MISSION VIEJO — From its gated communities to its high-rise office buildings to the racial composition of its power brokers, Orange County is for many synonymous with being white.
Fewer than 2% of its citizens are black, and for many of them, just being heard is a struggle of daily affirmation. A series of recent events has served to underscore what African Americans say makes it challenging, if not unnerving, to live here.
"We're not all treated the same, and we've been suffering for a long time," said Jeanne Mazique-Craig, a professor at Saddleback College and head of the school's Cross-Cultural Center. "Living in Orange County has not become any easier for people of color. Unless we start handling problems that we have now, I don't foresee a good future in Orange County."
Today marks the beginning of Black History Month, and despite the parades, forums and festivals designed to observe the event, many claim to see mounting evidence of festering problems, rather than reasons to celebrate.
They cite the divisiveness of the O.J. Simpson verdict and comments by a Laguna Niguel councilman that widened the breach even further; the expected demise of the Black Orange, the county's only magazine written by and for African Americans; and the case of Orange County Sheriff's Deputy Darryn Leroy Robins, who died on Christmas Day 1993 after being shot by his white partner during an impromptu training session that raised questions of how and why Robins died.
After an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, which could have brought federal civil rights charges, his partner, Brian P. Scanlan, was exonerated.
Lump in attacks on affirmative action by Gov. Pete Wilson and others at the state level, and blacks in Orange County say the experience of living here has grown harder and more threatening.
"I feel there are significant problems," Ron Coley, the new president of 100 Black Men of Orange County, recently said. "I do stay in touch with hate crimes, and I know those numbers have increased. Orange County is a challenging place for anybody to live. But for the black businessman, I'm sure that he has extraordinary challenges. The thing that we truly want to be able to do is to make positive contributions to the Orange County community."
Mazique-Craig sees a county growing more economically diverse, and with that diversity, conditions becoming even more crowded and stressful than they are already. She also sees a widening chasm of communication unless both whites and blacks make an effort at understanding.
"If there are opportunities to talk, then those opportunities should be taken," she said.
But not everyone is pessimistic about the future or about harmony among races. Some see the recent Million Man March in Washington as galvanizing African Americans--particularly men--to speak out more frequently and take a more vigorous role in public affairs.
Wayne Snyder, an executive with the nonprofit Mission With Benevolence Foundation in Santa Ana, said a "changing of the guard" appears to be taking place in Orange County, despite the fact that blacks are overwhelmingly outnumbered here. According to the 1990 U.S. Census, African Americans make up only 1.8% of Orange County's population--or 42,681 people--contrasted with a white population of 78.6%, or about 2.4 million.
"Young, middle-aged African Americans are picking up the torch and carrying on the tradition of those who laid the groundwork for change in the 1960s," Snyder said. "The Million Man March brought people a lot of pride. I see more African American organizations getting involved with the youth and more committed to get back to the basics of strong family and spiritual values."
Snyder cited a more active role by such groups as the MWB Foundation, 100 Black Men of Orange County and the county chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People in trying to heighten awareness year-round--and not just during African American History Month.
For Randy Jordan, publisher of the Black Orange, a monthly that has not published recently and remains close to folding, African American History Month is a time to re-educate an entire community about black history.
Jordan's own plight is a case in point. His newspaper's economic problems have it clinging to the edge. He blames its perilous state on the fact that much of Orange County--particularly advertisers--barely even know it exists.
"We need to highlight our accomplishments to show that African Americans have a major stake in this country and have contributed to it in many ways," Jordan said. "We need to promote black business, black doctors and black professionals who are more successful."
Coley sees the mission as being imperative. He hopes to "interface with the business community and the chambers of commerce so we can provide opportunities for our members to be involved. We are also available for business to seek out a perspective from the black community.
Despite the accomplishments of blacks in Orange County, Mazique-Craig believes it's vital to keep affirmative action policies in force. She calls it "disheartening" to see African Americans make strides in all phases of American life, only to have a door slammed shut by what she calls the rise of the political right wing. She, like others, cited the recent vote by the UC Board of Regents that sought to end affirmative action.
Racism, she said, remains an ugly reality.
She recalled the incident only a few years ago when a black student was running for homecoming king at Saddleback College. A few days before the election, he received an anonymous note, saying that "[blacks] are monkeys, not kings." The note included racial slurs. No one ever found out who sent the note, Mazique-Craig said, and the student dropped out of the race.
"If African Americans were where they were supposed to be," she said, "we wouldn't need [African American] History Month."