Arcata’s vice-mayor deplores racism’s role in killing

CONDEMNATION Arcata Vice-Mayor Sofia Pereira spoke out at last week’s Arcata City Council meeting, saying something needs to be done about the community’s systemic racism. Screen shot from City of Arcata website

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

ARCATA – Days after the murder of a black Humboldt State University undergraduate, Arcata Vice-Mayor Sofia Pereira issued an unsparing condemnation.

“We cannot continue to ignore the systemic and cultural racism that exists in our community,” she declared at the opening of last week’s regular Arcata City Council meeting. “While we can say we’ve been working on issues of equity in our community, we as a community failed [murder victim] Josiah [Lawson] and other students of color, who have stated over and over that they do not feel safe and welcomed here.”

Every other member of the council and its staff sat mum and expressionless as Pereira called attention with an emphatic rebuke to Humboldt’s bigotry against people of color that reaches back to the Indian Island massacre of 1860 and has endured since.

In meetings with HSU students in the wake of Lawson’s murder, she said, “I heard first-hand the fear that students of color have about local racism and for their safety off-campus; they know and we know that racial inequities continue to exist. The students expressed concerns that I share, that race played a role in the homicide.”

Pereira said she met with many students who expressed concern over the response time and the priorities of the first responders who arrived on scene. “It is important to me that our students of color feel safe and protected. I will ensure that once the criminal investigation is complete that we review the actions of our response and identify which actions have led to these concerns.” The Union confirmed the concerns independently.

Saying “I deeply apologize” for Arcata’s failure to oppose racism openly and aggressively, Pereira, a 2009 HSU alum, told her colleagues and meeting attendees, “I am saddened by this senseless act of violence, as is everyone I have spoken with.

“I learned a lot of wonderful things about Josiah’s time here at Humboldt State University and his plans for the future. He was a bright light in the lives he touched – with a kind heart, a great sense of humor and a drive to create change” in the criminal justice system.

Pereira closed her statement with a confession. “These words don’t feel enough because they aren’t enough. I heard loud and clear from the students I spoke with that we need to take action. So that is where we must go from here.”

An uncomfortable silence followed before Mayor Susan Ornelas called the meeting to order matter-of-factly and announced the Pledge of Allegiance.

One of the Arcata residents at the meeting, HSU alum Tina Sampay (2016), lauded Pereira’s solitary denunciation of the community’s racist underbelly.

“That was really powerful,” Sampay said in an interview minutes afterward. “For her to say that the city has failed these students because they have voiced their concerns before: for me that was enough accountability for the moment,” even though Pereira did not specify what actions she would like the council to take.

Sampay added, “If the city could see it has failed the students, why can’t HSU admit its institutional failures?”

She zeroed in on the university’s substandard retention rate of large numbers of students of color, a decades-old problem that the campus has been unable to surmount once and for all.

“A lot of thought and strategic planning have gone into trying to alleviate this retention problem,” Sampay said, “but I read a master’s thesis by the dean of students [Randi Darnall Burke] written in 1994. That means I was two years old! She wrote her thesis about why do students of color not feel comfortable at Humboldt State? Now she’s the dean of students and here I am 20-something years later and you guys are still having these problems?” Sampay exclaimed in exasperation.

“Yet you guys continue to come and recruit students from the most vulnerable parts [of the state] and bring them up here in the middle of nowhere. I feel that in itself is just a huge failure.”

Sampay was approached at a college fair in south central Los Angeles. A female recruiter sold her HSU and the natural beauty of Humboldt. “She probably said something about the academics, but the biggest impression, the thing that I remember the most about it looking back, was that the main selling point was the natural beauty.

“Pretty much the school sells itself as this inclusive place that is so welcoming of everyone and that HSU works so hard to make sure that everyone feels included. That is untrue of the administration. The students and the faculty, I think they are sincere and understanding and inclusive, but they don’t have much power. The higher you go into the administration, the less that inclusiveness and understanding is shown.

“Across departments, they don’t make sure they’re sharing information. Maybe they don’t communicate as well as they should with each other.”

President Lisa Rossbacher is far more removed than her predecessor, Rollin Richmond, was criticized for being, Sampay stated. “We had to make a fuss about why isn’t [Rossbacher] ever coming to any of the cultural events on campus. Why is the president never here on campus? It seems like she’s not integrated with what’s happening.”

Union: “Are you saying she’s largely invisible?”

Sampay: “Yes, definitely. Largely invisible and I remember when we got an email that said there would be an ombudsperson. We couldn’t really talk to the president, we had to go through this ombudsperson and I thought that was so bizarre. It’s really hard to speak with her [Rossbacher] and get a meeting, you know? She doesn’t have any reputation at all with students of color because she’s never present for them even to make an evaluation.”

There have been increased efforts in recent years to bolster inclusion, Sampay agreed, mentioning the creation of culture-specific academic centers on campus “to give students a space. But for some reason the university just continues to fall short and I just don’t understand how they have a whole administration and people with these Ph.D.s and master’s degrees, but yet they don’t understand how to make their students feel more included on campus.”

As for the university’s marketing practices, Sampay is contemptuous and dismissive. “The images of people of color shown on the [campus] website are tokenism and a bit misleading. But they do have a two percent black population on campus, so it’s not that misleading.”

Humboldt State is not all bad, she emphasized. “It has a great science program, but I still regret I went to Humboldt. If I had gone to a different school I would have been better prepared” for the job market.

Sampay was accepted by Tuskegee University in Alabama, the private, historically black campus founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881. She chose HSU instead because it offered better financial incentives at less cost, including a fee waiver for her dorm. HSU recruiters stayed in constant touch, courting her diligently, she recalled.

“If I’d gone to an historically black college instead of these predominantly white institutions, everything in the university would have revolved around me as a black student. My friends who went to Tuskegee were wearing suits every day and nice attire, being developed for beyond college.”

She started to cry. “Humboldt does so much to bring us up here, but they don’t really care about what happens to us afterward. Why would you bring students up here to an environment where there is a serious lack of opportunity? What are students supposed to do when they graduate if the people in the community can’t even get a job? That in itself is so horrible. Now that I’m up here, I’m stuck here until I can save enough money to move. I came from a foster home so I just feel like stuck. I feel getting through Humboldt took the passion out of me when I started to see where I was at.”

Sampay called on HSU marketers to level with prospective students about the North Coast’s poor job opportunities, its lack of diversity “once you venture off campus” and the unbridled and dangerous culture of hard drugs.


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