Opinion: Institutional Racism Is Real In Oakland


Exposing Racism in Oakland. Photo courtesy of whatshappeningblackoakland.wordpress.com.

By Wilson Riles Jr.

It was a surprise to me, despite my 38 years of involvement with Oakland City government, to learn that many more departments of the city are “complainant driven” than just the Police Department (OPD).

Being “complainant driven” is a governmental administration term, meaning that counting the number of interactions with complainants is a simple, crude way to measure the level of “public service.”

Usually, in such a management scenario there is little concern for the (harder to measure) quality of the interaction or for justice for the targets of complaints.

There is even less concern for positive results. “Complainant driven” is something that only “delights” budget makers and bean counters.

In OPD, officers have been paid on the bases of moving the complainant “meter” in one direction or another. Patrol officers are distributed around the city in order to maximize opportunities for rapid complainant responses.

That this makes no difference to crime reduction, nor to the identification or the arrest of perpetrators, seems irrelevant. When critics, like me, insist that the quality of the complainant response must improve, inevitably every city administration’s cry is that the number of complainants an individual officer can respond to would go way, way down.

Thus, more officers must be hired to do the job if one wants quality. I say ridiculous!

Such a cry assumes a lot and ignores a lot. When critics attempt to dive into those assumptions, missing factors, and alternative approaches, somehow, we never get back to the abomination of being complainant driven.

Complainants drive the city bureaucratic machinery in such a way that inequality, racism, and costly ineffectiveness are the result. This is nothing but the facilitation of invidious institutional practices that furthers bias, blindness, and racism, regardless of the biases or lack of them of city staff.

Somewhere in this process good city management would ask:

  1. What are the present-day and historical factors that generate complaints?
  2. Who complains to the Police as a first response?
  3. Does this type of poor quality response ever result in an improved quality of life? [The answer is rarely!]
  4. Are there alternative approaches and processes that have proved themselves less costly, more beneficial, and more cost effective? [The answer is definitely!]

“Complainant driven” governmental structures are rooted in and mired in systemic, institutional white supremacy and in elitist class consciousness.

Now, I have discovered that the Zoning/Planning Department is complainant driven also. The police powers of that department were exercised on me due to religiously bigoted and dominance-displaying neighborhood complaints.

[In no way am I equating what happen to me, my family, and friends to what happens to brothers and sisters caught up in the criminal justice system, but the systemic, discriminatory, unjust elements are the same.]

The zoning division of the Planning Department assumed we were guilty of something simply because we were the target of complaints. Charges that had nothing to do with the complaints were piled high and penalties were threatened to coerce us to give up our constitutional rights and we were shoehorned into an expensive, horrendously frustrating process in order to defend ourselves.

Not until, nearly three years later, at the very end of that process was there any chance to question the validity or the accuracy of the complaints.

Not until the end was there any consideration of just outcomes. Just as in the criminal justice system, one only gets to that end point if one has huge resources or a lot of friends who can organize.

This is wrong!

Because these institutional biases and prejudices are so deeply embedded in these systems and because they no longer need conscious racism from city staff to be manifest, a radical change in structural processes, goals, and accountable management are absolutely needed.

Elected leadership can no longer play rhetorical games.

The wishy washy, inconsistent leadership provided by the city council and the mayors over past years must be, now, focused like a laser on uncovering and overturning our city’s furtherance of inequality.

Complainant driven systems must end.

Wilson Riles Jr. served as a member on the Oakland City Council from 1979 to 1992 representing District 5 Fruitvale District.



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