One summer day in 1966 George Harris, a Black former classmate from the Atlanta University School of Social Work, and I were driving an old school bus full of campers — Black and white, poor and middle class, girls and boys — from South Side Settlement in Columbus, Ohio, to Triple-S Camp in southern Ohio. Driving slowly down a narrow gravel rural road, George jammed on the brakes, leapt from the driver’s seat, ran up to the porch of a ramshackle house and asked the elderly couple sitting there, “How much do you want for that? I want to buy it.”
The “that” was a crockery caricature of a grinning Black youth eating a very large slice of watermelon. The sale was made. George returned and placed the pottery in front the bus — and drove over it, smashing the caricature into bits. This led to some interesting discussions with the campers on the bus.
I was involved in the civil rights movement during the previous several years, picketing to challenge segregated lunch counters and testing housing discrimination with the Congress on Racial Equality in Columbus, and demonstrating, picketing, registering voters, testing public accommodations in theoretically desegregated Atlanta as one of three white students in my MSW cohort at the Atlanta University School of Social Work. For the first time in my life I had close Black friends. But until George acted that day I was not really conscious of how racism often hid in plain sight and subtly influenced my perceptions of Black people.
I began to think about how I had been affected by my beloved grandmother’s Aunt Jemima cookie jar, by stereotypes promoted usually without intention by family and friends, by the commonplace blackface red-suited jockey hitching posts and other negative racial memorabilia that were simply part of how things were. I wonder if you have had similar experiences?
Across the country and here in Union and Wallowa counties, people have been demonstrating against systemic racism following the brutal murder by police of George Floyd and so many other people of color. One act of protestors in many locations has been to destroy statues of Confederate leaders from the Civil War and also especially statues of Christopher Columbus. Such statues together with Confederate flags represent structural racism too often simply taken for granted by many whites.
Columbus is commonly credited with beginning the European colonization of the Americas. He is less commonly credited with the two founding crimes of the United States — genocide of the Indigenous peoples and enslavement of Africans — crimes impacting tens of millions of people and generating never-ending racism against both populations.
It should be no surprise that Oregon is one of the least diverse states in the nation. As educator Walidah Imarishais makes clear, Oregon has roots deep in racism. Oregon’s Black exclusionary laws demonstrate how Oregon was founded as a racist white Utopia “where white folks could come and build the perfect white society.” In 1844 Black people could live in the Oregon territory no more than three years. Black people who stayed longer could receive 39 lashes every six months until they left. Five years later Black people not already resident were prevented from entering or residing in the territory.
When Oregon became a state in 1855, the Oregon Constitution continued these exclusions and prohibited Black people from owning property or making contracts. These laws were repealed nearly 100 years ago, but the racist language remained in the state’s constitution until removed by ballot initiative in 2002. Eighteen years ago, 30% voted to keep the racist language in the constitution.
Structural racism results in people of color and Indigenous people being poorer, sicker, less likely to be employed, less likely to be able to purchase homes or afford to rent apartments, having less savings to fall back on and having shorter life spans than their white counterparts. These workers are less likely to have health insurance and more likely to work in jobs defined as essential that are highly exposed to COVID-19 infections. Consequently, the pandemic has been especially devastating to these households.
It’s time to address structural racism and the racial disparities it generates by creating a just Oregon that works for everyone.