Meet the local politician who passed as black decades before Rachel Dolezal

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tags: interview, Mark Stebbins, Rachel Dolezal



Before Rachel Dolezal, there was Stockton, California's Mark Stebbins. In 1983, Stebbins won election to the Stockton City Council in a largely black and Latino district. During the campaign, when asked about his racial identity, he said he was black. But after the election, one of his defeated opponents—a larger-than-life local figure named Ralph White, who called himself "the black messiah of Stockton"—argued that Stebbins should be recalled from office because he'd lied about his race and was actually white.

Stebbins is indeed white, and he admitted as much in interviews with the media outlets (including national publications like Ebony and People) that covered his story after White demanded the recall. "As far as a birth certificate goes, I'm white," he told Ebony. "My grandparents were white. My parents are white. ... But I'm black." He said he simply felt black—"culturally, socially, genetically." A community activist before his council run, Stebbins (like Dolezal) was a member of the NAACP. He ultimately lost his recall election narrowly, though many in the black community continued to support him. (Ebony spoke to Stebbins' barber, a black man, who cleared him of Ralph White's allegation that his curly, Afro-like hair was permed. "Mark doesn't put anything on his hair. A white boy with a permanent? Nope.")

Reached at a U-Haul rental outlet he owns called Stebbins of Stockton, Stebbins—now 72—spoke freely to Slate about his life, Dolezal's story (which he hadn't heard about when initially contacted—he called back later after reading up), and the history of "race." This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

So do you have an opinion on the Rachel Dolezal controversy?

I just read the story in the newspaper this morning. It seems to me that stories like this are about a race construct that's coming apart at the edges and the desperate attempt to glue it back together. There also seems to be no regard in all of this for the personal lives of people involved, there's no regard for the privacy of the individual. The importance of trying to maintain a race construct is overriding. ...




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