The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Fresno, Race Riots, and Historical Blindness

Some years back, I was assigned a project that involved a new electrical substation in Fresno. I performed the appropriate archaeological surveys, and wrote the requisite report. There are a few standard report formats for cultural/historic resource surveys, and the one that is used is dependent on the agency to which the report will be submitted. This was going to the California Energy Commission, and the report format for that agency requires that there be a section describing the history of the area in which the survey took place.

In this particular case, I was writing about an area outside of town, and so it was relevant to discuss the history of the hinterlands of Fresno*. This meant discussing the groups of people who lived in the hinterlands historically, which in Fresno largely meant non-white people. To this end, it seemed relevant to include a section on race riots that occurred in Fresno in the 1890s.

I submitted the report to the client for review, and a few weeks later received in back with a few comments, one of which was that they wanted me to remove all references to the race riots. The stated reason was that they didn't wish to "fan the flames of racial tension" within the region.

I immediately thought the following:

1) It's a compliance report. The only people who are going to read it are the government regulators, researchers who are looking for archaeological data on the region, and people who - due either to an over-developed sense of civic responsibility or (more likely) out of a desire to derail the project - are looking to make sure that the developer performed all necessary environmental review. The first two types will either not care or be interested in the race riots, and the latter group are likely to count their omission as a sign that the cultural resources contractor (me) didn't do sufficient background research and therefore may use it as an opening for attacking the project. So, really, no harm would be done by including this information, and some harm may have been done through the exclusion of it.

2) Fanning the flames of racial tensions? Really? Don't get me wrong, Fresno is an ethnically diverse and large city (a population of around 1/2 a million, not including the surrounding towns and unincorporated areas), and like any large and ethnically diverse city there are racial tensions. I am not naive about this. However, these tensions get enflamed by politicians harping on them, by police officers engaging in racially charged activities, by economic and social inequalities...but not by compliance reports that are only read by a small number of individuals. Our clients were either woefully naive about how the review process goes, or else seemed to be astoundingly arrogant as to the importance of their project to the community (assuming that a wide variety of people would read the reports).

3) Although there are certainly people currently living in and around Fresno whose ancestors were involved in the riots, Fresno, like most cities in California, grew due to a post-WWII population and migration boom. Moreover, like many cities int he San Joaquin Valley, Fresno has a short civic memory, meaning that even those who are descended from people who were involved in the riots are unlikely to remember them. Moreover, these occurred in the 1890s, when race riots were not uncommon throughout the United States (a fact that should be known to anyone who managed to graduate high school), so to describe them for Fresno within a compliance report is not going to increase the racial tensions existing in an area even if a large swath of the populace were to read it.

To be fair, I think that the request to remove the references was due to naivete on the part of the client. They were a new company, and clearly had extensive business an engineering experience, but were novices to the environmental review process. They probably were not aware of just how few people would review the document, and were concerned that it would be widely distributed. But in the end the riots did happen. They are a matter of historical record. There is absolutely zero point in changing a historic review in order to pretend like they didn't occur. And it has bugged me ever since.

*Yeah, yeah, all of the Bay Area and L.A. people can insert their "Fresno is a hinterland" joke here.


Best of Blogs Fresno said...

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Taylor Wray said...

Wow - interesting example of the chilling effect political correctness has had on our elected officials at all levels.

We're now to the point where we refuse to even face historical facts about racial tension, let alone address the subject intelligently in the present.

I yearn for the days when those in office had the balls to tell the truth plainly and not try to sanitize so it offends no one and satisfies everyone - a goal that Abe Lincoln correctly observed is impossible.

Anthroslug said...

@ Taylor Wray: While I certainly share your frustration with elected officials, it wasn't elected officials, or anyone who works for the government, who requested that the references to the riots be removed. It was the private company who was building the substation that wanted it removed.

@Best of Fresno: Cool.