Note: Chief Plummer tells me that he was incorrect about being the first black officer in the department. Based on discussions with longtime veterans, he finds there have been a handful of others since the 1980s, including officers Delton Cooper and Josh Coleman.
The first step to understanding is listening.
In the recent national uproar over race and justice, it seems that there just might be an opportunity to listen to one another. Particularly important, I think, is that white people begin to listen to Black people and other people of color. Without hearing their stories, it will be very difficult for white people to understand the source of anger and anxiety of our non-white fellow Americans.
I had a chance recently to take one small step in that process of listening to one another. The Napa Valley Vintners decided to organize a forum for members to start to hear the stories of our friends and colleagues who are Black. They invited me to be moderator of the online discussion.
They asked Napa Police Chief Robert Plummer to join John Hamilton, a longtime sports agent who sits on the board of directors for Auction Napa Valley, and Kelly Carter, a former journalist who is now director of communications for Alpha Omega winery in Rutherford.
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One of the first things they said was that lots of people – including many white friends – are calling up just to check in on them.
“They’re almost trying to figure out what to say, what to ask,” Hamilton said. He’s been telling friends “it starts with asking questions, and most importantly, doing what we’re doing today — listening, trying to understand, to get a different take on what’s been happening, because clearly what’s been happening in the last several weeks has touched a nerve with a lot of people.”
Carter said a white friend called to ask what she could do to help the cause of racial justice.
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“If you really want to help here, I said, give Black people an opportunity,” she said. “If you’re in a position to hire someone who is Black, then do it … because that experience, that relationship, is going to go so much farther with outside guests.”
In the wine business, for example, the faces that tourists see are almost always white, she said, and she’s heard many tales of Black people feeling ignored or even treated badly. Even professional wine writers have told her of shabby treatment.
And yet Black spending power is in the many billions or more per year, representing customers that wineries have generally done little to court and make comfortable when they visit.
Even though her job is primarily in the office rather than the tasting room, Carter says she likes to mingle with guests when she can, especially Black customers.
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“I do make it a point to go talk to Black people, and I think it’s very important that they see a person of color at the winery – someone that looks like them ... the more faces of color you have in the tasting room, the better it’s going to be for the bottom line,” she said.
Plummer, meanwhile, dropped a surprising – perhaps astonishing – fact on the audience. Not only he is the first Black chief in Napa, he is the first Black officer in the department. Since his hiring two years ago, he has recruited four additional Black officers – two in field training and two in the academy – including one female recruit. He said he didn’t set out to recruit Black officers, but potential employees tend to gravitate toward people who look like them.
Seeing a Black chief on the website, and later meeting a Black chief at recruiting events, simply made it more comfortable for Black recruits to take a serious look at this department.
Plummer also had interesting advice to white people who want to help. He had a woman call recently to ask what she could do, and she went so far as to apologize for being white.
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“I told her, don’t apologize for being white – you didn’t do anything,” he said. “But what you can do moving forward is get involved – if you hear things, see things, then call it out … advocate for equal access across the board. Advocate for getting our communities the things they need to help support those who are less fortunate.”
“It’s not enough not to be racist … we need to be more than that,” he said. “We need to be anti-racist. When you see something along those lines, you have to say something. You have to stand up. You have to take a position … we, all of us, have to be against racism and bigotry in our society.”
All three told remarkable personal stories of the experience of being Black in America, experiences that to my white ears seem baffling and difficult to understand. And yet, they were real experiences happening to our friends, neighbors and colleagues.
It is deeply unsettling to discover that others see your own treasured symbols in a much darker light.
Hamilton told us about an incident just this month where a white motorist cursed and spat at his wife and teenage daughter at a stoplight for no obvious reason. He also recounted a white friend’s astonishment when he explained why he and his wife are so strict with their 17-year-old son — there are just some things a young Black man should not be doing or places he should not be going if he wants to be safe.
“It was a huge awakening for her,” he said.
Carter said she made a deliberate effort to introduce herself to her new neighbors in Yountville to make sure everyone understood why a Black person might be in the area.
“It’s little things like that that people don’t realize that (Black people) go through,” she said.
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It’s not always easy to attribute any single incident to racism, they said, but it adds up to a pattern and forces Black people to be constantly – sometimes exhaustively – aware of their status and identity in society.
“White privilege,” on the other hand, isn’t about having your skin color make your life easier, Carter said, but rather about not having skin color make your life harder.
I wish there had been even more time to hear these stories. I hope it leads us all to have some frank discussions with our friends and neighbors about race and society.
In listening to these kinds of stories, white people, and all Americans, can begin to understand the burden that racism has placed on our minority friends and neighbors, and ultimately has done so much damage to us all.
You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or email@example.com.
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