Reno is a tough place to live when you’re young and black

The 2000 U.S. Census

Photo by David Robert

At the malls, at the clubs, at the supermarkets, ever wonder where the black people are? Some African Americans say there are a number of reasons to keep a low profile in northern Nevada

It’s 1991.

Stephanie Tau is 8 years old. She’s at school. It’s recess, and she’s doing what she does during most of her recreational time—playing with her white friends and trying to convince herself that she too can be white. Her skin is the shade of light-brown sugar, and she has large chestnut eyes, like the doe-eyed characters of Japanimation cartoons. She is half African American and half Samoan, but her experiences have made her heritage into a curse.

As Tau plays, she notices a boy nearby who has hurt himself. A couple of teachers ask her to run to the nurse’s office and bring back a first-aid kit. The nurse tells her she can’t have the kit. The boy must come to the nurse himself.

Tau returns, ready to explain her lack of Band-Aids, when a teacher says, “What took you so long? What were you doing … picking cotton?”

On Feb. 12, Tau turned 20, but this experience remains fresh in her psyche. Tall, thin and striking in appearance, Tau has taken the discrimination she has been subjected to over the years and turned it into a desire to help other minorities. The services she offers to the community are a direct result of feeling ostracized as a girl.

Tau isn’t likely to make an appearance at clubs or concerts around town. She doesn’t have much spare time, but there are also a lot of places that don’t make her feel welcome, even though she is a Reno native. She keeps herself busy with school (she’s in her second semester at Truckee Meadows Community College) and through her involvement with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Youth Council, the Reno Youth City Council, her church and her job at the Boys & Girls Club of Truckee Meadows.

Her misadventures in the world of public education afflicted Tau with low self-esteem that has taken time to rebuild. Aside from racial slurs leaked out by classmates and teachers, it was the minutiae of daily life that was often the most debilitating. When the word “nigger” was discussed in class, everyone turned to see her reaction. When the role of Rosa Parks came up in the school play, everybody assumed she wanted and would gladly accept it. When she talks about what it has been like to grow up in Reno as an African American, her simplicity and depth are reminiscent of a Toni Morrison novel.

“Being able to be proud of being black was a big challenge here in Reno,” she says. “Growing up, all my friends were white, and we all suffered from the circumstances of that. I could count on my fingers the blacks who went to my school, and some of those were my sisters. The black kids I knew didn’t want to be black. They didn’t even want to have black friends. So we tried to ignore it. There were no black kids.”

People who experience racism react in different ways. Some get angry. Some, like Tau, devote themselves to eradicating it.

reports that the African-American population in Washoe County is 2.1 percent, while the state percentage is 6.8 (nationally, it’s 12.3 percent). This means that two out of every 100 kids, teenagers and young adults at the malls, movie theaters, supermarkets, bars or on the streets should be black. It’s a small number, but those who pay attention will notice there seem to be even fewer.

Then again, it depends on where you go. If you spend an hour at Roller Kingdom on East Seventh Street, you will see more minorities than at Meadowood Mall.

NAACP records from the 1950s and ‘60s document that Reno’s African-American population in 1950 was close to 1 percent and that it had increased to 2 percent by 1960. Going by these numbers, the racial forecast predicted that blacks would comprise 4 percent of the population in Washoe County by 1970, but this did not happen, and the numbers have stayed relatively flat ever since.

the Boys & Girls Club with Tau. She says she knows why there aren’t many blacks in Reno.

“Compared to Texas,” Cox says, “there’s nothing to do here if you’re not into clubbing or spending your whole paycheck on gambling.”

Cox wears the same silver hoop earrings as Tau, glasses in front of sleepy, coffee-colored eyes and her braided hair is pulled back into one of those claw hair clips. She has lived in Reno for only two and a half years since following her fiancé from Texas. He attends the University of Nevada, Reno, on a basketball scholarship, and she attends TMCC. She will be more than ready to leave Reno once he is done with school.

“I work full time and I coach,” she says. “In my spare time, I play basketball, and sometimes I go to the movies. But movies here are a huge issue. The movie Brown Sugar, a film with an all-black cast, stayed in town for one week. And they don’t even show movies like that after a certain hour. The latest showing is like 5 p.m., because they don’t want the black kids hanging around the movie theater at night.”

Black students at UNR echo Cox’s sentiments. “There has not been one good movie review about black movies in the Reno Gazette-Journal since I’ve been here,” says Femia Durosinmi, 21. “And I mean some of these are films that should be nominated for Oscars. And I’ve never seen a city where you keep a black movie in a theater for a weekend, and yet it’s No. 1 in the box office. Antwone Fisher was a good movie, but that was only here for maybe a week.”

It makes a kind of sense that a corporate theater would be inclined to give a film a short run when only a small percentage of the population would likely pay to see it. Extended running of a “black” film means that bigger “white” movies get less playing time, which means less money for the theater. But why don’t white audiences want to see films with predominantly black casts, even when they feature major, award-winning, dreamboat stars like Denzel Washington?

And it’s not just the Reno movie industry that irritates some young African Americans, but also the treatment local theaters and other businesses dish out to their black patrons.

Arriva Gordon is 22 years old, although she looks about 15. Her hair is pulled tight into a ponytail that cascades its curls all over her head. She’s a UNR student who rarely has time to socialize because she works nights. Gordon says that of four movie theaters she used to frequent in Reno, today she goes into only two of them. Also, in her experience, people of different races do want to see black films. When she went to see Brown Sugar, she went with a group of about 20 friends, many of them Caucasian and Asian. The film was being shown on only one small screen, but the theater was packed with people. Gordon wanted to see the film again with her friends on the following weekend, but it had moved on.

At Century Theaters Corporation headquarters, Chief Operating Officer David Shesgreen would not comment on the treatment of minorities at its chains or on the short runs of films with African American casts.

Like many African-American youth who lived in Reno before going to college, Gordon has many friends who are not black. In comparison, black university attendees from such cities as Las Vegas or the Bay Area tend to associate predominantly with one another, although the university setting potentially fosters harmony among students of all races.

“Because a lot of the black students are from Vegas,” says Josi dos Santos, 20, “they have that in common and stick together. I don’t think it’s a black-white thing.” Dos Santos is the petite vice president of the Black Student Organization at UNR and came to the school from Vegas. She is Latino and originally from Brazil.

“It’s a big change to come to Reno, where the minority community is so small,” she says. “A lot of these students come from places where it’s very diverse, and it’s a bit of a culture shock.”

young African Americans, notices that police officers and business owners seem to hassle her more than her Caucasian counterparts. She recalls many situations in which store clerks scrutinized every move of her finger, every shift of her feet."I think people like me, who hang out with different groups of people, realize it a lot more,” Gordon says. “When I’m with my black friends, certain things happen that won’t happen with my white friends. I’ll go to the same exact store, and I’m treated totally different. It gets to the point where there are certain groups of friends you would rather hang out with at certain places, because you’d rather be treated a certain way.

Rose Gordon, president of the Reno-Sparks NAACP, says she has often witnessed acts of racism in Reno, but says there’s hope if young people get involved with groups like the NAACP.

Photo by David Robert

“Sometimes you’ll go to the store, and all you want to do is get some soda or chips and there’s this person standing behind you constantly saying, ‘Can I help you? Can I help you? Can I help you?’ You try to be polite and say, ‘No, thank you,’ but then this person is still standing there. Six new people walk in, and that person’s still standing behind you. When it first starts happening you think, ‘Something needs to be done, we need to tell somebody, we need to say something.’ Then it gets to the point where you start thinking, ‘Why bother,’ and you just go somewhere else, or you don’t go out at all.”

Since Arriva Gordon’s mother is Rose Gordon, president of the Reno-Sparks NAACP, it might be guessed that she could easily publicize the whens and wheres of discrimination, but not so. Rose Gordon herself often witnesses acts of prejudice, both subtle and blatant, that she can do little about except to stop patronizing the establishments in which they occur. If she were to do this in every business that rubbed her the wrong way, she would soon run out of places to buy groceries and go to dinner. Many times she has noticed store clerks who have chatted up the white women in front of her and then given nary a ‘Hello’ or a ‘Hi, how are you’ to Gordon herself.

“I was at [a local casino] waiting for someone I was meeting for dinner,” Rose Gordon says. “I’m watching people coming in and out of [one of the nightclubs]. There was a young man coming out, and he was so intoxicated he could hardly stand. He fell all over me. His friends said, ‘Hee, hee, hee, oh, he’s just drunk.’ They sat him down, and he’s slinging his arms, throwing profanities around. So, security came, and I thought they were going to remove them all. But instead, the security guard said to his friends they shouldn’t have let him drink so much and then left him alone.”

A few minutes later, Gordon says, three minority women and a man came out of the same club, slightly intoxicated. Security officers immediately threw the man out. Yet the white man was still sitting there, sloppy drunk, but holding another drink.

“When my friend finally [came out], I just asked if we could leave. If security is going to tell the friends to take care of this one, they need to tell the friends to take care of that one. It’s that kind of conscious or unconscious treatment that the young people have to put up with.”

Arriva Gordon nods and hums “hmmm hmms” as her mother speaks. She feels the same way.

“The subtleness that [my mom] was talking about is really right. It’s more hurtful when you know it’s being aimed toward you, but you can’t do anything because they’re not coming out and saying it.”

could hardly describe Willie Ealy’s run-ins with law enforcement. Ealy is 20 years old and attends UNR. He is handsome, dark auburn and more than 6 feet tall. He wears a blue bandana around his head, and a black and blue nylon sports suit. His GPA is above 3.0, and he is the second vice director of his fraternity. He drives an ‘87 Cutlass Supreme that sits on chrome rims. Ealy says it’s a “typical gangster car” in cops’ minds. He says that if he’s in his car and passes a cop, he is pulled over almost every time.

“It’s the car more than anything,” Ealy says with a gentle laugh, ‘but then they see the face in the car, and that’s just a double negative. The first thing they always ask is, ‘Have you ever been arrested, do you have any warrants?’ and I’ll say, ‘No sir,’ and give him everything he needs, and they’ll say something like, ‘Make sure you buckle your safety belt.’ I’ve been pulled over many times, and I’ve never had a ticket.”

Prejudgment based on race, such as Ealy has faced, may soon be a misdemeanor if committed by officers of the peace. In 2001, the Nevada Legislature passed a bill that prohibited racial profiling, although no penalty was specified for the offense. The legislation defined racial profiling as “reliance by a peace officer upon the race, ethnicity or national origin of a person as a factor in initiating action when the race, ethnicity or national origin of the person is not part of an identifying description of a specific suspect for a specific crime.”

The law passed in 2001 also called for the Nevada attorney general to do a study establishing the frequency and extent of racial profiling across Nevada. Law enforcement agencies throughout the state documented traffic stops from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 2002, specifically recording the race of each individual pulled over.

The results may be surprising to some and expected by others. Among the Reno driving-age population (which includes ages 15 and older), 2.4 percent of drivers are black. Among drivers stopped by the Reno Police Department, 4.2 percent were black.

Comparing residential data from the 2000 Census with the traffic stop reports may not be a highly accurate way of looking at the data, but it can be still be useful if interpreted properly. It was also reported that in only 16.5 percent of the stops between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. and in only 14.8 percent of stops between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. was the race of the driver known prior to the traffic stop.

Some local officials said the data was meaningless because it was too raw, comparing last year’s stops to residential census data from two years ago. Also, the methodology that works for some cities doesn’t necessarily take into account the impacts of tourists.

“The way the state did the study is invalid,” says Reno police Chief Jerry Hoover. “It doesn’t work. The 2000 Census says what the demographics of the Reno area are, but the study doesn’t take into consideration the 6 million visitors coming into the city every year. The study also doesn’t take into consideration what is prompting the stops. If somebody calls and says they saw some suspicious people fitting a certain description, an officer will look for and stop people fitting that description.”

The study did send some politicians into action. Joe Neal (D-Las Vegas), a black senator known for his populist stances, is not happy with what appears to be racial profiling. On Feb. 3, Neal read his Senate Bill 20 to the Committee on Government Affairs. The bill would make racial profiling by a peace officer a misdemeanor.

Hoover didn’t think this was an appropriate reaction to a flawed study.

“And now we’ve got this idiotic, knee-jerk response by at least one politician,” the police chief says. “If racial profiling were made illegal, it would put our community and our officers in jeopardy. It infuriates me that people want to pass laws on invalid studies. The study is worthless. It’s not worth the paper it’s written on.”

Hoover says Delaware-based consultant [John] Lamberth, who has worked on racial profiling studies with other agencies, is helping to complete a new study that would take into consideration the tourist population and those citizen complaints.

“When we’ve got the valid information, then we’ll look at the situation,” Hoover says.

Others contend that the report is pretty damning. According to the report, and based on the percentages of people stopped by police (not based on the census numbers), black people receive fewer citations, more warnings, more arrests and more “no actions” than any other race. Black people are searched more, by percentage, than any other race. The data appears to support the theory that black people are often stopped without cause (See table, page 12), although it could be interpreted to mean black people are more likely to be pulled over for non-moving violations, like an expired license plate, for which warnings are generally issued.

Complaints about the study’s methods are overblown, says Richard McCorkle, the UNLV professor who compiled the data.

“There are problems with comparing stop data to census data, but it’s not from the tourists,” says McCorkle. “One of the charts removes people with out-of-state IDs.”

Sr. remembers when Reno was called the Little Mississippi of the West. He has been in Reno almost 38 years. At the time he came to Reno, blacks were not allowed into many area casinos, hotels and motels. It’s a local truism that Sammy Davis Jr. could not stay the night in the casinos where he was headlining. NAACP documents from 1960 report that more than 120 motels and casinos across Carson City, Reno and Sparks said they did not accept “negro” patrons. This was followed by a list of 13 hotels and motels that did accommodate blacks.

Butler spreads God’s word on behalf of First Baptist Church of Black Springs Reno. He is also the founder of Ambassador Production Outreach, a program that works with youths aged 8-25 and provides them with the tutoring, guidance and support to stay away from drugs, gangs and other detrimental activities. He often works at the Boys & Girls Club with Tau and Cox. He begins many of his sentences with the phrase, “I often say.”

“People still judge people based on the color of their skin, as opposed to the content of their character,” says Butler. “But you learn to live with it, and every chance you get to inspire change, you try to make that impact. I’ve often said Reno has come a mighty long ways but has a long ways to go. Discrimination is nowhere near what it used to be, but there is still some here. There are some that have not forgotten. And kids will live what they learn. They don’t start living discrimination until they learn it, and they usually learn it from their parents. I often say, ‘The greatest gift you can give to anyone is the gift of a good example.’ “in Reno since 1989 and has a 3-year-old child. He wears a black henley shirt that has been washed so many times it’s turning gray. A 5 o’clock shadow offers a ruggedness to his meek appearance. He has experienced some serious discrimination since his son came into the world. At a custody hearing, the judge even asked him if he was sure his child—who is half white—was his. Tarver was almost thrown in jail after imparting a few choice words to the judge."I don’t know if change is possible in Reno,” Tarver says. “I think that no matter what you do and no matter how much the times change, you’re still going to have those people out there that are set in their ways, and that’s that. It’s up to us to react properly to the situation. I’ll walk past someone who makes a rude comment and I’ll just say, ‘Have a nice day,’ and go about my business. Kill them with kindness.”

to change. Since few black Reno teenagers and 20-somethings expect a major shift in the near future, many intend to leave. It’s this situation that keeps the Washoe County black population at 2.1 percent.

Stephanie Tau, Brandi Cox, Femia Durosinmi, Josi dos Santos, Arriva Gordon, Willie Ealy and Daryl Tarver say they would prefer not to raise a family in Reno, due either to the lack of black culture or the underlying bias toward people with skin that is not ivory or peach colored.

“There’s a lot missing here that shouldn’t be," Tau says. "My own experiences here handicapped me. They took away my self-confidence, so I had to start all over again. And I was taught to keep quiet rather than speak out. I do not want to raise my kids here. I want my kids to have a sense of black culture and a good upbringing before they come to a place like this."