Although Oakland, California, has pride in calling itself "the most integrated city in the United States," its neighborhoods can be identified largely along racial and socioeconomic lines. The Oakland hills is a virtual white suburbia (exceptions notwithstanding) with beautiful homes on wooded lots. To the east, on the other side of the low hill range bordering Oakland, are the even more lily white "bedroom communities."
"The flatlands," on the other hand, is a zone of color. The majority of its residents are African Americans, with an increasing population of Latino and Asian Americans, who live in considerably smaller homes and crowded apartment buildings in an urban sprawl. In Oakland socioeconomic status is determined by the slope of your street.
Acutely aware of that racial and class divide, I moved into the Oakland flatlands in the early 1980s as part of a small group of middle-class whites motivated by religious commitment and social conscience (and an unidentified dose of guilt?). One day three of us from this faith community were riding the bus through the flatlands of Oakland on into Berkeley. As white people, we were accustomed to being the racial minority on this urban jaunt. Since all of the seats were occupied when we boarded, we stood at the back of the bus. Several moments after we got on, there was a loud scream.
"Hey, this white mother f-er just stepped on my foot." A black male in his early 20s, seated nearly four feet away, was looking at me in a fit of rage.
While I looked back, confused, he rattled off a series of insulting expletives. Though I was sure that I wasn't near his foot, humility seemed wise. "I am really sorry that I stepped..." I began, but my words were cut short by another sizzling barrage; this time he peppered his insults with threats.