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Can we talk? 

I took my family to a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at a San Luis Obispo church this year. The polite way to describe the size of the crowd would be "a smattering." There was some music when we first showed up, but it quickly devolved into a forum for speeches about control of the programming on local community television, a battle that has been fought somewhat over the issue of race. By the time those speeches were over, I think the only other people left in the crowd were those who were waiting for their turn to speak. I left disappointed and somewhat disgruntled, because they'd charged to get in and I felt my children were no more enlightened about the legacy of MLK than they'd been before we came. I also left thinking about how whether, really we as a community meet to talk about issues related to race and ethnicity.

I grew up in the Midwest and spent about seven years on the East Coast. In Washington, D.C., racial issues were unavoidable the city is overwhelmingly black and discussed with a jarring frankness, as in: "No, you're white I don't think you should go to that club tonight." In the Midwest, racial issues were pondered with a sort of earnestness that sometimes made me feel like a teenager squirming as his parents took an interest in his rad new girlfriend's piercings "you're being so uncool to talk about that." Well-meaning white folk would form committees to "reach out," to the equally serious leaders of the black or Somali refugee community. It all felt a little stilted, but you couldn't say they didn't try.

Here, I've been struck by the near total lack of discussion about racial issues. Perhaps we're all too laid back to worry about it? Maybe we just all get along? Some of the folks we talked to for this story felt that way, but that wasn't the consensus. You can't get away from issues of race simply by not talking about them

This isn't a conventional story and we're presenting it unconventionally, by giving the facts as they are and letting people tell their own stories. Let's talk.

Patrick Howe

Managing Editor


Gabe Goodman, 24, Cal Poly senior
This town is racist. It's more of a non-direct type. People always make Jewish jokes, and it's not just college kids. I listen to conversations and definitely hear offensive and insensitive things from all types of people. Whether they know they're being racist or not, people drop derogatory comments all the time. If you don't feel comfortable saying something in front of a person you shouldn't say it at all.

click to enlarge Gabe Goodman - PHOTO BY LIEF MCKAY
  • Gabe Goodman

# My skin is generally light and people don't always know I'm Jewish. Sometimes they think I'm Italian or something. But once you tell, there's a lot of assumptions made about your ethnic background and religious beliefs.

People think I owe America and that Jews are stingy. People think I'm very religious. I have a strong Jewish culture background, but religion can vary person to person. People think the Jewish keep together, when that's not the fact. That's more culture. That's where I'm from. That's who I am.

People automatically think I'm a Democrat and I'm against the war right now. But I haven't been informed enough to make a good decision. Honestly, I'd like to see a peaceful outcome.


Mary Meserve, development director, San Luis Obispo Little Theatre
The largest fundraiser that I produce and direct each year is I write a "Legends" series show.

click to enlarge Mary Meserve - PHOTO COURTESY OF MARY MESERVE
  • Mary Meserve

# I think I've done eight of them. About five years ago I did Nat King Cole and we called the show Unforgettable. We actually received a letter to the theater saying, "You can't do that show it won't work, it can't happen." This person, who of course wanted to be anonymous, said, "You'll never be able to cast that show." So that made me want to do that even more. It was a big hit. At the time it broke every record we'd ever had.

Now we've got a Ray Charles tribute show coming up next winter.

In my opinion it's a very white bread community. The population of African Americans is really low, and so I have to approach people - I've approached them in parking lots and grocery stores everywhere to cast the shows.

I was at Kennedy Club Fitness the other day I didn't end up joining but the salesman was this good-looking young black man. I was like, "Do you sing, do you dance?" They always look at me like, "What are you talking about? Who is this crazy lady?"

I've sensed some, I want to say redneck mentality in this county. It's subtle but it's definitely out there. It's sad. Still, in general, it's a really mellow county and I believe things are always getting better in regards to racism. And I try to do my part by integrating that into my writing.



Jose Chavez, 24, Cal Poly student
I've never experienced racism here. The people here are real nice and down to earth.

click to enlarge Jose Chavez - PHOTO BY LIEF MCKAY
  • Jose Chavez

# I moved here in 2001. My girlfriend of six years is white maybe that helps.

When you're with a white person, people look at you different. That might be the reason I haven't experienced discrimination. I know people who have but being discriminated is what you make it. You know who you are. I deal with it in a positive way.

There's this whole cultural thing when Hispanic people feel uncomfortable around white people. I know friends here who come with me to a party and feel discriminated on. If you don't give people an opportunity to know you, you're going to feel they're discriminating.

I've noticed on campus, at Cal Poly, Hispanic people segregate themselves from everyone. When people segregate themselves from the community that's when you experience discrimination as opposed to being accepted.


Jennifer Ingan, 24, Cal Poly senior
I grew up in Los Osos. I think there is a strong community of Filipinos there, but I don't know about SLO in general. I know there is a Filipino group on Campus, PCE, but I'm not part of it. There is a community, but we don't really celebrate Filipino holidays or anything. Sometimes I go to other Filipino celebrations outside the county, like for our Independence Day, 'cause there really are no celebrations here.

click to enlarge Jennifer Ingan - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • Jennifer Ingan

# I haven't had a lot of bad racist experiences here, but sometimes I have felt like I was being discriminated against because I have dark skin, or whatever. It's not outwardly spoken, I don't know if I'm just being paranoid, but sometimes I just feel like people are acting differently to me. When I go into stores downtown and the majority who work there are white sometimes they don't really look at me when I come in, they don't say "hi" or anything, they don't really pay attention. And then the next person who comes in will be white, and they will be like, "Oh, hi! How are you?" I can pretty much predict that that's going to happen. It doesn't happen in other places. I go to stores elsewhere, and sometimes people are busy sometimes, they don't say "hi." But here there's always someone just standing by the door to greet people. I never confront people about it, even when I know it's happening, because I don't want to make a big deal about it.

Some people have asked me about like what I eat.

They'll come up and say, "Oh, you're Filipino, do you eat dog?" Sometimes I think people aren't trying to be racist, but they say things that are sort of offensive. They just don't think about it.

People don't really know what I am, they see my skin color, but I could look like a lot of different nationalities. They usually just ask me what I am. They sort of group us with other Asians, but we're a lot different.



George Ramos, head of Cal Poly's Journalism Department
Considering San Luis Obispo is a college/prison town, I am struck by how white this area is. People may think that there is a Mexican influence here but there isn't. You have to leave San Luis Obispo to find out what it's like to be Latino in this county like the people who work in the fields, construction workers, and the service industry, and I didn't know that before coming to Cal Poly.

click to enlarge George Ramos - PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL POLY
  • George Ramos

# I was the only person of color in the Journalism Department for about two years. I used to joke that when I went to the bathroom I took affirmative action with me. That's the thing that struck me the most about moving to this area.

Now that I've come back to the area, the differences between SLO and other communities are even more stark, more contrasting. All you have to do is look at Santa Maria. Santa Maria is 60 percent Latino and it's only thirty miles away. SLO is 70 percent white, and Cal Poly reflects that.

The Santa Maria City Council vs. San Luis Obispo City Council is worth mentioning. Latinos are members of the City Council who are activists in Santa Maria, but there is no representation on the SLO City Council. They tend to be Cal Poly professors and the like, and the people in Santa Maria are running the government down there they're activists. They march on Cesar Chavez Day, they boycott the grapes, they have talks of bilingual education, and better relations between law enforcement and local residents issues you'd find in really big cities throughout California. I'm really struck by the lack of that here.

I remember during the unrest of the 60s while all of the rallies and protests were happening at other universities like San Francisco or Berkeley, Ronald Reagan had no problem coming to Cal Poly because there would be no students rioting. This campus was, after all, called Reagan Country back then.


Damien Moses, 34, Pismo Beach, entertainer
Racism in a professional setting is more surprising to me. I've had some run-ins with medical doctors here, papers thrown at me out of frustration, refusal of allowing me to discuss. But you have to deal with your health. I've talked to many African American males in this area that have encountered similar experiences.

click to enlarge Damien Moses - PHOTO BY LIEF MCKAY
  • Damien Moses

# Walking through town I always pay attention to people's reactions. People are pretty approachable when I'm with my daughter but when I'm alone it's like a pink elephant walking in the room. It's obvious. People avoid eye contact. It's hard to describe. It's something you have to experience.

Being from the South, this is mild. I've been in places where people go to sleep and wake up thinking about it (racism). It ruins their lives. Places are segregated and you don't go to certain areas. I grew up in an all-African culture. Now I live in a completely European community. If a white girl or white boy came to my school it would be a big deal, we used to wonder how they feel. But I never experienced police pulling me over without a reason, or any ignorant, belligerent shit out here.

My first encounter with racism was at Mardi Gras in New Orleans when I was 5 years old. I was reaching for some beads. A drunk lady grabbed the same set of beads and said, "Get the fuck away from me, you fucking nigger." I just froze. When you've got that kind of background everything else seems pretty moderate.

Some people pay over-attention. They're nervous and they try to compensate, like they're wanting to say, "We're not racist."


Ronald G. Adams, 25, Seasonal CDF and SLO County firefighter
I have this thing about carrying rocks because I've encountered racial situations before around here We were walking around downtown. We ended up walking kind of late, to a friend's house, after the bars were let out. It was probably around 2 a.m.

click to enlarge Ronald G. Adams - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • Ronald G. Adams

# I pick up a rock because I just feel very uneasy about two black guys walking downtown by ourselves. I pick up a rock and my friend was like, "Why are you picking up a rock? We're not doing anything wrong."

So we were just walking, around Santa Rosa and Palm, and we were just crossing the intersection and the car was trying to make a left-hand turn. I knew he was going to say something. I told my friend, "Man, they're going to say something." Sure enough, the window rolls down, but they didn't say anything. Then, as the light turned green, sure enough they go ahead and yell, "Aaaah, fucking niggers."

I was carrying the rock, so I had to let that go. I actually hit the back windshield. They made a U-turn. Me and my friend, we kind of boned out after that.

The dating scene I'd mostly dated Hispanics and blacks. That's who I grew up with. Coming down here there's not too many of them. That's a whole 'nother scene. Dating a white girl. It took a while to adapt to. It's something that's always in your mind. Especially as a black male. If you're in a class and a race issue pops up and you're the only black guy in the class everybody's going to be looking at you: "Are you fine?" I'm not the spokesman for every black person in America. That's very different. That can be exhausting, for everybody to think you have to be the spokesman. And pretty much you do: You've got to watch what you say and what you do, because for somebody, you could be the only black person they encounter for a very long time.


Samir Aburashed, 22, recent grad
My parents are both from Jordan, but I grew up here, and I love it here. San Luis is a great place to live but there is racism here. They are isolated incidents, and those isolated incidents could take place anywhere in America. It's not a reflection of SLO.

click to enlarge Samir Aburashed - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • Samir Aburashed

# I've had a couple of interesting experiences, but I think I don't see a lot of racism because I don't really look different, even though I have an Arabic name.

One time I was at a sushi restaurant with a friend, and this girl, a cute white girl, was our waitress. She came up to the table and we were just talking, having a good time, then she asked me my name, and I said "Samir." She asked what kind of name that was, and just joking around, I said it was Italian. When I said that, she was totally interested. We were flirting back and forth, she like was acting cute, and she asked for my number. So when she came back, I decided to come clean. I told her that it was an Arab name, and you should have seen the look on her face. As soon as she heard that, it was like night and day. She had another server come. I was just blown away. What's the difference, I asked? I'm still the same person eating the California roll.

One of the major issues that made Arabs discriminated against was 9/11. That was a huge turning point for Arabs in America.

All I have is love for every race. I always tell people we all are going to have to learn to live together, or learn to die together.


Andrew Sanchez, 27, San Luis Obispo
I grew up in El Paso, Texas, where we (Mexicans) are pretty much the driving force behind everything. I moved to Santa Maria at the beginning of high school where the student population was predominantly Hispanic. So when I moved to SLO it was like, "Damn there's a lot of white people, it's homogenized."

click to enlarge Andrew Sanchez - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • Andrew Sanchez

# I'm 6'3, with dark skin, a blonde streak in my long black hair, and have tattoos how do you think people look at me? Some people look at me like I'm going to steal something some look at me like I have something to offer. Workers will follow me and ask if I need help multiple times.

I've seen parents pick up their kids. Old white people are scared of me and some cute little white girls get frightened too. I feel like when people see me they wonder whether I'm educated or not or whether I speak English. But I kind of expect that in a place like SLO.

What bothers me the most is the looks I get from people when I'm with my wife. She's a beautiful blue-eyed, blonde hair white lady. It's one thing to be prejudiced against one individually for their appearance, it's another thing to be prejudiced against someone for who they marry. Physical appearance has nothing to do with the quality ofan individual, and should thereforebe a non-factor when trying to decide if you're going to be around a person or not.

As a whole this area is quick to judge as opposed to get the time to learn and make an intelligent decision. Fortunately we're progressing more as a society. Perhaps one day I will be able to walk around without scaring little old white ladies. I'd like to challenge everyone who reads this interview to go out and talk to a stranger. I'm sure once you do, you'll be pleasantly surprised by what the other individual has to offer.


Pedro Arroyo, 35, San Luis Obispo
I've lived in SLO for 17 years. I came from L.A. East L.A. I always tell people that I work and live in two different worlds. I was born in Mexico. I was born on the border, but I've always had contacts in the states. My grandfather worked in Salinas, and I've been wearing 501 Levi's blue jeans forever. I speak English. I've been socialized in the states. I live here, and now I'm an American.

click to enlarge Pedro Arroyo - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • Pedro Arroyo

# There is a perception that SLO is predominantly white, but we have a presence here. When you go up to Paso Robles, and look at enrollment, a large percent are Latino. Or Cambria, that's an interesting one because it's a lot of artists and sort of older people, but who's doing the work? There is an entirely different community that exists, and you don't always see them because of the nature of the jobs that they work.

When you look at the statistics, I think it can be deceiving. There is a community here, but in SLO, rents are expensive. Families have to compete with wealthy students, and that's why we see more Latinos and families in places like Paso Robles.

I don't think it's an issue of race I think it's an issue of economics. Who's getting access to health care and education? In my job, I work with poor Latino kids and poor black kids, and poor white kids I see it more as an issue of resources. I look at the way our downtown has changed. It used to be a place where you came to buy things you need, now it's a place were you come to buy things you want. I think it's that way because the folks here have seen the tourist potential. And it's nice to have some of those amenities, but who is going to have access to them? While it may be good for the economy, it may not be good for the service industry, or the working class.


Is diversity of thought enough?

Cal Poly notes some bright spots, but remains largely white


As spring comes to an end along with the college careers of many Cal Poly graduates, school administrators are boasting about Cal Poly's higher-than-average turnout of minority graduates.

According to William Durgin, Cal Poly's Provost and Vice President of Academics, Cal Poly ranks top in the nation in terms of Hispanics graduating with a degree in agriculture and third in the nation for Hispanics graduating with an engineering degree.

While these figures are worthy of merit, however, they mask the fact that Cal Poly is still one of the least ethnically diverse universities in the California State University system.

In a U.S. News and World Report study of campus ethnic diversity, Cal Poly ranked 65 out of 114 western universities that offer master's degrees, with a score of 0.4 (1.0 being the highest).

Perhaps reflective of San Luis Obispo's own ethnic make-up, Cal Poly has a white, non-Hispanic enrollment near 65 percent, while the closest minority is Asian enrollment at 11 percent. Hispanics constitute only 10 percent of the campus population, while blacks and American Indians register with about 1 percent representation each.

These figures are low when compared to the ethnic diversity of other CSU schools San Jose State stands at 27 percent white, 25 percent Asian, 14 percent Hispanic, and 4 percent black.

However, Cal Poly leaders call the figures misleading and overtly negative. They say Cal Poly's ethnic diversity, or lack thereof, is indicative of the geography and majors offered.

Some faculty agree.

"Cal Poly is a victim of its own success," Cal Poly Journalism Department Chair George Ramos said. "The university is geared toward agriculture, business, and engineering, first, and while some minorities might find those majors appealing there just isn't much interest in those majors."

Many university officials attribute low minority enrollment to the lack of qualified minorities in "stem disciplines" math, science, biology, and engineering in public schools nationwide.

To counter this, Durgin said that Cal Poly has partnered with over 119 high schools in an attempt to make potential college-bound students, minority or not, aware of Cal Poly and its opportunities.

So far, the efforts haven't increased minority enrollment. Though there have been small "spikes" in minority enrollment since 1998, the only population that seems to have seen any significant growth each year has been non-Hispanic whites (an increase from 61 percent to 65 percent).

Durgin noted that Cal Poly does not make a policy of enrolling students determined by racial diversity but instead promotes an enrollment based on what he called the diversity of thought. ?

Sidebar 2

SLO County, by the numbers:

(statewide statistics for comparison in parenthesis)

Population, 2006 estimate: 257,005 (36 million)

White persons not Hispanic, 2005: 74.7 percent (43.8 percent)

Persons of Hispanic or Latino origin, 2005: 17.8 (35.2)

Black, 2005: 2.1 (6.7)

American Indian, 2005: 1.1 (1.2)

Asian persons, 2005: 3.1 (12.2)

Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander: 0.1 (0.4)

Persons reporting two or more races: 2.2 (2.4)

Foreign-born persons, 2000: 8.9 (26.2)

Language other than English spoken at home: 14.7 (39.5)

Total number of firms in the county, 2002: 25,894

Black-owned firms, percent, 2002: Too few to include (3.9 )

Asian-owned firms, percent, 2002: 1.6 (12.8)

Hispanic-owned firms, percent, 2002: 5.7 (14.7)

In 2006, 65 percent of Cal Poly students were white, non-Hispanics, 11 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander, 10 percent were Hispanic, and roughly one percent each were black or American Indian.

Ten percent reported themselves "race/ethnicity unkown."

Interviews were conducted by New Times writers Kylie Mendonca and Kai Beech, and Patrick Howe, managing editor. Please send any comments to


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