Santa Barbara County Confronts Bias, Implicit and Explicit

Who’s Behind Bars, Who’s Not, and What’s in a White Man’s Head

Santa Barbara County Jail. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

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SEEING RED OVER WHITE, BLACK, AND BROWN:  This Saturday morning, I found myself cycling up some long grind of a Hope Ranch hill on my way to do an interview. Heading my way from the opposite direction was another cyclist, coasting happily downstream, leaving a spray of gravel in his wake. In that brief second where we passed I got a better look. “Black cyclist,” my brain registered. I wondered in that moment if his brain was similarly registering, “White cyclist.” 

Of course, it’s not quite the same. Black people make up less than 3 percent of the population in Santa Barbara County. And it wasn’t really that long ago that real estate covenants in Hope Ranch barred the sale of any properties to black and Jewish people. But that was back in those good old days — infused in amber — when we could eat pancakes at Sambo’s without being made uncomfortable by the name (finally changed this past week) or the paintings of big-lipped pickaninnies on the wall. America, we are told, is forever losing its innocence. For some of us, obliviousness might be more like it.


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For the rest of the ride, I ran a quick inventory of racial stereotypes. As a kid growing up in the D.C. suburbs, I’d subliminally concluded black consumers leaned toward green products. When it came to the plastic jugs of so-called fruit drinks sold at the corner store, white kids went for the red and black kids for the green. It was a law of physics. When it came to cigarettes, you never saw a black Marlboro Man, but black guys could forever be seen sucking down a menthol in the magazine ads. And those ads didn’t lie. I remember watching a boxing match with a friend’s father; a black guy was fighting a guy wearing a Mexican flag on his satin shorts. At one point, my friend’s father became exasperated. “Don’t you know,” he shouted at the Mexican boxer, “you can’t hurt a black guy by hitting him the head?” I filed that biological curiosity away for safe storage. And as a white teenager growing up in the ’70s, my stereotypes were stereotypically stereotypical; when it came to being badass and cool, black people pretty much set the gold standard. 

So what? As a reporter who’s spent a few years in Santa Barbara courtrooms, I have forever been struck that the overwhelming number of criminal defendants sporting the jailhouse jumpsuits — orange or blue — are either black or brown. White defendants do show up, but statistically speaking, only on occasion. When white defendants stand before the judge, typically they do so while wearing their civilian clothes. Black and brown defendants, as mentioned, tend to appear in orange and blue. Nothing like a chain around one’s waist to make you look guilty and scary. 

Every time, I wonder, how does that happen? Every time, I come away empty-handed. It just is. And “is” is not news.

Turns out, it is. And maybe some of those notions running around my white-boy brain — badass black guys impervious to pain — might have some bearing.

A few years ago, the county’s Juvenile Probation Department hired an outside consulting firm to study “Racial and Ethnic Disparities” — RED for short — when it comes to criminal justice. Although black kids made up just 1.3 percent of the juvenile population, they made up 4 percent of the arrests and 6 percent of those locked up; Latino kids — who made up 62 percent of the juvenile population — made up 76 percent of those incarcerated. When the study was conducted, pot had not yet been legalized. Of the white kids popped for pot possession, 55 percent were diverted to other programs. For Latinos, it was 48 percent. For black people, it was only 16 percent. Black kids, the study found out, were five times more likely to be put on formal probation than white kids — Latinos two times more likely — meaning they can be stopped, frisked, and searched at any time for any reason. Back then, the average white kid successfully completed probation in 602 days. For Latinos, it took 734. For black people, it was 878.

County Probation, it should be noted, has been taking steps to address this issue. The number of kids behind bars has been cut in half since that report was written. But of those locked up, more than 90 percent are brown; the rest are black. 

These numbers are consistent with who’s been getting arrested and locked up in the county jail. Although white people comprised 47 percent of total arrests in 2018, they made up only 32 percent of the jail’s daily population. That’s because white people are disproportionately popped on misdemeanor charges. Black people made up 6 percent of the arrests and 8 percent of the jail population. Latinos made up 43 percent of the arrests and 58 percent of those locked up.

Same story with use of force. Black people make up 8 percent of such incidents, 2 percent of the population.

Such numbers tell only part of the story. In Santa Barbara County, it turns out, black people live, on average, five years less than white people. They are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than white people, and earn roughly $20,000 a year less. Black infants tend to have lower birth weights than white infants and die at twice the rate of white babies coming into this world. Those that make it are less likely to graduate from high school than their white counterparts — 71 percent compared to 87 percent. 

Seeing is believing. At least where race is concerned, it’s just the opposite. Believing is seeing. Badass black people, impervious to pain. The rest follows. 

I think we all need a drink. Make it a green one.

Correction: It is the City of Santa Barbara that has less than 2 percent of black residents; in the county as a whole, it is less than 3 percent.


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