Rollie column

Rollie Atkinson

Do black lives matter? Of course they do. But the more relevant question to those of you reading this and for everyone else who lives in Sonoma County is, “Do brown lives matter?” That’s because less than 2% of our county’s 500,000 population is black, while 28% of us are Latino and another 4.6% are Asian-Americans.

Millions are now marching for George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis policeman’s knee on his throat. We’ve been marching for Latino teen Andy Lopez since 2013 after he was shot dead by a deputy sheriff because Andy’s toy gun was mistaken for a real one. Of course brown lives matter and all lives matter. But some of our laws, access to proper health care, job, education and housing opportunities and cultural tolerances suggest otherwise. Just saying something matters doesn’t make it true. It takes actions, attitudes and aptitudes.

Sonoma County suffers from a pervasive “racial pandemic,” a new diagnosis rendered last week by the county’s director of health services Barbie Robinson and by Dr. Sundari Mase, our public health officer, who has been leading the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic with great success. Her greatest regret is that 75% of the victims of the county’s positive coronavirus cases have been Latino. Latinos are nine times more likely to contract the virus than non-Latinos, Mase said.

This is not a failure of Mase’s policies. This is a historical failure caused by our social injustices and economic inequality that dates to the very earliest days of European and Spanish colonization.

Sonoma County has grown to become a place of great achievements, opportunities and affluence. But it is also a place with pockets of shameful poverty, systemic prejudices, unprotected populations and willful denials that we’ve had a racial pandemic for decades.

We could reprint the current demographic statistics of our racial and economic imparities here as we have done here countless times in the past. Or, we could offer this “origin story.”

Maria Carrillo traveled here by ox cart in 1836 with nine children to join her son-in-law Mariano Vallejo, a Californio general in charge of the Mexican lands of the region. In 1838, Carrillo was granted the 8,885 acres that became the location of the city of Santa Rosa. She is considered the “mother” of Santa Rosa. She died in 1849, the richest person in the region. Her last surviving son, Julio, laid out the original street grid and courthouse square that became downtown Santa Rosa. He became the victim of a series of land swindles at the hands of a few Anglo bankers and merchants. (He sold his deed to courthouse square for $300.) He died in 1889, almost penniless and was the janitor who lived in the courthouse basement. Large swaths of generations of brown people here have been swindled ever since.

The separation of Latino poverty and Anglo riches may, or may not, be any less stark today. Forty percent of all our Latino families live below the federal poverty line and have a shorter life expectancy than whites by almost 10 years. The doors to home ownership and educational opportunities open much less often here for brown people than whites. We all know this picture; we just didn’t know it was a “pandemic.”

We can conquer the coronavirus with a vaccine, but there is no vaccine for racism or unjust economics. But don’t tell that to the young brown, black and white faces now marching in our streets and assembling in our town squares. Their awakened outrage, civil action and petitions for grievance are the cellular ingredients for an anti-racist vaccine. They must keep their voices raised until more of us are convinced that we have more than one pandemic to overcome right now.

We are all fearful of the pathogen COVID-19 virus, and we wear facemasks to protect one another. To defeat the other pandemic means we must remove another mask, the one that hides the shame of Santa Rosa’s Latino co-founder dying penniless in a basement.

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