About a quarter of the African Americans who participated in a human relations study reported experiencing discrimination or harassment from law enforcement, in schools or from others in Orange County.
The survey was conducted after an incident in upscale Yorba Linda, in which an African American family said they had been forced to flee the county after enduring months of racial attacks and acts of vandalism that seemed racially charged.
In response, the Orange County Human Relations commission held a series of public “listening sessions” at churches across Orange County, urging African American families to share their stories of life in a county that — at one time — had a reputation as a place of intolerance.
The stories — collected in a document released Friday and that will be discussed at a public forum next week — include those of a woman who said a company CEO seemed “shocked” when she complained about the Confederate flag outside his offices and the high school student whose classmates said they planned to dress up in KKK garb for Halloween and “lynch” black people.
And although African Americans make up only about 2% of Orange County’s population, officials with the human relations group — which has been tracking hate crime and discrimination in the county for more than 20 years — say black residents have been the most targeted in hate crimes.
The report — which is not a scientific poll and is based on first-hand accounts at the listening sessions — was designed to highlight festering feelings of alienation among African Americans, even as the county becomes more diverse.
Of the 144 people who participated, nearly 30% reported being racially profiled by police officers, and 21% of youth participants said they had experienced harassment or racial profiling.
Alison Edwards, deputy director of OC Human Relations, said the listening sessions provided an opportunity to “give voice to this experience.”
“I certainly hope it’s a starting point,” she said. “I hope this is an opportunity for a larger conversation.”
The stories that poured out at public forums touched on adults and children.
One man told of being pulled over for a suspected traffic infraction in Newport Beach in 2002 and suddenly noticing that five squad cars were on the scene. The man, a military veteran, said he was taken to a police station and questioned by a gang detective and never given an opportunity to call his wife.
At one of the sessions, a teacher who had recently moved to Orange County from out of state said she felt like an “ambassador for all African Americans” with her students. The students, according to the report, asked about her family, her hair and “even asked how she affords to live there.”
“We need to start educating our youth early on about diversity,” the teacher said, “so they are not shocked when they meet someone of a different color.”
At Christ Our Redeemer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Irvine, some of them told stories of overt racism: The woman who had racial slurs hurled at her by passersby as she ran near Mission Viejo Lake, or the woman who was called a name as she tried to stop someone from cutting in line at the grocery store. And there were parents who said their children had been picked on — and even threatened — in school.
Others recounted things that seemed much more subtle, but had an impact just as lasting: Being discouraged from applying for loans, getting mistaken for a valet or, as one women recounted, walking through a department store and noticing that the employee handing out perfume samples gave one to everyone but her.
“There are too many places in this great country of ours, even right here in Orange County, where the promise of opportunity and privilege has been rescinded by acts of intolerance and prejudice,” Thomas Parham, a member of the organization 100 Black Men of Orange County, said that December morning.
“We are here to stand up and speak out against those today.”