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California Town Trying to Live Down Reputation for Racism

July 24, 1992

OILDALE, Calif. (AP) _ Two generations after Dust Bowl migrants arrived here, this sprawling oil town’s reputation for roughnecks and racists lingers.

Some residents say it’s an unfair stigma. But others point to recent hate crimes and say Oildale remains a mostly white enclave where blacks are unsafe.

″If you’re black, you’re always looking over your shoulder,″ said Art Powell, a former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter in nearby Bakersfield, about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

Powell said two recent attacks on black motorists underscore racial attitudes dating back to the 1930s, when migrants from Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas sought a better life in California.

In one case that resulted in federal civil rights convictions, two Oildale men repeatedly stabbed a man and called him a ″nigger.″ In another, a black woman’s car windshield was smashed, allegedly by a white man who uttered similar racial insults.

Cab driver Ed Woodruff picks up fares in Oildale but says other black drivers won’t make the short trip from Bakersfield because it’s either too dangerous or a waste of time.

″I’ve really been abused when I’ve gone to pick up a fare,″ Woodruff said. ″In bars, I’ve been told ‘We don’t like niggers in here.’ Or they’ll signal the bartender and say they didn’t call a cab. You know it’s only because they don’t want to ride with a black.″

Black families have been harassed, and racist literature appears in mailboxes and on doorsteps, Woodruff said. He’s watched Ku Klux Klan rallies and cross burnings on a bridge that separates Oildale from other cities.

″The message to blacks is, ‘Don’t cross,’ Woodruff said.

But community leaders in this town of 25,000 say that reputation is outdated and overblown. ″There’s no more racial bias here than anywhere else,″ said David Brandon of the Chamber of Commerce.

″That whole ‘Grapes of Wrath’ image formed years ago, and we kind of got stuck in that mode,″ said Carol Powers, who’s leading a Chamber of Commerce effort to upgrade the town’s image and attract new business.

Oildale is no longer a hotbed of racism, but reputations die hard, said high school principal Bill Bimat.

″The community is more diverse and more accepting today,″ he said. ″Thirty years ago a black couldn’t buy a house, couldn’t work here, and literally would’ve been run out of town.″

Bimat, who graduated from the high school he now heads, has set up a Prejudice Free Week and a special committee to educate students on minority issues. The school of about 2,000 students has only a dozen black students but a growing percentage of Hispanics.

″I suppose we try a bit harder because of our situation,″ Bimat said. ″I still believe in the old melting pot theory. Diversity is a good thing. Let’s celebrate it.″

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