Racism not welcome in our community
Published: Monday, February 18, 2013 at 3:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 3:23 p.m.
Every so often, something ugly happens in Petaluma that exposes the thinly-veiled racism felt by some white residents here against those of Latino descent. In this instance, as with others, we are left to contemplate what can be done to better educate such residents on the importance of forging a more tolerant, inclusive and cohesive community.
The latest eruption of racial prejudice came during a varsity basketball game at Petaluma High School Feb. 1 where the Trojan team, which is mostly white, was competing against their counterparts from Elsie Allen High School, who are mostly Latino-American youths. The Elsie Allen team had beaten the Trojans in an earlier season contest. In that previous game, Elsie Allen player Angel Sanchez had shot the winning basket at the buzzer.
Some Trojan fans did not forget that earlier game, and when Sanchez was preparing for a free throw, several began chanting “Dirty Sanchez,” a repulsive slang term for a perverted sexual act.
One student periodically held up a cardboard sign that read, “Dirty Sanchez,” while others yelled, “U-S-A, U-S-A!” The ostensibly patriotic chanting was actually aimed at debasing the Elsie Allen players based upon their Latino heritage.
Imagine being a player, or parent of a player from Elsie Allen High School? Would you feel welcome in Petaluma in the future? Probably not.
To address the matter, Petaluma High School Principal David Stirrat last Friday directed classroom meetings be held to discuss what happened in an effort to avoid similar incidents occurring at the school. He also plans to send a delegation of students and faculty to Elsie Allen very soon to deliver letters of apology to members of the basketball team and the Elsie Allen community. It is, after all, the right thing to do.
While the small handful of students who crafted the offensive sign and instigated the hateful chants do not represent the general attitude of their school or their community, their behavior is probably not totally isolated. Racial prejudices of all kinds infect this city as well as all other cities in America, to greater or lesser degrees. If left unchecked, this gulf between the white and brown populations here will only lead to further distrust, acrimony, divisiveness and lost opportunities to forge a more united community.
Though it’s not often acknowledged, Sonoma County’s Anglo and Hispanic communities sometimes resemble ships passing in the night. With the exception of the wonderfully enriching and inclusive Day of the Dead event in October, there is only very limited interaction and communication between Hispanics and Anglos in Petaluma. This ongoing cultural separation robs the community of its full ability to solve problems due to a fundamental lack of understanding between people with different backgrounds.
The latest U.S census figures, not surprisingly, have shown significant increases in Petaluma’s Latino population as well as decreases in the city’s white population. And, as with the rest of the state, that trend is accelerating. Today, approximately one third of the children in the city’s elementary schools are of Latino descent, and about 60 percent of the births at Petaluma Valley Hospital are to Latino mothers.
Still, Petaluma’s growing diversity continues to make some people very uncomfortable. Stereotyping is easy, and giving into fear and anger all too common. Historically, particularly in times of economic distress, immigrants are often blamed for taking jobs that might otherwise go to native born residents. That sentiment, unfortunately, exists here today.
Some white residents continue to harbor strong resentments towards Hispanics, especially those who have not yet learned to speak English. However, it’s important to recognize that anyone coming here from another country and culture has difficulty adjusting. The language barrier, cultural differences and economic challenges are significant hurdles to overcome. This was the certainly the case for the Italians, Swiss, Germans, Irish and others who flocked to Petaluma in the late 1800s to make new lives for themselves and their families.
It is therefore incumbent upon Petaluma’s white majority population to understand the challenges facing non-Anglo residents and make an effort to accept and appreciate cultural differences while practicing inclusion towards all. Promoting acceptance of diversity in the workplace, neighborhood and community at large can only strengthen the community. Not doing so can only weaken and divide us.
What happened at Petaluma High School has given this community an opportunity to learn and to change and, in doing so, build a stronger, more inclusive community.
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