Roots of Equity, or Why my privilege is part of the problem.

The author (far right) with his brother and grandfather in Lodi, CA, c. 1980s

There’s been a lot of talk about equity lately in San José, and it seems like everyone has their own definition. Some of our city leaders seem to think that equity has to do with koi ponds and movie nights at community centers. This belies the need for us to engage in a meaningful dialogue about what “equity” truly means, particularly in the context of public policy.

But before we go there, we need to take a step back and recognize the privilege and perspective we each bring to this dialogue and how it shades every position and belief we hold — for better or worse. I know this is an uncomfortable subject for a lot of people, so I’ll get it started…

I am a white, heterosexual man born into a San José legacy family of Italian-Irish descent and raised in the affluent enclave of Willow Glen. My parents had the relatively humble professions of public accountant and public school teacher, but we were never wanting for any basic needs, and money never seemed to be an issue. I walked one block to school until 6th grade, had mostly white friends, and graduated from the local Catholic boys high school that produced the two white male candidates in the last mayoral runoff election.

When I shoplifted a candy bar from the local pharmacy at age 10, I was allowed to return it with an apology — and I was thanked for it. In my college years at USC, I talked my way out of more traffic tickets than I could possibly remember. Twice, prior to Prop 64, I was pulled over with a bag of cannabis and associated paraphernalia in my car. Both times, I was let go without a citation — and allowed to keep the paraphernalia.

Perhaps the most telling sign of my privilege is that I have never experienced a moment of fear when walking through any neighborhood of San José at any hour of the day or night. I doubt this is the case for many if not most of my friends.

As much as I love and respect my parents for raising me to be a thoughtful, selfless progressive, my father inherited just as much privilege as I did. Nearly a century ago, my paternal great grandfather came to the Valley of Heart’s Delight to partner in a local cannery. By all accounts, he was a good and honorable man, but his financial success on the backs of the valley’s working poor laid the foundation for my family’s stake in San José’s future.

Later on, my grandfather, Peter the First, would open a furniture store on South 2nd Street — in the same building later occupied by Zanotto’s and the Tech Shop. To this day, you can’t go door-to-door in Willow Glen or Naglee Park or the Rose Garden (and trust me, I have) and not come across the proud owner of a bed frame, dining room table, or vanity that my grandfather personally delivered and still holds its luster.

My grandfather’s brother, Jack, was the proprietor of Paolo’s Restaurant, originally located on the southwest corner of 12th and Santa Clara. (For those of you who struggle with direction, it’s where that vegetarian joint is now.) The tales are slowly fading with time, but anyone of a certain age in local politics will recall Paolo’s as a hub of political chismis and stratagem. Legend has it that Grandpa Pete and Uncle Jack would hold court in the wine cellar, plotting the course of our city with politicos, business leaders, mafiosos, and mayors.

My grandfather was known as “Mr. Democrat” because of his service and loyalty to the party at the local, state, and national level. He never missed a convention and never missed an opportunity to offer advice to budding elected officials. Like my father, he was a heavy smoker, and it’s said that you weren’t anyone in local politics until he spilled ashes on your rubber chicken dinner. He passed away when I was only nine, but he left a huge influence on my path toward public service. It’s safe to say my life would be completely different without him in it, but I’ve come to realize this is true in more ways than one.

You see, my grandfather, my namesake, Mr. Democrat — he was part of the problem. His Machiavellian machinations, however well-intentioned, enabled a white, Italian-Irish patriarchy to consolidate its power and establish policies that continue to segregate our community along racial, ethnic, social, and economic lines. Recent years have seen modest progress, including the current minority-white city council. But the struggle remains, and the skyrocketing cost of living is not making it any easier for the fabric of our community quilt to hold together.

I’m lucky to be immune from this struggle, but it’s only because of the privilege that I inherited. In point of fact, I’m writing this piece in the home office of my grandparents’ house, in a peaceful, affluent neighborhood in West San José. I am surrounded by the ghosts of my family, and everyday I wake up in my grandparents’ bedroom reminded of the duality I’m living. On the one hand, I’m a passionate public servant committed to disrupting traditional systems and making sure everyone has a seat at the table. On the other hand, my bloodline was complicit in creating the systems I want to disrupt. (Shit, they probably built the table.) And those systems are what allow me to enjoy the privilege I have.

I’m also lucky to have a wife who calls me out every time I make blanket statements or voice half-baked takes through the lens of my privilege. Because the insidious nature of privilege is that it’s all too easy to fall prey to it, to ignore the context in which you’ve lived your life, to forget that another person may have an entirely different perspective based on their life experiences. But if we truly want to engage in a dialogue around the meaning of equity, each of us must first reflect on the factors and conditions that defined the opportunities we’ve had — or lacked — and find a way past our inherent biases to a place of mutual respect and understanding.

Then, we can talk about koi ponds.

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Peter Allen

Peter Allen

Rehabilitated Public Servant, Communications Specialist, Arts Advocate, Husband, Dogfather