the meaning of systemic racism
Lauren Hepler’s investigative reporting on the case of Mr. Leonard Powell’s home travail in Berkeley (SF Chronicle, 2–27–22 page 1) motivates me to tell how I found myself in the middle of this travesty which elaborates systemic racism and the sad plight of elders on fixed income.
Before COVID-19 I would shoot baskets at the Berkeley YMCA with my friend, Fred, another retired doc. One of the regular basketballers is Fred’s friend Gerard. That’s Gerard Keena II the receiver in Hepler’s story about how things got totally out of control with Leonard Powell’s home of 40 years.
About 2 years ago I was contacted by Gerard (known on the basketball court as the “mailman” because of his inside efficiency). Gerard explained his business is court-ordered receiverships and he was having trouble gaining Mr. Powell’s confidence and collaboration. He thought Mr. Powell would have to sell his home because costs were skyrocketing on necessary upgrades the city was requiring — work he, Gerard, had ordered on the home. Community members were supporting Mr. Powell’s resistance to how he was being treated. Gerard asked if I might help him with his problem. I mentioned that an old friend of mine works with the community group in South Berkeley the Chronicle story refers to and I would inquire about this situation. I contacted Gene. He realized I knew nothing of this outrageous effort driving another elderly Black homeowner — retired and on a fixed income — out of our community on false pretenses. Gene explained how it began with a police search warrant for someone who was only a temporary guest and led to Powell being saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in required home renovations.
I called Gerard back, told him what I had learned and gave my opinion that he’d put himself on the wrong side of this dispute that Berkeley has inappropriately foisted on Mr. Powell. “You should get yourself out of this receivership on moral and social justice grounds,” I told him. “If you don’t you will not only harm Leonard Powell but you’ll also ruin your own reputation.” Obviously, Gerard did not take my advice to heart. I suppose that’s because he makes his living as a receiver (which sounds to me like nasty business in the first place).
Now with Lauren Hepler’s investigation we know that Mr. Powell’s is not an isolated case but part of a draconian system imbued with hidden racism, unchallengeable power and crass indifference to public and community needs. Good liberal people often don’t recognize how their behavior contributes to systems that bolster gentrification and force people of color out of Bay Area cities. Beyond the problem of landlord evictions, the pressure on Powell was effected under color of law. That amounts to a government sponsored effort creating homelessness. In Mr. Powell’s situation, there was never any evidence his home was a drug den or drug sales location, but once police dropped that accusation onto the table, it stuck. This is an old story repeated. Apparently, Leonard Powell is hardly the only victim of this home flipping apparatus authorized by state and local authorities.
A last point about the term “systemic racism”: Leonard Powell and I are essentially the same age — he was born in 1942, myself in 1941 in New York City. When Powell bought his home on Harmon street in 1974 the bank valued it at $55,000 (a fixer upper), but he has much more square footage than my home. My wife and I bought our smaller home in an upscale neighborhood in Berkeley in 1986 for $195,000. Just the location alone is today worth close to 2 million dollars. Although we are not among the so-called 1%, our parents had greater resources to pass down to us than most African Americans coming out of slavery were allowed to accumulate. So we put down 50% on our home purchase and we knew our home’s value would rise more rapidly that of homes in South and West Berkeley. Add to that wealth difference the redlining — and in the new millennia gentrification — and Powell’s situation is typical. This injustice — historic and systemic racism — is tearing apart the social fabric of the United States. It cries out for rectification and reparation. Leonard Powell deserves both a heartfelt apology from the City of Berkeley and an assumption by the city of 100% of these upgrade costs (plus creation of a mechanism to provide funding for necessary upgrades for future low income and fixed income residents found to be in housing code violation).
If we don’t want to see this country run by white supremacists and violent Trumpmaniacs we better figure out how to help change the sight lines of who we are as a community and nation. This is not just a problem for political activists. There’s plenty we can do in our own lives besides less flushing of the toilet to conserve water. Gerard Keena, I must assure you, is a very nice guy and not a racist, but like the rest of us he needs to re-evaluate the impact of how he makes his living.