His ancestors were white. His parents are white. His brother and four sisters are white. Yet against the weight of all this whiteness, and his own pale blue eyes and light complexion, Mark Stebbins insists he’s black. His ethnic identity became a vexing public dispute last fall when Stebbins, 41, ran for political office. Campaigning as a black in a heavily black and Hispanic district of Stockton, Calif., Stebbins won a seat on the city council.
The defeated incumbent is indisputably black, and indignant. “Stebbins is a white guy with a perm,” scoffs Ralph Lee White, also 41. He accuses his rival of “defrauding” District 9’s impoverished voters by pretending to share their minority heritage—a reverse case of trying to “pass.” The voters have just delivered their verdict: Stebbins is the man for them. Last month a recall vote engineered by the vociferous White ended in a resounding victory for Stebbins.
The contretemps began last year when Stebbins, an $18,000-a-year community organizer, appeared before the Stockton Chapter of the Black American Political Association of California. The question of race was raised and when pressed, Stebbins claimed he was black.
“It’s bizarre,” says Stockton Mayor Randy Ronk, a Stebbins supporter. “I’ll be honest about that.” Stebbins’ lawyer, the Rev. Robert Edward Green, admits, “I have never really received a satisfactory explanation from Mark.”
Some think that Stebbins might have claimed Martian citizenship and still unseated White, a nightclub owner and millionaire bail bondsman, whose popularity has dwindled since he was first elected in 1971 on a civil rights platform. A onetime cotton picker and self-described “ex-hustler,” White was said to be more interested lately in his lucrative business interests than in the chores of office. In 1979 the flamboyant entrepreneur built a 27-room mansion—complete with tennis court and swimming pool—in the shadow of a low-income housing project. “White is the best known, least liked and least trusted politician in Stockton,” says Mayor Ronk. “He’s an embarrassment.”
“Ralph is wrapped up in Ralph,” says Mable Hurdle, 66, a black who supported Stebbins. “Mark is concerned with all people.”
Stebbins stubbornly declines to explain why he considers himself black. Born in the rural Washington town of Colville, he came to a gradual realization, he says, that he was wrongly labeled, in a racial sense. At Washington State University he was active in the civil rights movement. He later enlisted in a variety of community organizing projects, arriving in Stockton in 1965 to help with the United Farm Workers’ boycott. About that time Stebbins decided he was black, “culturally, socially and genetically.”
Needless to say, his mother, Neta, is supportive but puzzled by her son’s claim. To hear her tell it, Mark’s racial conversion was like one of Archie Bunker’s worst nightmares about the seductiveness of ethnic foods. “He came down here,” she remembers, “tried some hot soul food and decided, ‘Wow, this is for me.’ Now he feels he’s genetically black.”
Neither Neta nor her husband, Vern, a retired farm-board employee, has any black ancestors that they’re aware of. Mark is somewhat darker and has kinkier hair than their other children, but few people would mistake him for black. “I have a little trouble figuring out where he’s coming from,” says Vern, “but I’m not going to argue with him.”
In fact the parents see a bit of humor in their son’s racial transformation. “I’ve got a daughter who hopes to go to Turkey as a missionary—she really identifies with Turkish people,” says Neta. “But,” adds a smiling Vern, “she hasn’t said she’s a turkey yet.”
In 1967 Mark married a white woman. They had two children, who are being reared as white. The couple was divorced in 1974. Stebbins’ second marriage, to a black woman, produced two children who are being reared as black. That union ended in 1981. The same year, he met his current wife, Jennet Moses, 37, a realtor. To Jennet, who is black, all questions about her husband’s background were resolved long ago. “I know he’s black,” she says.
It wasn’t always that way. “When I first met Mark,” she recalls, “I thought he was Jewish.”