White Oakland residents are increasingly using the popular social networking site to report “suspicious activity” about their Black neighbors — and families of color fear the consequences could be fatal.
October 07, 2015 | News & Opinion | By Sam Levin
The strange glances are starting to become more frequent. James Fisher, a fourteen-year-old freshman at Oakland Charter High School, has noticed that as he gets older, more people on the street eye him with suspicious or fearful stares. “Some of them just look at me, and then they’ll look away,” he said. “Or sometimes, I go into stores, and they look at me like they think I’m going to do something bad.”
James is a mixed-race, dark-skinned Black teenager who is soft-spoken and looks about three years older than his actual age. On a recent afternoon last month, I chatted with him and Emma, his thirteen-year-old sister, at their house in the Upper Dimond neighborhood in the Oakland hills. The two siblings told me about their first weeks of high school and how they have enjoyed the freedom at times to walk around Oakland’s Chinatown district without their parents.
But they never walk around their own neighborhood alone.
The tree-lined residential street of large single-family homes where the Fishers live more closely resembles suburbia than a densely populated city. Positioned at the top of a steep hill near Dimond Canyon Park, their house feels worlds away from the busy urban bustle of MacArthur Boulevard and the Fruitvale district just to the southwest. On the surface, their block looks like an ideal place to raise kids — safe, family-friendly, and quiet. Although their individual street is very diverse — with about ten Black or mixed-race kids now living nearby — white residents are by far the largest racial group in the surrounding area. And it’s in this neighborhood, perhaps more so than any other part of Oakland, that James feels most like a target for the uncomfortable glances that are becoming increasingly common in his life.
But he and his parents are not just worried about hurtful stares from neighbors or passersby. Over the last two years, their neighborhood has become overrun with racial profiling — but not by police, rather by mostly white residents incorrectly assuming that people of color who are walking, driving, hanging out, or living in the neighborhood are criminal suspects. These residents often don’t recognize that they may have long held racial prejudices or unconscious biases, but recently, they’ve been able to instantly broadcast their unsubstantiated suspicions to thousands of their neighbors with the click of a mouse.
Nextdoor.com, a website that bills itself as the “private social network for neighborhoods,” offers a free web platform on which members can blast a wide variety of messages to people who live in their immediate neighborhood. A San Francisco-based company founded in 2010, Nextdoor’s user-friendly site has exploded in popularity over the last two years in Oakland. As of this fall, a total of 176 Oakland neighborhoods have Nextdoor groups — and 20 percent of all households in the city use the site, according to the company.
TOP PHOTO: Shikira Porter, an Upper Dimond resident, has asked her neighbors to stop racially profiling Black Oaklanders on Nextdoor — but has faced significant pushback from Nexdoor users and the group moderator.