Open discussions on race in Portland: Is it possible?

Karol Collymore

Since Senator Obama's speech on race in America, I've debated internally if and when I would respond to it on Blue Oregon. I mean, who am I? The Black woman who blogs on BlueO, a person who is genuinely interested in healing racial wounds, a blowhard? The truth is, all the things Obama said are things I've been yearning for an elected official to say in public - specifically one of color - since I started forming thoughts on race. The parts I specifically focused on are the issues of African diaspora, the repercussion of slavery and the marginalization of freed slaves and their children. People have never talked (outside college classrooms) about how that effected self esteem, motivation and the community's ability to progress from such hatred. And the fact that no entity or person was punished for these atrocities makes it doubly hard to find self-worth.

More importantly to me now, is how we move this conversation locally to Portland. Honestly, I don't know how to do that. When I first moved here, a new friend offered me a book on the history of Blacks in Portland. It was really, really sad. From not being allowed to move into the city early in the 20th century to being left homeless after Vanport flooded during World War II. In my mind, that is an obvious connection to the state of things today and why schools in North and parts of Northeast Portland are struggling.

As my new friend Paul Gronke pointed out to me, Portland paints itself a liberal bastion of intellectuals, the hippest of the hip and the greenest of the green. But it is so easy to be that way if no one offers you a challenge to the status of upper middle class and White (78% White, 6% Black, 6% Latino). A challenge I wasn't here for was the renaming of Union Rd. to Martin Luther King Jr. One I am still stinging from is the attempt to rename Interstate to Cesar E. Chavez. I've never seen so many people hooked on a street named after an inanimate object.

We missed a golden opportunity to delve into some meaty issues and I hope we don't pass that by now. I ask our friends running for office locally to address some of this history, from Vanport to Chavez Ave. Talk openly about how this makes you feel personally and how you think electing you to office will make an impact citywide.

I would also like for Whites who feel like this is real and want to talk about it, to just talk. No one will be offended, we are in a safe space. We've gotten beyond the silly, "I bet you can sing, " or "your people dance so well," and real issues surrounding our failure of young Black men and Portland Public School's "open enrollment" that takes kids and money out of local schools. If those old houses in North and Northeast are good enough to remodel, so should the schools.

Let the healing begin!

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    Thanks, Karol, for an insightful post.

    Regarding... "The Black woman who blogs on BlueO" -- we've just been joined by former state rep. Jo Ann Bowman. She hasn't posted her inaugural post yet, but we're excited to have her aboard!

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    I absolutely agree -- I'm not sure how to have that conversation, but as Portlanders, we really need to have it.

    The historian Richard White said that the history of the Pacific Northwest is the history of race. In many ways, that is true. It is the history of Native American groups pushed off of their land and denied their traditions. It is the history of thousands of Northwestern Japanese Americans who were forced into internment camps. It is the history of the 1920's KKK chapter in La Grande, one of the largest in the nation. It is the history of African-Americans who forged a community following the devastation of Vanport but who remain segregated through economic and cultural isolation. It is the history of Latino communities who are used for their labor and not respected for their valuable contributions. It is also the history of the entire state of Oregon, which was founded in great part by white people who were trying to escape the South after the emancipation of African-Americans.

    We think because we are majority white that we do not have a racial history -- we do. Thanks so much for shining a light on our need to talk about it.

  • naschkatzehussein (unverified)

    Karol, a beautiful post. As a white woman who is in the age bracket in which most people assume I would be a Clinton supporter, I have to keep my mouth shut in most places because although I think Rev. Wright's comments were very politically incorrect, I basically agree with his anger. The US is in the hands of people who oppress, manipulate and kill both its citizens and peoples of other nations. As Obama said in his speech, Americans of all colors and beliefs are oppressed economically, educationally, in their health care, in their quality of life, and I didn't see or hear the pastor's comments in their entirety, but when he used that unfortunate expression, I think he was referring to the killing of the innocent in the middle east. Yes, I too would like to see all of us come together in peace and our common interests, but how do we get the politically manipulated to get their heads out of the sand and vote for their own interests, not those of the corporations and political-financial elite? All I can say is that I think Obama is going about the right way brilliantly, and if he doesn't win the nomination and the contest is between Tweedle-dee-dee and Tweedle-dee-dum (McCain and Clinton), I will indeed feel hopeless and happy to be at the point in life when it will not matter much longer.

  • Ken (unverified)

    As a native Portlander, and a middle-aged white guy living in a NE Portland mixed neighborhood, I think a conversation about race is long overdue. I made a conscious decision to bring up my children in a diverse environment, something I deeply regretted about my own childhood in segregated Portland. It worked in the sense that my children are much more comfortable about race than I am, but I've also been accused of gentrifying and dispersing the black community. I do think gentrification is a real issue we need to address-- but denigration of one another doesn't really help. Neither is the near total lack of social interaction between the races in my neighborhood.

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    Not too long ago I thought that Portland and most of the educated class of America was over racial discrimination. Sure there were bigots in the South and in older generations. Yes there were skin heads in Portland, but for the most part I thought we were well past it. The fact that Obama won a white state like Iowa really proved to me that we as a nation had moved past our past.

    During the discussions about Barack's prior visit to Portland last fall I read comments that the only reason white folks went to hear and support Obama was because of white guilt. That bothered me because I knew it wasn't true of me and it was a discordant message after the inspiration of the candidate. Then came Ferraro's claim that Barack was lucky he was black and she was attacked because she was white. Then the reaction to Obama's pastor.

    I am convinced that Ferraro does not believe she is a racist and many of those who are attacking Obama because he stayed in the church with a pastor that offended them also believe that they are not racist. I can see how whites and blacks look at the same statements and hear different messages. To me Ferraro was offensive and she just doesn't get it. I am more sensitized by my support of Obama to how different people hear Ferraro's comments, how she sends the message to whites that blacks have an unfair advantage because they have preferences (because she believes that). Yet I am offended because it implies that my candidate is an affirmative action candidate, not just the far superior person for the job that I see.

    The complaints against pastor Wright also come from many who attend churches that say offensive things against gays or Muslims, but don't see any problem with their pastor. They truly seem unable to walk in the other man's shoes.

    My hope remains that we can get past this. The younger generation, as shown by the outpouring support for Obama, is my hope. I have three children in college and they describe a different scene on campuses. They live in multi-racial communities, date outside their race, and they and their friends generally seem to have moved past our past. I am truly inspired by Obama, the more so because of his talk on Tuesday. I am hopeful, but anxious, that he will be able to lead our country to a better place, if only we will let him.

  • Terri Kelly (unverified)

    Thank you for your insightful words, Karol. I am an instructor on Race Relations for one of those college classrooms you mention, and I must say that I have seen nothing but positive signs that the critical conversation on race can and will be continued outside of the classroom. It is not just a matter anymore of ridding society of racism, or confronting one's own racial prejudices, it is a matter of being realistic about the challenges one will face in an increasingly diverse society. Simply put, individuals will not succeed in a diverse society if they harbour unreasonable prejudices. The best way to get over prejudices is to talk about them, see them for what they are worth, and make a conscious choice whether or not to hang on to them. My experience has been that students are mostly not aware of the institutionalized racism that directs their choices, but once made aware, they are just as concerned about removing these blinders as unraveling the threads of injustices throughout our shared racial history. When acceptance and appreciation of diversity becomes a matter of personal interest, the healing begins. Thanks again for your healing words.

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    Karol, this winter I went to a forum at Concordia College, actually a lecture and q/a on gentrification by Prof. Nathan McCall in support of his new book, Them. The audience was, I'd say, 70% black, with a healthy representation of hispanics as well. It was a real breath of fresh air -- it really drove home how rare it is in my Portland life to be in a discussion where I (white) am in the racial minority. Hearing/reading analysis is one thing, but an opportunity to see/hear/feel the emotion of an ethnic group is something else entirely. I grew up in a much more multicultural area (Boston) which had its own shortcomings, but the fact that you didn't need to seek out multicultural experiences is something I miss. I'll be looking for that kind of event in the future (I think that was part of a monthly series, that may still be going on) and hope there are many more to come.

    As for the Obama speech, I was very impressed. To paraphrase Jon Stewart, he actually addressed the American people as though they were adults. He actually rose to the defense of someone he loves, and rejected the notion that his defense constituted an endorsement of the man's views. What novel concepts. It's the sort of thing we all do in our daily lives, but...we can't understand that a politician might approach things in a similar way?! Says who?

  • genop (unverified)

    We have all been scarred by racism, classism, sexism, and many other divisive niches which keep us isolated. Yet we share so many common ideals which need attention. We need to get beyond differences which isolate and come together to tackle some serious problems. We must all acknowledge that our Union is imperfect. Discrimination is a fact not easily forgotten. To help form a more perfect Union, all niches must work together to embark on the large tasks ahead. Obama will lead us there. But only if we participate and overcome our irrational fear of those unlike ourselves in some superficial sense. Superficial differences in race, gender, wealth and even political affiliation must be overcome by a mutual focus on our common interests. Can we do that?

  • BCM (unverified)

    The only time race is really discussed in Portland is after a white police officer shoots and kills a black person. This is not a criticism of PPB officers, it's just an observation on the aftermath of recent incidents. Subsequent protests in N. Portland are covered in the media and then swept under the rug, not to be heard from again until a similar situation rises.

    I do think the PPB has taken commendable steps to have an open dialog with the black community. Two black police chiefs had a lot to do with that. It's just unfortunate that the topic of race in Portland has been isolated between the police and the black community and not open to the city at large.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    Thanks Karol - it is time to talk about this stuff. I don't have an outcome in mind, but it is time to talk.

    I grew up in North Portland, and graduated from Jefferson H.S. the last year prior to the intervention of the Superintendent regarding the racial make-up of that school. He noted that at that time Jefferson was over 50% black in its racial mix, and that schools with that ratio of black to other races performed poorly. Nevermind that something like 75% of that graduating class went on to either college or a trade school, never mind that during 1969-70 Jefferson H.S. had retreats where issues of race were addressed by students and teachers, and that the level of racial violence fell to near zero as a result of this intense communication, nevermind that Jefferson H.S. was a well functioning center of learning as good as any school in the District in 1970 - its population was over 50% black, and that was a problem.

    Since then the Portland School District has destroyed and continues to destroy Jefferson H.S. and the north Portland School system by way of many (failed) attempts to solve poorly defined problems. To break up the racial problem at Jefferson H.S. (which in fact was not a problem), magnet schools, mass busing, quotas, ratios, etc. became the currency of the District. It was and is extremely destructive to the African American community.

    I compare my experience as a youth in North Portland with what I see where I am now. Over in Paulina, we have a small community school for the Forest Service and ranching families in the upper country of Crook County. That is a 2 room school where all kids grade K-8 go. The sense of community there is deep. The school events like the Christmas potluck and play are attended not only by all the families of the children, but by nearly all the people healthy enough to leave their houses. The school is where community happens. And that was the way it was at Jefferson H.S. in 1970 and earlier. My mother and all my aunts and uncles (a total of 8 in that generation), both sides of the family went to Jefferson H.S. (my father went to Benson). It was our family school and our community school. To this day, I still have friends that I am in frequent contact with from that time period. -- I might have lived in Portland, but my community was Jefferson H.S.

    And the misguided School District destroyed that, and I might add against the objections of the Jefferson H.S. community, based upon a racial theory.

    There is a lot of healing to do, 38 years later.

    Again, thanks Karol.

  • David McDonald (unverified)

    I see no real difference in those who refuse to discuss developmental disability issues and those who refuse to discuss race. Because what it comes down to is institutionalized civil rights violations that people are unwilling to talk about.

    People who have historically been denied their rightful place at the table because of being a minority group suffer on many levels. To acknowledge that suffering, and how we may have passively (or blatantly) participated in its' existence is hard to face or admit.

    I believe that until society takes ownership for how some people have had their civil rights trampled on for no justfiable reason, any such discussion will be superficial at best.

    Martin Luther King Junior put it best:

    "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people."

  • Bill R. (unverified)

    Thanks for initiating the conversation. This is not an ideal forum for doing so, but it's good start. I have to say that the Obama speech made me cry, there is such a deep yearning for healing and the thought that good will can actually triumph in human communities.

    I was raised in a family with a younger sister and a some-time stepfather who were Native Amerian while I was Italian-Irish American in a community in small town Oregon with severe prejudice towards Native Americans, and all people of color. I found myself often defending my sister and her ethnic community and had an awareness of the vulnerabilities of growing up as a minority ethnic in a larger Caucasian community. At the same time I was also aware and sometimes ashamed of the alcohol and crime problems that occurred in the Native American community and would find myself bearing some of those same prejudices that I fought against. I suppose that Obama must have lived parallel conflicts in himself, living in both worlds.

    Not long ago when my daughter graduated from college and moved out on her own she chose to live in a mixed ethnic neighborhood in NE Portland. I found myself having fears for her safety because of the "reputation" the neighborhood had in times past. And in a conflicted way I also found I was proud of her for wanting to live in an ethnically rich and diverse area. So, another area of living out those fears and prejudices myself in myself.

    When walking in the neighborhood, especially in the blocks with the higher concentration of AA people, many of them out on the street in the summer time, I wondered if they might have regarded us as intruders. But nothing ever happened to suggest that. And generally people were friendly. Although I had read that there were some tensions in the neighborhood around gentrification.

    I have had a rather blessed professional experience providing in-home counseling and support to elderly AA clients in N and NE Portland. Hearing their stories,being invited into their homes, in dignity these persons have sustained through profound challenge and suffering, living through the segregation of the South and the great migration North, especially around WWII to work in the the Portland shipyards. The experience of the Vanport flood.

    All these stories, and the preservation of family and faith, the profound support and the strength of the Black church through the many years, has left me with a deep respect especially for these elderly AA persons. The powerful sense of social justice and interconnection that flows from the Black church has also touched me. People learn a real ethic of interconnection through that great spiritual tradition. I wish that it was so throughout the Christian world. Great suffering seemingly has taught great compassion. We are all so vulnerable in the human state. Who of us could have done so well through such adversity? Not me, I don't think. When I listened to the stories of these elderly African American women, they did remind me at times of the stories of my immigrant Italian grandmother who was spat upon when she walked down the streets of Mt. Shasta, CA as a child, an unwanted "foreigner." She found a way to "assimilate." People of color may find "assimilation" much more difficult. We do have common ground in our diverse experiences. We hurt and we have pain, and we suffer, and try to find a way to defend ourselves and survive. We all want our families to be safe, to have dignity and respect, and to thrive.

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    While I will definitely agree that the issue of race and division in Portland, and Oregon as a whole (it's a huge part of most of what I focus my time on), I'd like to point out that this discussion HAS been happening, with intent and purpose in many areas of this city and by many people. I love the fact that Obama's words have put the spotlight on this, but it does a disservice to those who have been talking and working for a long time, from all different communities to think that it's not happening. What has to happen now is for that conversation to come into the mainstream and to widen. And as someone mentioned earlier, we have GOT to stop being afraid of offending someone in this conversation. For me, as a white person, to be so caught up in being afraid that I might offend someone of color with an honest conversation, is incredibly disrespectful of that person. It's as if I have decided that they are not strong enough, or can't handle it. Well, when did I get to decide that? Am I so afraid of looking my own history in the eye that I'm going to project it onto someone else and convince myself that THEY are the ones who can't deal with it?

    We think because we are majority white that we do not have a racial history -- we do

    So true. One of the greatest "priviledges" that I, as a white person, get to enjoy is not having to think about myself as white. For some reason, white is not a color, and so I am not reminded of that everyday in some way or other. Someone mentioned police incidents earlier; a perfect example. White people in this country/state/city honestly do not have to think about race, unless it's specifically brought to their attention. We really, truly can choose not to think about it. The society in which we live reinforces that. We are the "norm"; it's everyone else who is "different."

    Thank you for this post Karol. As usual, hoest and insightful.

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    Here is my confession about race: I rarely think about it. And when it does impact me, it's often fleeting.

    Is this bad? I have no idea.

    I do remember the original reaction Lupita and I had, 12 years ago, coming into a popular Beaverton diner. We were just up from the Bay Area, normal California, and went in for breakfast. Two things just floored us: you could buy a plate of food large enough to feed a whole family for less than $6, and the place was so white I felt like I was snowblind. No african-americans. No asian-americans. Hell, not even latinos in the kitchen. Nothing. Just pure unadulterated white.

    A few things have changed in the last decade. There are more latinos now. But outside of a few Portland districts and some high-tech, I just don't see much color. Which is too bad.

    Maybe it's the Berkley boy still in me, but the whole thing still strikes me as just damned unnatural. I like my people like TV: in full living color.

  • trishka (unverified)

    yes, what an excellent post, karol. thanks from me as well.

    kristin, thanks to you also for talking about the ways that oregon's history is a racial history.

    what i'd like is to figure out how we can move forward from that past and towards a more diverse population. just because we've always been majority white, and for some very bad reasons, that doesn't mean we have to stay majority white, right? and yet it seems to perpetuate itself.

    i don't live in portland, but here in corvallis the subject of minority recruitment has come up as an issue. companies like hewlitt-packard and also (i believe) the university have trouble getting people of color to take jobs here, because corvallis has a reputation as being a "white" place that is not friendly to minorities.

    and yet as long as we aren't more diverse, we will be seen as a white community. and as long as we are seen as a white community, people of color won't want to move here and our diversity will remain limited.

    any thoughts on how to break that cycle? i'm imagining that this much be an issue for portland as well, though on a different scale.

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    Portlanders might want to check out the Restorative Listening Project. Its specific focus is gentrification but it's inevitably mostly a conversation about race. The Nathan McCall talk mentioned earlier was a special event in that series.

    I do want to disagree with Karol on one point. This is not a safe place to talk about race. The more honest the conversation the more emotionally challenging people will find it. Go back and read the threads here about the proposed renaming of Interstate Avenue if you don't believe me.

    It's a measure of how bad things are that Barack Obama's speech was so truly extraordinary when all he did was speak honestly about what by rights should be the most trivially obvious facts about race as we experience it in the USA.

    I attended the most recent gathering in the listening project series and those of us who were there got some really good advice.

    One white participant was waxing rhapsodic about how rewarding he had found it to speak to/smile at a couple of black people because they had returned his greeting in kind.

    Charles Ford, who has managed over the years to become Portland's iconic elderly irascible black man, said: "You might get cussed out you know. Do it anyway. I've been cussed out a few times. You know what I did? I got over it. That's what you have to do. Get over it."

    If you ask me, Mr. Ford hit on the key to whether or not we can have real transformative conversations about race in Portland Oregon. If a substantial number of those of us who consider ourselves progressives/liberals can leave the defensiveness behind, then it can happen. If not, then Barack Obama is ahead of his time and change is another generation or more down the road.

  • golden (unverified)

    Dr. Joy Leary at PSU's Social Work program pioneered the idea of post traumatic slave syndrome in which slavery was a contributing (or the) factor in many slaves and eventually freed slaves developing post traumatic stress disorder. As we know, mentally unhealthy parents have a higher probability of deficient parenting. Because of the PTSD tainted parenting the children developed anti-social behaviors; experienced neglect/abuse; learned to behave like their parents (who were mentally unhealthy) et al. These children (with their own issues due to the PTSD parenting) grew up and raised their children and... the cycle continued/s. Slavery was not that long ago.

    (This is my understanding of the theory; don't take my word for it. Dr. Leary is very published)

    I always thought this was an interesting look at slavery from a mental health point of view. Obviously, this is a small piece of a big pie.

  • whatever (unverified)

    America is soooooo Racist that a Black man is running for President and has gotten the votes of tens of millions in the primaries and is in the top two of all comers to Win.

    America is so eeevvviiilll that we give more Money, Medicine and Food to needy nations, than the rest of the World pitches in combined.

    If you Progressives HATE America so much, just leave. Go to a nicer place that you all support, like Mexico, where love those feel sorry for me Americans. And they treat Blacks real special there too.

  • Bill R. (unverified)

    Whatever- (Are you ashamed to tell us your name?)

    "If you Progressives HATE America so much, just leave. Go to a nicer place that you all support, like Mexico, where love those feel sorry for me Americans. And they treat Blacks real special there too."


    I think this about tells us everything. Conversations about race, admitting problems or conflict = "hating America." This is the Fox News/ Rush Limbaugh formula for stopping/marginalizing communication, stopping any reconciliation.

    My response- "NOT THIS TIME!"

  • Allyn Stone (unverified)

    I live in Southern Oregon, not Portland, so I don't have much to add to this conversation. But since the videos of Rev. Wright began playing on TV, I've been shocked to learn how widely black Americans are condemned if they express anger about injustice. It's a real double bind -- and ironic, since much of our (white) political culture has become so angry. This recent LA Times commentary on the subject is a good one:,0,5576363.story

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    Way to get the ball rolling, Karol!

    I've been pondering Obama's speech and the very rich subject of race in America since he gave it. (Actually, Karol and I were emailing a bit about it, which was a blast.) I'd like to throw something out there that's topical, and I wonder if others have a similar or contrasting experience.

    Since the Wright affair blew up, I've had a number of discussions--with a mostly white and totally non-black cohort--where we feel there's something a little weird going on. Aside from the impolitic ways in which he expressed it, was the substance of Wright's critique really that far off the mark? Is it really a shocker to suggest that rich whites run the show in America? Or that blacks have gotten screwed? And is it really so unreasonable to think that these violate the very sense of what we think "America" should stand for?

    We've lived in a time when self-appointed defenders of patriotism have defined what it means to be American and how one should act. I'm a white male, but I've chafed mightily at those descriptions. When I heard Wright's comments, I recognized that they were political gasoline, but his anger--after DeLay and Rove and Cheney and Rummy and Ashcroft and on and on--was something I strongly related to.

    I know it's not possible to defend Wright in the US in 2008, and all things being equal, I don't want to. But Obama had it right when he said that there's a context to outrage. I just wonder if more whites didn't instinctively understand that context than are admitting publically.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    "If you Progressives HATE America so much, just leave."

    That reminds me of something I've heard before, repeated by folks who were mistaken in just about everything they said. No problem for "whatever" though, as blinkered vision complements porous memory quite nicely.

  • BCM (unverified)

    America is so eeevvviiilll that we give more Money, Medicine and Food to needy nations, than the rest of the World pitches in combined.

    I don't know where this started, but it is not accurate -- in fact, it's completely wrong. If you include the EU as one body, they alone donate more in sum and as % of GDP to foreign aid than the US does.

  • Jayme (unverified)


    What a wonderful post. I am also personally glad that one of our leaders has taken a moment to candidly talk about race issues in our country and acknowlegde that we still have a long way to go and an awful lot of healing to do.

    I agree that we need to move this conversation locally and I hope that this can be a launching point. I don't think many people realize much of the history of discrimination that exists in our city. We also need to take the time to reflect on the role that the history and current discrimination has on our communities.

    In that spirit I want to invite the BlueO community to join us at The Fair Housing Council of Oregon in celebrating the 40th Anniversary of The Fair Housing Act next month. On April 30th, we will be hosting a Civil Rights Bus Tour, Luncheon and Panel discussion. Anyone who is interested in registering can find information at or by emailing [email protected]

    I hope this can be one of many opportunities that we have in our community to continue this conversation and as you have said "let the healing begin."

  • Buckman Res (unverified)

    Try stating that affirmative action is a bigoted, discriminatory policy that creates division in society and see what happens. Same for advocating enforcement of all US immigration laws and cracking down on businesses that hire illegals.

    In both instances you will undoubtedly hear the tired refrain of “you’re a racist” from small minds aimed at shutting down honest debate.

    Until this type of closed mindedness changes it will be a very short conversation.

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    The link doesn't go anywhere, Karol.

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    The link just has an extra "http://" -- if you delete that out, you can still get to the article.

    Doretta, thanks for providing the name of that series -- I was racking my brain for that!

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    I love timing. I have no idea which listserve or information site I belong to sent me this email today but it appears to be a fantastic organization and idea.

    National, regional and local racial issues have long brought feelings of anger, fear and despair to many Americans. This week's political scene has raised these issues again. Although people of good will recognize these problems, they may feel powerless to address or correct them. Are you one of these people? Do you wish to address this issue in a "safe" peaceful way? ERACE promotes ERACISM by providing a forum for concerned citizens to come together to face the difficult and painful subject of racism.
    The purpose of ERACE is to create an atmosphere where people feel free to explore perceptions, assumptions and biases without fear of ridicule or personal attack. Within the ERACE setting, people can open their hearts and minds by questioning others and themselves in structured conversations with an experienced Facilitator.

    ERACE, is a grass-roots all volunteer group that was started by a Black woman and White woman in New Orleans

    This is their site: ERASE

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    Kevin, I'm not a link-master, to be sure. I found the story on

  • Bill R. (unverified)

    Acknowledging the collective past is a necessary part of healing. Many older people remember a Portland with segregation of restaurants, jobs,unions, and public facilities. When the AAs were hired to work in the shipyards they were denied union benefits and pensions, and were the first to be laid off. Many elderly black men are low income because of that denial of union status and pension benefits that others had.

    Most Oregonians do not know that the state of Oregon was founded as a whites only homeland in 1859. Blacks and Asians were not permitted to be citizens or own property. The specifications on the deed to my recent home in Lake Oswego stated clearly that the property could not be owned by any African Americans or Asians, and they could only live on the property as servants with special permission.

    At the turn of the 20th century the KKK was the predominant political force in Oregon. They were instrumental in getting "sun-down" laws passed in Southern Oregon where AAs had to be out of town by sundown. Those laws continued into the 1950s formally and informally. I should add that the KKK was also virulently anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic and passed a law banning private schools, aimed at Catholic schools. It was struck down as unconstitutional of course. I think the Ore legislature just recently struck some of the racially discriminatory language in the constitution. The point of acknowledging this is not to inspire a kind of collective majority guilt for the Euro related people, but to understand that the present is conditioned by the past.

    My own prior generations as immigrants were both the victims and the perpetrators in big and small ways of discrimination. By acknowledging it we find a way to free ourselves from its effects slowly in my view. We can acknowledge our own racist or discriminatory thinking, without saying, "that's who I am" or choosing "that's how I have to be."

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    I suspect you will, if you use that sort of language. There is nothing at all "bigoted" about affirmative action. While you may object to the policy, or argue that the costs of the policy outweigh the benefits, the policy was adopted for precisely the opposite reasons than bigotry. Affirmative action was adopted under the Johnson administration to address real inequities in hiring practices that pervaded our society.

    In the spirit of productive discourse, if you want a more reasoned argument against affirmative action, I point you to the work of Paul Sniderman, who argues less against the policy, but states that the damage that the policy does by creating white racial resentment outweighs its benefits.

    I will also note that the esteemed Senator from Illinois seems familiar with this branch of social science literature.

  • Bridget (unverified)

    This was really hard to write. It's taken me two days of thought to get to here. But, Karol said this is a safe space and I'm taking her at her word.

    Here's my story and a few questions:

    I was in Central Library a few months ago, checking out some books. I was nearly finished, when an African-American man approached the desk, carrying a large stack of books. I picked up my purse and books to make room for his books.

    I saw his face form a frown of resignation. I realized that he thought I was moving my purse to protect it from him. I smiled and said, ‘Would you like to put your books down? I’m nearly finished here.” He smiled back, looked relieved, and said “Thanks.”

    So, here’s two middle-class 30-something library users seeing a simple act through very different eyes.

    I felt really bad for the guy. I felt bad for me too.

    It’s not my fault. Racism is not personally my fault. I don’t act like a racist.

    I am tired of feeling bad. I want us to address racism, especially institutional racism, but I also want people to see me, and to not assume that because I'm white, I'm a racist.

    I'm ticked off that people like Damali Ayo assume that I'm benefitting from racism because I'm white. I would think that racism, like sexism hurts us all, financially and emotionally.

    I’m asking, “Do I have to feel bad because I’m white?” And if so, “How is that helping?”

    How do I participate in mending cultural relations, beyond raising my kids right and treating everyone with respect until they show me, by the content of their character, that they don’t deserve it?

  • Jiang (unverified)

    No. The electorate is not mature enough. Too molly-coddled by the press. Odd question though. If memory serves, when someone tried to promote population control on this blog, you called him/her a troll.

    Why is race more worthy of discussion than population control? What right to you have to ask for civility when you've given none?

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    Hi Bridget, Thank you for sharing your story from the library. I often jump to conclusions when I see people grab for their purse or don't want to sit with me on the bus when there is an open seat next to me. I realize many times its a selfish reaction on my part; people have their own business to worry about.

    As much as people need to talk about some institutional forms of racism, there are times when its simply not the case. No one should feel bad for being any color and you should not feel bad for being white. Its a matter of birth and evolution and it is up to us how we handle it. You feeling bad does nothing and my feeling bad does nothing and that is what breeds this resentment.

    Raising our children in the way you mention is the way to go, but I think its important to teach history as well, to remind us how far we've come and how far we can go.

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    Bridget's story and Karol's response illustrate in a benign setting a principle that also applies in more questionable circumstances: that part of our struggle is with the gap between intentions and effects, as well as differing perceptions of them.

    White people, especially when feeling defensive, often focus on their intentions -- "it was just a joke," "I didn't mean anything by it." People on the wrong end of racism in general will tend to focus on the effects, and often infer intention from effect.

    Bridget's story is particularly interesting in a couple of ways. One is that it's not typical of many such situations -- she wasn't doing something dodgy & then trying to deny any problem. She was doing what all us white people need to, treat everyone considerately. The other thing is that she was sharp enough and paying attention enough to the man in question to see his feelings, and to speak to him. If more of us had / did these three things: treat people the same, with consideration, pay attention to how our actions affect other people, and communicate when the effects warrant it, it would go a long way on the small-scale interpersonal level.

    To my mind Bridget's actions were both not racist to start with, and also anti-racist in that she was aware enough of what really does happen to correctly interpret the black man's reaction and to reach out to reassure him in a way that focused on his burden (the books, but also the doubt) rather than her own feeling-bad at the misunderstanding.

    Everything she did right I think illuminates places where things (and white people) go wrong. We can have difficulties acknowledging black people, acting toward them in a normal or courteous way, paying attention to signals about how they are feeling, and with self-consciousness about any of the foregoing.

    Quite some time ago now, I recognized a habitual pattern of behavior that dismayed and ashamed me: that in situations of crossing paths with another person, going through doorways and the like, often I acted differently and less politely to black people than white people. It was not conscious in the sense of thinking "I'm white so I get to go first," but the effect was the same as if I had been thinking that.

    Rather, I realized, on some level I was acting as if they weren't there -- a version or a piece of what Ralph Ellison wrote about in Invisible Man. The intention didn't matter to the people I was affecting, but it did matter to the problem I needed to fix.

    If I had consciously been thinking I had a right to precedence due to white skin, I would have needed to work on that attitude. But instead, on one level I was just being rude, and I needed to work on that, and on another level, I needed to work on whatever weird psychological dynamic was causing me to see-but-not-see the black persons when this happened and then act as if they were not there.

    I don't act that way anymore. But I think it has a bearing on what a couple of people have said about not being conscious of race most of the time, or the tendency to think of whiteness as raceless, the cultural default in a sense. I think a piece of these kinds of microdymamics is that we tend to live pretty segregated lives, but whites much more so than blacks, Asians, latinos, Native Americans, so that when we encounter a person of another race we are taken by surprise, suddenly have to think about something we are aware of somewhere in our minds -- if someone brought it up in conversation we'd know what they were talking about -- but not in our usual social interactions.

    So we often act abnormally, either with excessive self-consciousness, or desire to avoid interaction, or both. My pseudo-invisibility reaction was one type of avoidance. Fears may sometimes be for personal safety but I think often may be of doing something wrong, thereby causing that. Or it can take the form of excessive engagement, greeting a stranger in a weird half-hearted way that one wouldn't do if the stranger were white (more outgoing people than me may not have this problem).

    To my mind Portland's and the PNW's demographics probably make this kind of issue more frequent as casual stranger social interactions are less frequent. On the flip side, they may reduce certain kinds of white fears of being or ending up in a minority situation. In some places in Oregon that is changing with respect to latino populations in particular & that change is bringing fears to the fore that contribute to some of the uglier aspects of the immigration debates.

    Bridget, I don't think you need to feel bad about being white, nor anyone else. Some of us may need at times to feel bad about the way we act, and change it. You give the impression of probably being someone who takes people as they come, and being considerate, aware and self-possessed, so that may not be an issue for you. But unfortunately you share an identity with a lot of people who do have things to work on, and whose actions are going to result in responses from black people or others that may not be quite fair to you personally, but are understandable and largely unavoidable I think. I understand the feeling that you shouldn't have to deal with this (a feeling you share I'm sure in a somewhat different way with a lot of members of racial minorities), and it's good to share the feeling here I think. But I hope you don't let it detract your attention from the ultimate source.

    Karol, I'm not sure if this kind of thing is what you have in mind, clearly there are whole other dimensions at the level of politics, social life (e.g. neighborhoods etc.), culture and so on that also need to be part of a discussion. Anyway, I hope it doesn't become too burdensome for you to listen to this kind of stuff from white folks -- ultimately they are our problems that we have to deal with in order to stop making them black people's problem.

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    Slightly meta on my previous comment: I focused on actions deliberately. There are three reasons. First is that changing actions is what affects other people most directly. Second is that in self-examination, unrecognized actions can be a little easier to bring into view, and provoke thinking about attitudes, beliefs etc. different from just focusing on "what I think." Third is that actions can be changed.

    The changeability piece is terribly important, I believe. In my view, one of the obstacles to talking about race and even more about racism is that in our culture we tend to treat personal racism as an existential and binary condition. You either are a racist, or you are not. And there is a tendency to talk about that as if it's a permanent and thoroughgoing condition.

    Since pretty much people now see being a racist as a bad thing, and they don't want to think of themselves in that way, this leads to a lot of denial. And it obstructs self-examination and change, because it feels like one is being asked to take on a huge burden of bad feeling.

    But if we change the question from "Am I (or is he or she) a racist," to "Do I do racist things, have racist reactions, use racist thought patterns" that do not define my whole being, that makes the task of change seem less daunting and doesn't require trying to start from the slough of despond. IMO.

  • Bridget (unverified)

    I was so worried that I'd be tagged a racist by my post. I don't know why. I guess I'm overly sensitive.

    The past absolutely should be taught. We need to shoulder the burden to remove institutional, residual and person-to-person racism.

    <h2>I want a roadmap. I want to be part of the solution beyond my initial commitment of raising my boys right and treating others with respect. I like what Eracism of New Orleans does. Is anybody doing something like that here?</h2>

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