware of the problem.
Drake, who grew up with racist attitudes in Jim Crow America, said recognizing racial injustices and white privilege is often a slow process as one comes to the uncomfortable understanding that “because I have advantages others have disadvantages.” Those advantages — like being more likely to get hired for a job, less likely to be pulled over by the police or treated more respectfully on the street — are often difficult to notice, he said. Drake himself began to change when he realized his belief in being kind to others couldn’t coexist with white supremacy.
Drake said changes will come from making larger reforms and from changing oneself personally, but he doesn’t have much optimism after seeing reports, commissions and hearings that he said have led to few changes. One such report — the Kerner Commission — stated that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, and one white — separate and unequal.” That line was published in 1967.
Grass Valley resident and Sierra College attendee Ana Mendez Mora said she’s been fighting for racial justice since she was 16 and has been leading recent racial justice protests. Mora, a Hispanic woman, said she’s felt “weird” being a minority in Nevada County, not seeing much representation of her background reflected in the area.
Now, protesting on the pavements of Nevada County, she said she hopes people listen to those they may not frequently hear from.
“It’s going to be hard, but just listen to black and brown people, hear their stories,” she said.
Mora added that changes will not occur overnight, but, she said, people in power need to be held more accountable. She wants people to engage one another on topics of race, justice and equality.
“Talk to your community members,” she said. “Talk to your teachers, talk to your neighbors. Talk, listen, understand.”
To contact Staff Writer Sam Corey, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4219.
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