Black like her in the 1980s

Long be­fore Rachel Dolezal, a Stock­ton leader was ac­cused of ly­ing

Los Angeles Times - - NEWS - By Matt Pearce Twit­ter: @mat­tdpearce

Rachel Dolezal’s story is not new. This has all hap­pened be­fore — three decades ago, in an epic City Coun­cil bat­tle in Cal­i­for­nia that has long faded from public mem­ory.

A light-skinned public fig­ure who claimed to be black turned out to have white par­ents. A feisty coun­cil race turned into a na­tional cu­rios­ity as re­porters flocked to cover an un­ex­pected breach in Amer­ica’s un­writ­ten racial rules.

The Dolezal case has sparked of­ten pas­sion­ate de­bate over iden­tity, priv­i­lege and, in light­hearted mo­ments, the proper de­ploy­ment of a hair weave. She quit as pres­i­dent of the NAACP chap­ter in Spokane, Wash., af­ter her par­ents outed her as white.

In Stock­ton in 1983, the pro­tag­o­nist was Mark Steb­bins, a man with white par­ents who called him­self black, who ran for City Coun­cil against a black man named White.

Steb­bins was an un­usual fig­ure even dur­ing a strange time for Stock­ton in the mid-1980s, a blue-col­lar town down on its luck with a fad­ing white ma­jor­ity.

“The peo­ple walk­ing around down­town Stock­ton are not wear­ing Guess jean jack­ets and Ree­bok ten­nis shoes or sip­ping Per­rier,” the Los An­ge­les Times said in a piece about Stock­ton’s “in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex on a rampage,” as a head­line put it. “These men and women look like a mul­tira­cial cast for ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ There is a lot of hard work and hard liv­ing cut into their faces.”

Into this mi­lieu stepped Steb­bins, a for­mer civil rights ac­tivist who had moved from San Fran­cisco and ran com­mu­nity gar­dens to ben­e­fit lower-in­come Stock­ton res­i­dents.

Steb­bins’ first wife was white, but his sec­ond and third wives were black. By the time he de­cided to try his hand at the coun­cil for one of the city’s most di­verse and un­der­priv­i­leged dis­tricts, he said, he had come to feel as though he were black.

Dur­ing the elec­tion, Steb­bins, an NAACP mem­ber, didn’t ex­actly run around call­ing him­self black, he said this week. On the race por­tion of the 1970 cen­sus form, he wrote “hu­man.”

“The idea of race has never had any sci­en­tific va­lid­ity,” said Steb­bins, now a U-Haul busi­ness owner and a con­struc­tion con­trac­tor. “It’s akin to the no­tion held dur­ing the Mid­dle Ages that the world was flat. So it’s a widely held belief that re­ally doesn’t ex­ist, ex­cept as a belief.”

Steb­bins’ race emerged as a point of con­tention at a po­lit­i­cal meet­ing, where one of his op­po­nent’s back­ers cor­nered him about his iden­tity.

“‘What are you?’ ” Steb­bins re­called the sup­porter ask­ing. “I said, ‘I’m hu­man.’ ‘Well, are you black or white?’ I said, ‘I’m black.’ And that’s where the is­sue was put out.”

Steb­bins’ op­po­nent, Ralph Lee White, also had worked as a civil rights ac­tivist. He’d grown up pick­ing cot­ton in Texas be­fore be­com­ing a mil­lion­aire, build­ing a 27-room man­sion while run­ning a bail bond busi­ness and a night­club.

Steb­bins de­feated the 12-year in­cum­bent, but White launched a re­call in 1984 and cited the no­ta­tion of white par­ents on Steb­bins’ birth cer­tifi­cate as if it were a grand jury in­dict­ment.

“If the momma is an ele­phant and the daddy is an ele­phant, they darn sure can’t have no lion,” White said then. “They got to have a baby ele­phant.”

News sto­ries la­bored to ex­plain Steb­bins’ racial code-jamming.

“Steb­bins has a broad nose and curly brown hair that he wears in a mod­est Afro style,” The Times re­ported in 1984. “But his com­plex­ion is not dark, de­spite years of work­ing out­doors. His driver’s li­cense lists his eye color as blue. And he ac­knowl­edges that his four sis­ters and his brother are white.”

Ebony mag­a­zine, in a story ti­tled “The ‘White’ Man Who In­sists He’s Black,” in­ter­viewed his black bar­ber, who de­nied Steb­bins put any­thing in his Afro: “Nope, he’s as black as I am.... Some of my kids are paler than Mark. The man is one of us.”

Steb­bins’ par­ents gave shrug­ging in­ter­views to say, well, no, they didn’t think their son was black. “I con­sider him white, racially,” his fa­ther, Vern, told one re­porter. “But his out­look is to­ward the black.”

The re­call ef­fort failed by more than 400 votes, but White launched a sec­ond ef­fort that year, un­seat­ing Steb­bins by 67 votes.

But the sec­ond re­call also brought al­le­ga­tions that White’s cam­paign im­prop­erly pres­sured ab­sen­tee vot­ers.

“When the bal­lots were mailed White and his agents went to the homes of the var­i­ous elec­tors in or­der to ‘as­sist’ them in cast­ing their bal­lots,” a Cal­i­for­nia ap­peals court wrote in a 1987 rul­ing, af­firm­ing a trial court’s de­ci­sion to erase White’s elec­tion and re­move him from the coun­cil on the grounds that White “com­mit­ted acts of bribery, fraud and co­er­cion in the cast­ing of some ab­sen­tee bal­lots.”

This week White, 72, hap­pily dis­cussed the elec­tion and said he hadn’t got­ten a fair trial. He de­nied any wrong­do­ing. “Not at all, not even a lit­tle bit,” he said. “Just be­ing sharp. The Amer­i­can way.”

How­ever, White said he would have han­dled the race is­sue dif­fer­ently if he had known then what he knows now about the Bi­ble and how, given civ­i­liza­tion’s ori­gins in Africa, ev­ery­one can be con­sid­ered African. Racial terms have changed over the years, he said.

“Is he col­ored? Yes,” White said of Steb­bins. “Is he Ne­gro? By the def­i­ni­tion of Ne­gro, no. But is he African Amer­i­can? Yes. Know­ing history the way I know it, yes, he’s African Amer­i­can.... I’m not black, I’m brown, but I’m closer to black than I am to light­skinned — I’m in be­tween.”

So is Steb­bins black? “He can’t be black. He’s too light.”

Steb­bins, now 72, re­mem­bers his elec­tion and re­call as small episodes in a life­time spent pur­su­ing racial qual­ity and civic en­rich­ment. In ad­di­tion to run­ning busi­nesses, he is an ar­borist, a no­tary and pres­i­dent of the South Stock­ton Mer­chants Assn.

In other runs for of­fice, none suc­cess­ful, his race has never come up, he said. The is­sue just dis­ap­peared.

Does he re­gret say­ing he was black in 1983?

“I pretty much did what I wanted to do and said what I wanted to say,” he said. “The point is, we were try­ing to fight for jus­tice, and one of the things that I wanted to con­vey is that it is not deroga­tory to be black.”

And if you ask him to­day, yes, Steb­bins still says he’s black.

Tyler Tjomsland Spokesman-Re­view

RACHEL DOLEZAL re­signed as pres­i­dent of the NAACP’s chap­ter in Spokane, Wash., af­ter her white par­ents said she was pos­ing as black.


FOR­MER Stock­ton Coun­cil­man Mark Steb­bins says the idea of race has no sci­en­tif ic va­lid­ity.

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