.What’s it Like to be Black in Santa Cruz?


[Editor’s note: Though the terms ‘Black’ and ‘African American’ are sometimes considered interchangeable as racial identifiers, we are using Black, as it is more inclusive. While some people identify as African American, many don’t identify as American, or do not identify with where their ancestors came from. Black is capitalized to bring it in line with AP style that capitalizes nationalities, peoples, races, tribes, and most racial and ethnic identification terms.]

[dropcap]B[/dropcap]renda Griffin was seated at the back of a restaurant in downtown Santa Cruz when there were plenty of open tables near the front. Morgan Pedford often has her bag checked at a local movie theater, despite the fact that she is a regular whom the staff know by name. Laura Turner-Essel notices others looking at her son differently when he joins the other kids running around the playground.

For Black people in Santa Cruz, these microaggressions are part of everyday life. Nuances like seating and security can be irritating to anyone, but the difference is that many don’t inherently think their race has anything to do with it. They don’t have to. There is a name for this: white privilege.

NAACP President Brenda Griffin and Allison Garcia "Black Lives in Santa Cruz" Black in santa cruz
NAACP President Brenda Griffin (left) and project creator Allison Garcia at the Resource Center for Nonviolence, where Gospel Night and Youth Day will be held. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

“No matter what color you are,” says Santa Cruz resident Laura Turner-Essel, “white supremacy leads you to being afraid when you see a Black man walking, being irritated when you hear a Black woman’s voice, confused when you see a Black family doing well, or nervous when you see a Black child running wild in ways that society tells you only white children are allowed to do.”

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It’s not the small acts themselves that are heinously unjust, it’s the disconcerting fact that if you are a person of color, racial bias extends into every aspect of your life. This is what it is like to be Black in Santa Cruz.

“I meet people who express that they don’t see racism in Santa Cruz,” says National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Santa Cruz County President Brenda Griffin. “But if you think about it, why would they see it? It’s not directed at them. What they need to do is to consciously think about what they are being told and not look at it as ‘there’s gotta be more to the story’ or ‘it’s an isolated incident.’ Racism exists everywhere, and Santa Cruz is no exception.”

It wasn’t until recently that greeting cards with Black figures started showing up in stores, and hair products for Black hair appeared on the shelves, Griffin says. It’s the little things, likely not considered by most, that accumulate and contribute to a lack of Black visibility in Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz is liberal, but that doesn’t mean it’s diverse—1.4 percent of Santa Cruz County identifies as Black, compared to 59 percent white and 32 percent Latino. Photographs and stories about Black people rarely appear in media and newspapers, so Black visibility is limited. Picture this: you are the single Black person in a 100-person pool. How loudly would you have to shout for your voice to be heard?

“As African Americans, we have to do this just about every day of our lives—educate people. We have to teach people to be conscious, and it’s exhausting,” Griffin says. “We shouldn’t have to do it. But on the other hand, if an opportunity presents itself, then take that opportunity to teach others. But it’s a double-edged sword.”

“It’s a strange and mind-boggling experience of being culturally isolated and socially marginal in a beautiful place that pretends to welcome everyone and everything. It’s crazy-making. It’s being highly visible, yet never really seen or heard.”- Laura Turner-Essel, Ph.D., UCSC CASFS Director of Residential & Community Life.


[dropcap]A[/dropcap]llison Garcia says she was particularly moved by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement, and wanted to bring more Black visibility and voice to Santa Cruz in the wake of many incidents of violence and mistreatment against Black people. Though Garcia identifies as white, she says that after attending several NAACP meetings and becoming a member over a year ago, she decided to create a photo project on Black lives and what matters to Black people in Santa Cruz.

An avid local photographer, she drew inspiration for this project from Black photographers like Zun Lee’s project on Black fatherhood and UCSC professor Lewis Watts’ work on African-American cultural landscapes. Garcia’s project, titled “Black Lives in Santa Cruz: What Matters,” spotlights the experiences and perspectives of Black people in Santa Cruz.

black lives in santa cruz eboni and deschaun photo by allison garcia
Local pharmacist Eboni and her daughter Deshaun are participants of ‘Black Lives in Santa Cruz: What Matters.’ PHOTO: ALLISON GARCIA

“I asked some members from the NAACP ‘what do you think of the project? Can I even do this as a white person? Is that okay?’” she recalls. “The NAACP has been very supportive, though I do feel like I am on the outside looking in, and that’s part of why I am doing this.”

Last fall, she began interviewing and photographing Black-identifying Santa Cruz community members. She says that her intent was to be removed from the project, given that she doesn’t share the same experiences and cultural background, and have the participants’ images and stories be the focal point.

“I had some curiosity about the fact that she was white when she first approached me, because I wondered what her intention was since she is not a person of African descent,” says project participant Laura Turner-Essel. “It could have been potentially different if it was done by someone who shares the experience of being a Black person in Santa Cruz, but I found Allison to be open and willing to listen to what I had to say, and I trusted that she would do a good job of reflecting what we shared.”

Photos in Garcia’s project show families embracing their children, a homeless Liberian Civil War refugee resting on a redwood trunk, a high school football coach running drills, and a chef smiling behind the scenes. These are the faces of the Black Santa Cruz community and what they care about most.

The 10 participants in the project vary in age, income, gender and sexual identity. They were asked what it’s like to be Black in Santa Cruz and what the Black Lives Matter movement means to them. But Garcia discovered that a white woman asking ‘what is it like to be Black in Santa Cruz?’ was at times problematic in itself.

“Although I’m sure you are trying to do a positive thing … this is also part of the problem,” one of the participants, Anita Marie, wrote Garcia in an email. “We are Black, yes … but we are people trying to survive this fucked up world like everyone else. We just have to try harder. One, to succeed and two, to educate those who are too lazy to inform themselves about other cultures.”

Marie still participated in the project, though she expressed her frustration with Santa Cruz and its liberal guise.

“It is impossible for us to simply assimilate,” she wrote. “Our skin is too dark and our upbringing is too proud, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“America has simply not lived up to its promises in regards to the rights of Black and brown people. Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us of that fact in 1963 and here we are 54 years later struggling with the same issues of race, class, education, health care and war.” -Gary Cocroft, former lifeguard and firefighter, surfboard shaper


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Santa Cruz branch of the NAACP, born from inequality in the housing market (specifically housing rentals), has been around for nearly 70 years. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which falls on Jan. 15 this year, is one of the largest annual events for the NAACP. This year, the organization partnered with the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) in a co-sponsored Martin Luther King Jr. Day March on Monday, Jan 15. While the NAACP has hosted marches before, this co-sponsorship is a first.

“My heart is still heavy from all of these police-involved shootings that have happened. We are all outraged and angry, but those shootings and those types of incidents are exactly why we should be at the table with the SCPD,” NAACP says Griffin. “That’s why we should be trying to develop a community police relationship.”

Just two months ago, SCPD hired Officer Henry Muse, the only Black officer in SCPD since 2013. SCPD Chief Andrew Mills says he hopes to have more diverse recruitment in the future.

“We need to look at what we are doing that eliminates people of color. Our hiring practices are implicitly biased, and eliminating good, capable candidates,” Mills says. “For example, we have a requirement of good credit, and when you are a person who has operated on cash, or grew up in a poor home, that’s not always possible, and may very well be eliminating good candidates.”

Along with the march, the NAACP and the Resource Center for Nonviolence will also host an annual youth day on Jan. 13, featuring live music, food and tabling from local youth activist groups. Also on Jan. 13, Gospel Night will celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, his love of gospel music, and its role in the civil rights movement. Gospel night will feature Tammi Brown, Inner Light Gospel Choir, Monterey Peninsula Community Gospel Choir, Progressive Missionary Baptist Church Men’s Choir and more. Both events will be held at the Resource Center for Nonviolence.

“It’s easy to be liberal. They never really have to define a side. They can just play in the middle and take the drugs [but with] stuff that’s going on right now, they need to take a hard stance because it’s getting bad.” -Morgan Pedford, professional chef

“My challenge to you is to educate yourself. Be mindful and interact with more people of color.” -Anita Marie, professional hair stylist and Morgan Pedford’s sister


[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Black community in Santa Cruz is not invisible, says Griffin, but it can sometimes feel that way. Visibility is difficult when there is a lack of representation and inclusion everywhere from the media to data studies, she says.

For example, the recent Santa Cruz County Community Assessment Project’s (CAP) final comprehensive report outlines the Education, Health and Health Care and Economic Stability of Santa Cruz County in 2017. Though the study does list white and Latino representation, there is little to no mention of Black or African-American people in Santa Cruz anywhere, except under demographic breakdowns, incarceration and crime, and violence.

“Do we not have health needs, too?” Griffin says. “Why are we not represented anywhere but crime and violence areas?”

Susan Brutschy, president and co-founder of Applied Survey Research programs, which conducts the CAP report, says that though the report aims to cover and represent data from various backgrounds, overrepresentation from certain backgrounds leads to a lack of representation of already underrepresented groups.

black surfer Gary Cocroft black lives in Santa Cruz
Longtime local resident and avid surfer Gary Cocroft discusses war and the Black Lives Matter movement: ‘But what of America’s next war of convenience? How many Black bodies will the next one consume?’ PHOTO: ALLISON GARCIA

“That should not be the story of African Americans, it shouldn’t be a story of incarceration,” Brutschy says. “We absolutely would consider bumping it up and oversampling certain population groups, and we have done so in the past. For example, we have looked at the South County before and looked at under- and over-representation of the Latino community. We were able to over-sample certain population groups so that we could talk to and represent them.”

Griffin says the lack of representation in these types of studies is likely what leads to a lack of resources and conversation around Black people, and it likewise perpetuates stereotypes of Black communities.

“As African Americans we cannot be racist, to be racist you have to have power over someone else, and we don’t have that power. What everyone does have is racial biases, and the first step to dismantling those biases is inner reflection,” Griffin says. “Beyond that, there are several ways that people can educate themselves about this very complex issue.”

Showing up for Racial Justice and Santa Cruz County Community Coalition to Overcome Racism are two organizations that aim to create more dialogue around racial justice issues, dismantle racial biases and address white privilege.

Maybe the flatline in the Black population in Santa Cruz is due to disinterest in relocating to a place without any ties to Black culture. Or maybe, it’s because the cost of living is twice as high as the national average.

“Racism exists here, whether you believe it or not,” says Griffin. “But now that we have this knowledge, what are we going to do? What are we going to do together to resist these unjust laws and policies coming out of Washington, and how are we going to do this together?”


The NAACP meets on the first Monday of each month at 7:30 p.m. Progressive Missionary Baptist Church Hall, 517 Center St., Santa Cruz. For more information on the Santa Cruz branch of the NAACP, visit naacpsantacruz.com.

‘Black Lives in Santa Cruz: What Matters’ runs Jan. 13-Feb. 26 with a First Friday reception Feb. 2 from 5-9 p.m. Resource Center for Nonviolence. 612 Ocean St., Santa Cruz. allisongarciaphotography.com. Free.




  1. Thank you Good Times for this important article. I hope it will be a series on white privilege that can help our community wake up. The Westside is even whiter I have heard, more like 89% white. Many Black friends in my many of living here have shared horrific stories of racism. Hooray for the NAACP Santa Cruz Chapter and the great work they do! We all benefit from unlearning racism.

  2. Thank you for doing this, I lived in Belize for 4 years and was adopted by a Black family and called Auntie Carol, that was so endearing and also a protection for me there to be associated with a family.
    I am appalled when I go to a theatre and see no people of color in the cast or even in the theatre, itself. I have friends in Santa Cruz whom are Black and
    there has never been a problem going together to plays, movies, wine tasting, etc. But I would like to see more Black people out in our community participating and not afraid.

  3. From day one when I arrived in 1985 to Santa Cruz I noticed the lack of black people and culture and not much has changed.

    Thank you for finally bringing this to the minds of all who fail to acknowledge and embrace diversity with honesty.

    Santa Cruz is liberal but certainly not DIVERSE.

    Nora Cruz

  4. This article was sent to me by one of my close colleagues. I had many emotions reading it, but I am mostly grateful that someone has put this in writing.

    I lived in Santa Cruz for 10 months and as an Afro-Latina, I was not safe because I was Black. I felt invisible and knew that this “diverse and liberal” town was not all it describes itself to be.
    From being physically attacked by white men, to having Santa Cruz police tell me that “I assume the attack was racial” (mind you, I was attacked 2 days after the presidential election… that’s another story), I did not sense that I was a member of the “community”. If it was not for my colleagues and having the support and people to help me, I probably would not have lasted that long. The fear I had kept me either in my house or at work unless I was with folks. There was no enjoying nightlife as a 32 year old woman because my interactions with Santa Cruz police let me know they weren’t there to keep me safe. There are folks in Santa Cruz who get it and support Black Lives, but more needs to be done.

    It’s systematic. It’s deeply rooted. I really hope that this article truly brings to light the issues.

    And thank you to the family I made in Santa Cruz and UC Santa Cruz Police Department who supported me, validated, and gave me back my sense of safety.

  5. I’d like to suggest that the author widen her perspective as this piece is incredibly offensive and reveals her deeply rooted bigotry. First of all, there are many people in the world with dark skin. Not all them come from Africa. You minimize their existence by equating “Black” with “African American.” Secondly, you talk about “white privilege” when the problem you are talking about is really “majority privilege.” It has nothing to do with skin color. Does white privilege exist in Japan? How about China? Minority groups suffer at the hands of the majority in most human societies.

    • The editors note at the top makes a clear distinction between Black and African American, and why they chose to use Black… Also, the article is about being Black in Santa Cruz. “Majority Privilege” here is white privilege.

  6. Every honorable American is a Liberal. This is because the Constitution is a “Liberal” document. Liberal in the terms of attempting to insure liberty for the citizens of the U.S.. Free speech, a free press, free and open elections, the right to a free education, the right to petition the government, to form unions, civil disobedience these and many other liberties are what the concept of this country is based on. While this ideal is is currently ( and constantly) under attack, we must defend one another from bigotry.

  7. I love that Georgia wrote this article. The fact that the title of this article is something to talk about itself is sad. “Being Black In Santa Cruz,” it’s sad that this is even a thing. I know Anita Pedford and I am proud that she had the opportunity to speak up in this article and everyone who participated and or contributed. Being Black In America or any society should not be a thing but since it is I feel it is our duty to shed as much light as possible on the truth. #blackandproud

  8. Well, I am a white women and they check my bag when I go into the theater so I would give that one a miss. As for there not being a lot of black people in Santa Cruz that is for sure. But I can say I have several friends that are African American. And I never noticed their skin color to matter.

  9. so sick of people of color bringing this us anytime they are unhappy. race this and race that.

    there is no racism. there are a few mentally ill people who hate brown people, but over there is zero racism.

    get over it, stop seeing race, like MLK said.

    • I’d highly recommend you go to this exhibit with an open mind and read the words of these people. Your attitude is exactly the problem. Try to see it from outside your own skin.

  10. I’m a white person from Santa Cruz who recently mi Ed to the rural south (in Louisiana). First of all, still some of the most racist things I’ve ever heard or witnessed took place in sunny little Santa Cruz.

    Secondly, we REALLY need to stop whitewashing the legacy and words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
    Who DID NOT die fighting for racial equity and justice to be reduced to someone who “doesn’t see color”

    I just love how the liberal white people are proving in the comments that white supremacy and being a feel good loving person are not mutually exclusive,. It would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.

  11. As the parent of an adopted Black teen (who happens to know Ebony and her daughter Deshaun) and an adopted Latina teen, I can say that at least from my family’s experience, being Black is more challenging. There have been many times I cried with my daughter because, starting at 4years old, she was bitten (is she made out of chocolate) or scrubbed (dirty) by peers and more recently, yelled insults, including the “n” word, when she and I were at the gas station by a passing by driver. I am Latina but look white and people do not realize I am her mother. The sad thing is that parents, school teachers and administrators, and the later community often reacts to these offenses as “kids will be kids” “it’s only one person in Santa Cruz” “It can’t be me because I have Black friends, I’m not a racist.” We are all prejudiced in some way, but being Black in Santa Cruz (and other places which see themselves as liberal, accepting, or “I am not racist, classist, sexist, whatever” is challenging and once we own up to this, we can move forward. This is not to demean other people of color with complicated histories and experiences. Just to honor and respect the authors of this article, the people who were profiled in it, and everyone who works for a more accepting and safe Santa Cruz.

  12. brown supremacism is the true racism. seeing racism everywhere instead of taking responsibility degrades societies.

    the problem is brown supremacists see whites as having no problems, all the advantages, etc.

    what about white hardships? they ARE real. they don’t get exhibits.

  13. what i am trying to say is everything you blacks claim as your own….you dont feel safe, you dont feel welcome, you are discriminated against….

    white people experience these same things all the time….just sayin’…..

  14. good luck, good times, you are alienating other people. but you will still have some readers that like this divisive crap you are putting out.

    brown supremacism is what this is. they think they are the only ones with problems. just gross.

    i will never read your rag again.

  15. I would ask that all of you who say that racism doesn’t exist open your damn eyes. Just because you haven’t experienced racism doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. That is your experience and your privilege. Yes, you are privileged if you don’t experience racism or discrimination. Luck you. That doesn’t mean it’s the same for everyone.
    And brown supremacy is a fallacy and a made up term. Stop trolling, Tallie. Your term isn’t going to go any further than this thread, so stop trying to rile people up behind your ignorant term.

  16. You know, Tallie, if “being sick of people of color bringing this up” is the worst thing that has happened to you today then, you need to realize that you are actually having a pretty damn good day.

  17. I appreciate this article and the people who participated in it! Lovely idea, so important.

    Here’s my question, what would it mean, white folks, if we let go of the argument and accepted the existence of racism? How does it change our world, our view of ourselves? Do you think it allows people of color to be irresponsible or unaccountable in some way? What way? Wouldn’t it be better to address the possibility so everyone than to fight it? WOuldn’t that just make the world better for everyone?


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