The Color of Ojai : Relations: Few minorities live in the rustic valley. Many residents say there is no overt racism there, but others disagree.
William Taylor remembers visiting the Ojai Valley as a young boy, riding horses and hiking the hand-carved trails winding deep into Los Padres National Forest.
One day, he told himself as a boy growing up in Oxnard, a small patch of ground in the wide open valley would be his.
Decades later, Taylor had scraped up the down payment for an acre of land in the Upper Ojai, a long stretch of grassland between Ojai proper and Santa Paula where he planned to make his home.
But within a few years, Taylor said last week from his home in Texas, racist neighbors ran him off with threats of physical harm.
“You have a dream like that, to own your own home and live in a beautiful area, and because of some difference in color you get run out,” said Taylor, a black man. “I’m 50 years old. I don’t need neighbors like that.”
Taylor is one of a relatively small number of blacks and other minorities who live or have lived in the Ojai area.
In the Ojai Valley--where more than 22,000 people cluster in the rolling hills that make up the communities of Oak View, Mira Monte, Ojai and Meiners Oaks--just 84 blacks have taken up residence, according to the 1990 U.S. census.
The figure represents only 0.3% of the Ojai Valley population, while blacks account for 2.2% of Ventura County residents. The percentage of blacks is lower only in Fillmore and Santa Paula, which both have almost 60% Latino populations.
Despite the low numbers of minorities who live in and around the Ojai Valley, many residents say the numbers alone mean little and that there is no overt racism in the area.
“Where people choose to live is up to them,” said Jeff McComas, a white man and president of the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t feel that we are (prejudiced).”
But some others describe a life of furtive glances, unwelcome stares or blatant threats and harassment.
“I love Ojai because I have friends there, but that’s the only thing I like about it,” said Adriane Malone, a former Ojai resident who moved last year. “The people in general are sort of hateful.”
African Americans are not the only ones staying out of the Ojai Valley. Other minority groups are similarly under-represented in the four communities.
For instance, Latinos account for 26.5% of the county’s residents, but just 12.3% in the Ojai area. Almost 5% of the county is Asian, but that figure drops to 1.3% among the four valley communities.
Only the number of Native Americans living in the Ojai area--159 people or 0.7% of the residents--surpasses the county average of 0.5%. Meanwhile, whites make up 65.9% of Ventura County residents, but more than 85% of Ojai Valley residents are white.
By comparison, Moorpark, a city whose population closely mirrors the Ojai area, has attracted almost 400 blacks--1.4% of its residents. It also reports a population that is 22% Latino and more than 6% Asian.
Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, east Ventura County’s two largest cities, also have attracted four to five times the number of blacks per capita than the Ojai Valley.
One longtime Ventura County resident said the Ojai area historically has harbored an Old West mentality that tends to exclude nonwhites.
“You have a lot of people from the Midwest and they bring that type of attitude with them,” said Al Duff, an Oxnard planning commissioner who is black and has lived in the county almost 35 years.
“Some of the communities up there are very close-knit and you see that (racist) type of thing,” said Duff, who works as an engineer for Ventura County.
Oil industry supervisor Chuck Hawkins of Oak View said people get out of a community what they put into it--regardless of their race.
“For a long time, they were trying to keep minorities out of Ojai,” said Hawkins, a black father of three who coaches high school and community soccer in Ojai. “But I’ve been up here since 1985 and I think my kids have had a real positive influence on the community.”
Two of Hawkins’ sons have starred in varsity sports at Nordhoff High School. Sixteen-year-old running back Josh Hawkins last semester broke five school football records and received top honors from a local service club.
“We try to create a positive image as far as being black goes,” the senior Hawkins said. “We make a point of getting involved in the community, which I think helps.”
Some other blacks living in the Ojai Valley, however, have not been so well-received as Hawkins and his family.
Last month, a black student at Matilija Junior High School allegedly was insulted and threatened by a group of white girls who scrawled epithets across her locker and carved a swastika just yards away, Principal James Berube said.
Berube said the girls were counseled, but that no disciplinary action was taken because there was a lack of proof.
“It’s one of those situations that we had conflicting stories,” the principal said. “It was difficult for me to substantiate what went on.”
The 13-year-old girl is afraid to return to the campus. She has never gone back, choosing instead to enroll in a home-schooling program, said Lonnie Stanford, the girl’s grandfather.
“You get the feeling you’re not exactly welcome,” said Stanford, a retired Navy man who only recently moved to the Ojai Valley. “But I don’t believe the majority of whites in this area feel that way.”
In another instance last December, police said, a group of white youths crashed a party in Ojai, started fights with blacks and threw a beer can through a plate-glass window before running off into the night.
“A child was sleeping in the front room and people were sitting there, but thank goodness no one was hurt,” said Diane Colby, who hosted the party. “I’ve never been that close to racism in my life, and I was born in South-Central L.A.”
The next night, someone returned and slashed the tires on Colby’s car. No arrests were made in either case.
Many say blacks and other minorities avoid the Ojai Valley simply because it is removed from lively business centers and jobs. But others say there is a pattern of exclusion that makes it clear to minorities that they are not welcome.
Adriane Malone, a black woman who moved to Ventura last year, said she was a target herself in Ojai while living in a mostly white town.
While jogging one afternoon she was deliberately run off the road by a group of young white men passing in a car, she said. They laughed and flashed a swastika at her before driving away, she told police.
“They said they only wanted to scare me,” Malone said. “They said they belong to neo-Nazi (groups). They had guns in their car and a bunch of literature.”
Police investigated. A report was forwarded to the district attorney’s office. But the case was closed weeks later because it was the driver’s word against Malone’s.
“The suspect and his passengers explained the veering of the vehicle to be accidental,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Donald M. Grant wrote on the last page of his report.
A black woman who has lived in the Ojai area for almost two decades said racist flyers started appearing in public places shortly after she moved in.
“They put ‘em up all over town,” said the woman, a substitute teacher who asked not to be named because she fears reprisals. “They were everywhere. The Laundromat, the arcade. I thought it was the Ku Klux Klan.”
When a friend of hers was shopping for a house in the valley recently, real estate agents eager to sell homes bragged that Ojai-area neighborhoods were safe because there were no blacks, the woman said.
“She used it as a selling point.”
The president of the Ojai Valley Board of Realtors, however, said an agent would never make such a comment to a client.
“We have no discrimination,” said Virginia Hibberd, a white woman who runs her own real estate office. “There’s no one in the valley that I know of that discriminates against any color whatsoever.”
Ojai Mayor Steve Olsen said the low numbers of minority residents contrast sharply with the city’s permissive reputation.
“Ojai is extremely well-represented as far as differing spiritual beliefs,” the mayor said. “The city has always embraced diversification. But why the race numbers don’t add up is difficult to say.”
Strict limits on development also may have prevented more people--white, black, brown or otherwise--from moving into Ojai, the mayor said.
“If you don’t allow new buildings, you’re not going to have new people moving into the valley,” Olsen said. “We’ve defended our growth-control ordinance so we would not have an explosion of people.”
Councilwoman Nina V. Shelley said small pockets of prejudice do exist in the Ojai Valley.
“But the number of people of that ilk is no greater than the number of blacks,” she said. “There are just some people who have very strong feelings about people of color.”
Law enforcement officials say the racism issue is no worse in Ojai than anywhere else in Ventura County or beyond.
“Obviously there are going to be individuals who might have that type of mentality,” said Cmdr. Joe Harwell, who runs the sheriff’s substation in Ojai. “But I don’t get the sense from living and working in the valley that we have a KKK mentality.”
Harwell said his deputies have identified a small group of people he considers to be active racists. But, the commander added, they are a loose-knit band of young white men he considers relatively harmless.
“In Oak View, we’re talking just a handful,” Harwell said. “We’ve seen some graffiti which could be construed as being racist, but it’s mostly vandalism, harassment. I certainly don’t think the environment is such that it is keeping (minorities) away.”
Sheriff’s Lt. Bill Edwards, who oversees a unit that keeps track of gang activity in Ventura County, said he has found no evidence of white supremacists locally.
“I don’t doubt there may be those types of people, but we’re not tracking any organized skinhead gangs,” Edwards said.
Police may not be tracking racists, but their impact on former Ojai Valley resident Karen Parham is undeniable. Parham, a black woman married to a white man, said she felt powerless as a minority citizen of the valley--even as she bore almost daily harassment from neighbors.
“When you are a minority, such as black people are in Ojai, you have no real representation,” said Parham, who has since moved.
“You have a group of people used to a particular way of life, and when they see us they feel threatened,” she said. “They feel like they’re losing a grip on their control.”
John R. Hatcher III, president of the Ventura County chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said there is a concerted effort to maintain the status quo in the Ojai Valley.
“Blacks that live there are constantly harassed,” Hatcher said of the Ojai area. “I’ve had several complaints come out of there, but they’re afraid it will come back to haunt them, so they live there and don’t complain about it.”
Charles Daniels of Orlando, Fla., never complained out loud.
But he said the Ojai Valley was more racist than anyplace else he had lived.
“In that area, people pretty much feel that blacks are not particularly welcome,” said Daniels, who recalled that a neighbor told nearby landowners that property values soon would slide because he had moved in.
“I recall an incident at (a market) where they literally ganged up and beat up on a young black man who allegedly shoplifted,” said Daniels, a corporate salesman who lived in the Ojai Valley between 1979 and 1990.
“Whether he shoplifted or not, the point is they attacked him.”
Daniels described a climate of suspicion and fear of minorities among whites living in the Ojai Valley. Even simple tasks, like shopping or opening a bank account, often became awkward situations that pitted himself or his family against others, he said.
“We were not exactly treated like our neighbors,” Daniels remembered. “My family was all relieved when we moved.”
The reality of living in a mostly white neighborhood is different for everyone. The name-calling and racial slurs that routinely greet some residents are unheard of by others.
“I have an advantage because we’ve lived here for 11 years,” said 22-year-old Taundra Gross, an Ojai woman whose father is white and mother is black.
Gross, who now works in her father’s Ojai medical office, suggested the high cost of housing and lack of jobs might contribute to the low numbers of blacks living in her community.
“I moved here in the fourth grade,” she said. “I don’t remember any stares or feeling uncomfortable.”
But El Monte Firefighter Jayd Swendseid, a black man of 22 who also grew up in Ojai but now lives elsewhere in Ventura County, said he was verbally assaulted just last week on his way home from visiting his parents.
“It was totally unprovoked,” he said of the incident, which he said was only the latest in a series of sporadic acts of prejudice he has experienced. “If it was something I did, or might have done, then I could understand.”
Swendseid said he thinks most people in the Ojai Valley have lived for so long without substantial integration that residents there fear those they do not know.
“If people started seeing more blacks in the city, they’d start getting nervous,” said Swendseid, a friend and classmate of Gross’ as a teen-ager at Nordhoff High School.
“There’s a lot of good people in Ojai, but there’s a lot of others that have the hidden racism you just don’t see.”
Ojai Valley / Racial Breakdown
Numbers Percent Anglo 6,495 85.3 Latino 928 12.2 Asian 116 1.5 Am. Indian 47 0.6 Black 17 0.2 Other 10 0.1 Total 7,613
Numbers Percent Anglo 2,794 83.9 Latino 448 13.4 Asian 42 1.3 Am. Indian 26 0.8 Other 13 0.4 Black 6 0.2 Total 3,329
Numbers Percent Anglo 3,042 84.4 Latino 467 13.0 Asian 38 1.0 Am. Indian 37 1.0 Black 18 0.5 Other 4 0.1 Total 3,606
Numbers Percent Anglo 6,668 86.1 Latino 892 11.5 Asian 85 1.1 Am. Indian 49 0.6 Black 43 0.6 Other 7 0.1 Total 7,744
FOUR OJAI VALLEY COMMUNITIES
Numbers Percent Anglo 18,999 85.2 Latino 2,735 12.3 Asian 281 1.3 Am. Indian 159 0.7 Black 84 0.3 Other 34 0.2 Total 22,292
ALL VENTURA COUNTY
Numbers Percent Anglo 440,882 65.9 Latino 177,289 26.5 Asian 32,781 4.9 Black 14,652 2.2 Am. Indian 3,345 0.5 Other 67 0.0 Total 669,016
Source: 1990 U. S. Census, Summary Population and Housing Characteristics, California