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.
And you don’t believe race is “real,” so to speak.
Well, you know, race is a myth that was invented to justify the enslavement of blacks, primarily, and so—you go back to Gunnar Myrdahl, An American Dilemma—there is no such thing as race. And yet everybody talks as though there were. Including yourself. It just doesn’t exist. There’s no scientific basis at all.
So why would you, or Rachel Dolezal, identify yourself as belonging to any race?
When it came up with me, it came up as a question—“what are you?” And my immediate answer was I’m human. “But are you white or black?” Well, I’m black. It wasn’t an issue in the initial campaign. In the initial campaign for city council—it was never a question, was I white, was I black.
And you didn’t raise the issue of race yourself during the initial campaign.
Of course not. That wasn’t the issue. In terms of a political campaign, that’s not an issue—not to say that there aren’t people who try to slip it in in some way or another. Right now you have people who are saying, oh, gee, you’re not really Hispanic because you don’t speak Spanish. But nobody campaigned on that. That didn’t enter into the campaign at all.
However, once I got elected, I beat Ralph, who had been in office for 12 years, in the City Council seat, then Ralph brought that up as an issue. He said, “He pretended to be black. He’s really white and he pretended to be black.” That was supposed to have been the basis for the recall. He had to come up with something and he came up with that.
Did you ever run for local office after that?
Yes, but I wasn’t elected to any offices after that. I ran for Stockton city mayor, I ran for the school district, again for City Council, and I’d also run for Stockton East water district, so I’ve run for several offices.
Did racial issues come up in your campaigns again?
No—that’s not typically part of any city campaign. It was an anomaly that happened with Ralph. But that was because Ralph didn’t like the fact that I beat him!
What happened to Ralph? Is he still around?
He’s still around. There’s actually a play a guy has written about Ralph’s life. The title is Ralph White: Anatomy of a Community Activist.
What is your life like outside of politics?
I’m a real estate agent—my wife is a real estate broker—and I’m a notary public with the state of California. I’m a licensed general building contractor and a licensed electrical contractor and electrician. And I’m a certified arborist—a tree specialist. I continue to be a member of NAACP, so I continue to be an advocate for South Stockton, which is diverse—extremely diverse racially. Black, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, East Indian.
Do the people that you interact with on a daily basis—do they know this is something that happened to you, this national story?
Most of the people who’ve been around Stockton do, yes. Certainly nothing is hidden about it.
How did your family, at the time of the recall, react to what was happening?
They didn’t know what to think. My parents, for example. They didn’t know what to do!
How would your parents have identified themselves?
They probably would have said white. The Stebbins family name comes from England—most of the Stebbinses in America were related to two brothers who came from England back in early American history.
What led you to say “I’m black” when you were asked?
The primary thing when I answered in that way was to let people know that it is not a denigration, it is not a putdown, to be black.
Do you still identify as a black person?
Do you have children?
We have seven, between my wife and I we have seven.
How does your wife identify herself, racially?
Black, Indian—Lumbee Cherokee. [The Lumbee Cherokee group is itself involved in identity-related controversy.]
And how about your children?
I guess you’d have to ask them! [Laughs.] I don’t know.