Dedicated Organization Uses Its Clout to Support Blacks : Race: Called 100 Black Men, it seeks to ensure that concerns of the county’s small African American community are heard. One of its first acts is to demand probe of deputy’s shooting death.
They appeared on the scene suddenly, startling many among Orange County’s power elite and serving notice that racial insensitivity, especially toward African Americans, would no longer go unchecked.
They call themselves 100 Black Men of Orange County Inc. Although currently they are only 29 in number, they have the clout to back up their words. Among them are judges, politicians, educators, lawyers, journalists, ministers, physicians and entertainment moguls.
Individually, they say, they have contacts across the nation and they aim to use those contacts to further the collective cause of the African American community in Orange County. But don’t get them wrong, they say. They are not here to bully anyone into political correctness or blind acceptance.
“Mainly, we want to enhance the quality of life of African Americans and other minorities in Orange County,” said the group’s president, Eugene M. Wheeler.
The group, one of 37 chapters organized in 24 states, received its charter in July.
The 100 Black Men concept was born in New York in the early 1960s. Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, then Manhattan borough president; baseball great Jackie Robinson, and other black men formed the first group to seek justice by using the political power of its members, Wheeler said.
The 100 Black Men of Orange County already has some influential members, said Wheeler, a health care administrator who owns his own business. Among them are UC Irvine Vice Chancellor Horace Mitchell; Warner Bros. Vice President T.C. Newman; corporate attorney David Fields; Baptist minister and magazine publisher Randall Jordan, and college professor Ernie Bridges.
The group’s creation had gone largely unnoticed in the county until recently, when, together with other black organizations, the group demanded an independent investigation into the Christmas Day shooting death of Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Darryn Leroy Robins.
Robins, who was black, was shot by fellow deputy Brian Scanlan, who is white, during an impromptu training exercise behind a Lake Forest movie theater, authorities say. Investigators have looked at the possibility that he was shot in the head while he played the part of a suspect during a routine traffic vehicle stop. Scanlan was using a loaded weapon during the drill in violation of department policy, authorities said.
From the beginning, investigators said the evidence indicated the shooting was an accident. But the black coalition, concerned that the lack of details coming out had fueled the perception that race could have figured in Robins’ death, pressed authorities. The group also questioned whether there was a conflict of interest in the district attorney’s office investigation of the Sheriff’s Department because both agencies often work closely together.
Group members said their demands seem to have been answered recently when the district attorney turned over the probe to the Orange County Grand Jury. The 19-member panel will begin its investigation Wednesday.
The newfound prominence of the black community in a county where blacks are outnumbered by whites nearly 100 to 2 can be traced directly to the involvement of the 100 Black Men of Orange County, Wheeler said.
Before the group’s creation, he said, rarely, if ever, were the voices of Orange County’s black community raised in defense of a cause.
Since the Robins case, Wheeler said, “we’ve gotten results in ways we cannot yet totally appreciate. Those who are in charge of government (in the county) now know that we are not passive, know that we can make them accountable to us.”
Critics of the group, however, say its approach to the Robins case has left a bad taste with the county’s law enforcement community.
“They would resent it if the police started telling them how to run their business, yet they claim to know how police business should be run,” said Robert McLeod, general manager for the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.
McLeod said the group hurt the families of the officers involved by insinuating that “this was some kind of a deliberate act.”
Officials for 100 Black Men say they only want justice to prevail in the Robins case.
The aim of the group, however, goes beyond being a watchdog, said member Jordan, who is the editor of the monthly magazine The Black Orange, which serves the county’s black community.
“If you want to be a plus for your community, you got to get your house in order, then you can look at other people in the eye and say, ‘Can we fix that?’ ” said Jordan.
That is why, he said, “we’re extending our hand, looking to build strong young black men and women” by providing scholarships, leader-training programs, role models and career planning.
Wheeler said he hopes this will happen once the group gets on its feet. He said the group’s involvement in the Robins’ case came at a time when its members were preparing for their first retreat in April, at which time they expect to come up with a plan of action for scholarships and other programs.
The mysterious circumstances surrounding Robins’ death pulled the group into the fray. What followed stunned the group’s members, Wheeler said.
“We started getting all these calls from parents, some school officials, the Asian community, Latinos,” Wheeler said. “They all had problems they wanted us to help them with. It’s like they were saying: ‘Thank God, here’s Moses!’ ”
“Everybody has problems they would like to see resolved,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re not geared up to do all the things we would like to do. Everybody has high expectations of us and we do too, but we have a timetable. We’re less than one year old and we’re in a period of organization.”
Wheeler said that in the meantime, the group is forming alliances with other black groups to push for changes in a regional society that he said has largely ignored black culture and where “subtle” racism rules.
“The difference between Orange County and Los Angeles or Detroit or Miami is that Orange County has, over the years, been very subtle about the racism that goes on,” he said.
He pointed to the county’s schools as an example.
“Black children in our schools are suffering experiences that are psychologically bad,” he said. “The parents are trying to help their children get over (racism), but there’s no support system in the schools when it comes to a racist situation.”
“The teacher does not understand the black child. She reprimands him, then suspends him, and then, when the child becomes resentful and develops an attitude, he is tagged as a ‘troublemaker.’ It’s a Catch 22 for the child, but not for the schools, which are supposed to know what to do.”
Ultimately, Wheeler said, “if something doesn’t (change) soon, Orange County is going to get a wake-up call worse than the 6.7 earthquake that hit Los Angeles.”
Some school officials in the county concede there are racial problems in the schools and say they are willing to meet with the group to work on solutions.
James A. Fleming is the superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District, which has a student population of 32,000, 1% of which is black. He said recent problems at Aliso Viejo Middle School, where black parents have accused administrators of racial insensitivity, suggest the need for a new approach to cultural diversity throughout the district.
“We would like to meet with the group and hear their suggestions,” said Fleming.
In the meantime, civil rights organizations in the county, black and white, have welcomed the group with open arms.
The local chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People honored the group as its African American Citizens of Distinction on Friday. And Fran Williams, chairwoman for the county’s human relations board, said the group brings a new voice to the community “that hopefully will be a strong one.
“We see (them) as a very positive force in the community and we anticipate working together with them,” she said.
Said David Fields, corporate attorney and group member: “My only hope is that our voice becomes better known within the community and that there’s a greater understanding of who we are and what we aim to accomplish.
“Hopefully,” he said, “as people get to know us a little bit better, the number of cooperative relationships--as opposed to the counterproductive ones--will increase and flourish.”