Letitia Clark had just moved back to Orange County when she and the Black congregation at her Yorba Linda church found themselves at an anxiety-filled “listening session” in 2013, over a spate of violent and racist harassment that drove a local Black family to relocate.
The prior year, the family — in which both parents were police officers — had found tires slashed, rocks thrown through their windows, and acid pellets shot through their garage door, to name a few incidents.
This story is part of an ongoing series exploring concrete steps Orange County leaders can take to tackle racial justice and hate across the region, amid a recent spike in hate incidents across the county and U.S. during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Clark, now the mayor of Tustin, remembers the distress among members of her church at that forum, over people in their community being “run out of town.”
Fast forward to 2021, when county-funded efforts to research hate crimes and bigotry in the region yielded these results, presented to the county Board of Supervisors in March:
Black people were targeted the most for hate crimes and incidents combined in 2019, more than any other group of people.
Yet Black people are estimated to comprise just 2% of Orange County’s 3 million population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Hate Crimes v. Hate Incidents
A hate crime is a criminal act committed either entirely or partly due to one or more of the following actual or perceived characteristics of the victim: disability, gender, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc. Examples: Assault, threat of violence, or attempted murder; racist or hateful graffiti or vandalism of private property.
A hate incident is an act similarly committed due to the above characteristics but is non-criminal in nature or protected by the First Amendment’s free speech provisions.
That hate crime data comes from the OC Human Relations Commission, which typically gathers this information from local government agencies, as well as people who report through a portal on the commission’s website, into annual reports and co-publishes them with county officials.
The commission presented that data at the request of county officials at the March 23 meeting, seeing a spike in anti-Asian racism during the Coronavirus pandemic, which has yielded violent outcomes like the March killings of six Asian women during a shooting spree in Atlanta, Georgia.
Yet members of the commission noted Black people have also been continually overrepresented among Orange County’s hate crime and incident targets over time.
Another one of the commission’s datasets from 2013 shows Black people in Orange County were consistently targeted the most for hate crimes for an entire decade, from 2003 through 2013.
The Human Relations Commission’s report for the year 2012 notably missed the accounts of the Black family in Yorba Linda.
“Realizing that these hate crimes had not been documented in the annual hate crime report, the Commission convened a series of Listening Sessions (in Yorba Linda) to […] determine if others were experiencing similar incidents of hate and bigotry that were also not being reported to us,” wrote the commission in a later, 2013 report.
Clark said this detail, from the listening session at the Friendship Baptist Church in Yorba Linda, sticks out most:
“I remember my dad in the room, talking about his experiences and bad interactions with the police when he was a teenager and in his young 20s — it was the first time I had ever heard my own father talk about it.”
Clark, reacting to the Human Relations Commission’s new data, said the numbers are alarming but “the fact that there are hate crimes against Black people in the community is not a surprise to me.”
“These have to be reported, and what I often hear are more anecdotal types of situations that happen. It’s interesting, and I wonder if everyone is really reporting it when this happens,” Clark said.
The Human Relations Commission gathers all its data from a number of sources — including an online hate crime reporting portal — and with the cooperation of local law enforcement agencies, cities, and school districts.
But such cooperation is only voluntary for local governments in the county.
There’s no law in place requiring entities like police departments to come forward with racism data — meaning the commission’s work includes much trust and “relationship building over time,” said the commission’s current executive director, Allie Edwards, in an interview.
Thus, the commission doesn’t “disaggregate” all of its regional data to show hate crime numbers by city, Edwards said, because it may discourage some cities from coming forward.
“That’s one of the reasons that we agree not to publicly disaggregate the data, because we feel like it could actually have the reverse effect — where it disincentivizes reporting if there are leaders that think that data will make their city look bad.”
Some local officials fear that such data may be “damaging for businesses” or may make some members of the community feel more unsafe, said Don Han, the commission’s director of operations.
It’s a calculation that Edwards said and her organization has to make for what they view as the greater good of getting as much data as they can:
“I think this is our best chance at tracking and reporting data for the county until the reporting for law enforcement is mandatory. And, and when there’s a move to require that, I think we have more latitude to change.”
On top of that is the issue of funding — the Human Relations Commission, founded in the early 70s, has long been attacked, subjected to political power struggles, and underfunded.
Clark looks at tackling the issue of anti-Blackness and building community in Orange County through Black representation in local government. She said she’s also in the process of pushing a diversity and inclusion committee in Tustin to tackle such issues from the city level.
She’s one of a small number of Black people holding office in Orange County. Others include Richard Hurt on the Aliso Viejo City Council, Marshall Goodman on La Palma’s, and Tanya Doby on Los Alamitos’.
Black visibility in Orange County also came into focus during a summer of social justice protests across the U.S. and throughout local streets, in the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, a Black man.
“There is no Black community throughout the county, not one city you can go to where you can find Black people concentrated in one area. No such place exists,” Clark said. “Having that representation in local government may make Black families feel more comfortable living here.”