“You won’t have to worry about that in California!”
That was the typical response I received when I voiced my concerns about the racism my husband and I might face in our relocation from Kansas to California. In many people’s minds, my husband and I were escaping to a place far removed from the folksy bigotry embedded in Kansas. To the people who urge left-leaning individuals to flee their oppressive homes, California is as unimpregnable a place as a castle protected by a moat, but with Coachella and man-buns as it’s aforementioned shield. They haven’t yet realized the problem is everywhere.
There are 1,020 hate groups in the United States. In California, a place championed as the leader in the fight for a brighter future, there are 83 known hate groups in active operation. Hate crimes have increased nationally, but in California alone there was a 17.4% rise from 2016 to 2017 . Anti-Black or Anti-African-American instances of racial bias increased 20.3% from 2016 to 2017. Anti-Latino or Anti-Hispanic racial bias events increased 51.8% from 2016 to 2017. Hate crimes committed against religious communities increased 21.1%. The numbers, while horrific, make sense when held against the white supremacist foundations of the Americas; stolen, carved, and re-branded as a haven, not for the people of color already occupying it, but for the Europeans fleeing their homes. California, twice stolen and pillaged, became the heart of Westward Expansion, pushed on by Manifest Destiny, and it seems many people of European descent here are still holding onto the antiquated belief that the world was meant for them all along. This glittering land is more a thing to be seized — an intangible idea — than a home for the world-weary.
If we turn our eyes beyond the United States to Europe and Canada (where lots of us like to pretend we’ll go) the numbers are just as troubling. They might not be trying to strip the body autonomy of their female citizens with the brazen self-possession of a White dude with no medical background or empathy, but that won’t be a far off reality if the trend continues. Canada is home to such groups as the Worldwide Coalition Against Islam, a far-right extremist group, and the United Conservative Party, which won a majority government in Alberta this year. Dr. Barbara Perry, an expert on the far right in Canada and professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, claims there are no fewer than 130 hate groups operating in Canada presently. The stakes in Europe are just as troubling. In a recent story from the BBC it was noted that the rise is building toward total control of the EU:
“A boom in voter support has led to the far right sharing power in Austria and the nationalist League forming a populist coalition in Italy. Spain — once thought a barren ground for such politics — elected multiple far-right politicians to parliament for the first time since the country returned to democracy in 1975.
Now, some of these parties are attempting to organise into a pan-European power bloc.”
With all of this knowledge in mind, my husband and I were still dedicated to leaving our Midwest home behind. After the ascent of Trump we grew disillusioned with our home like never before. I’d grown up knowing the sting of being called a “nigger”, and knew all too well what it felt like to miss out on something because you don’t match the ideal, yet there was an immediacy that finally struck us both to get out. So, we sat down to find our haven. We wanted affordability, good schools, and progressive thinking. More than anything, we wanted to be surrounded by people of color in a blue state. We scoured the internet for election results, demographic information, and costs of living in various locations. We also looked at instances of police brutality and other crimes that targeted people of color. The South was easily knocked out, Oregon couldn’t work with the presence of the Proud Boys and other such White Nationalist groups, and we just couldn’t pin down a place with enough color that was financially reasonable. It was hope and a little desperation that pushed us to look beyond cost to consider a move halfway across the country to California. People nodded when we told them, as if it were the most natural selection the world for the pair of us, but my stomach still twisted in knots.
My family is unmistakably Black with a big, bold B. When I went off to college, my father gave me a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and cautioned me not to stop reading in the middle, or I might try to start a race riot. Both of my parents are college educated professionals who sent my brother and I off into the world — him to The University of Kansas and me to Loyola University Chicago — with more anxiety than your average Midwestern parents. They knew that despite their preparation, our adept code-switching, and the liberal locations we’d chosen as our educational homes, we were never really safe in the world. As the descendants of Exodusters who had been wooed to Kansas under the pretense of free land and social acceptance, only to have those rights stamped out, they knew the game and how it was played. That history was a constant reminder in my household, and why I internally rolled my eyes whenever someone — usually safe in their whiteness — pushed forward the belief that Liberals of all shades can walk free if they are willing to relocate to places championed as shining examples of Progressivism.
Still, spurred on by dogged optimism, we traveled West with tempered hope, making sure to steel ourselves for what could happen. We were aware of the strife on the West Coast — the police brutality, “Permit Patty” and “BBQ Becky”, the protests, and the income inequality — yet we believed leaving a place firmly rooted in Right-wing beliefs for a state working toward equity was the right choice for our family. What I wasn’t prepared for are all the ways California racism mirrors the Kansas brand of bigotry. The moments came quickly once we settled in California. They were seemingly harmless, but they struck me like an uppercut. The neighbor who was kind to my partner, then cold upon discovering the Black wife. The worker at the doughnut shop who pretended I wasn’t there when I went in for breakfast, the woman who yelled at me for daring to touch her arm on my way to the bathroom. Each moment was like a little cut that, when inflicted over and again, can destroy a person.
I’m not as afraid as I was living in Kansas, because in the grand scheme of hate California isn’t the worst place in this country, but is better than the rest good enough when our lives are at stake? As Alabama, Ohio, and Georgia are enacting draconian laws which will undoubtedly strike Black women and other people of color the hardest, I hear the same logic being spouted as I did when my family uprooted to California: just leave! The sentiment ignores the reality that few people are as fortunate as I was to be able to go elsewhere. And if people of color do leave, they are going to places where the cost of living is high and they are going to be paid pennies, if hired at all. Additionally, it flies in the face of what people experience in these “safe havens”. We have a tragedy for every community and fear down most roads. The solution isn’t to run away, but to stake our claim and fight back. Soon enough there will be no place else to go.