On the Anniversary of Ferguson: some personal reflections

Luncheonette sign, circa 1943, Portland, OR.  Source: Oregon Historical Society.

Luncheonette sign, circa 1943, Portland, OR.  Source: Oregon Historical Society.

In view of what seems to me the obvious fact that our country still has a long way to go to heal the wounds of 400 years of racial discrimination against black people, I wish to weigh in with a personal account that will let you know how I see things at this time.

As I write, I'm recalling a conversation I had a year or so ago with a relative who maintained at the time that our country no longer had a problem with racism. I disagree. I write aware that the phrases “white privilege” and “Black Lives Matter” are full of electricity when used in the public sphere, inspiring defensive reactions among at least some of us white people. I write while in progress in reading Michelle Alexander's book “The New Jim Crow.” I write believing that we've made progress – a lot of progress – since the Civil War, but that we're not yet where we need to be. I write accepting the notion that while race is in anthropological and sociological terms a “social construct”, it is nonetheless a social construct which has had a powerful destructive effect on the lives of black people in this country.

I grew up in Oregon. My story with race relations begins there.

Oregon journalist Jon Tuttle's 1991 documentary Local Color features former Oregon Governor and US Senator Mark Hatfield telling of the day in 1953 when he carried to passage a bill in the Oregon Legislature to give access to hotels, motels, and restaurants to non-white citizens of Oregon. With a smile on his face, Hatfield recalls the “smiling, joyful” African-Americans who came through the open doors of the legislative chamber to celebrate with him and other politicians their hard-won victory. There was hugging and kissing and the shedding of tears. These African-American citizens of Oregon had lobbied for years for this day to arrive, and Hatfield acknowledges them as “powerful motivators.”

Oregon's Legislature had passed a law in 1949 prohibiting discrimination in hiring practices. In 1957 and 1959 the Legislature would act to prohibit discrimination in housing.

I was born in Portland in 1954, in the midst of this time of great change in Oregon. I was a first-grader before it would be possible for a black or other minority person to have legal recourse if denied a place to rent or the right to take out a mortgage on a property.

I was an adult in mid-life before I was made aware of these facts about Oregon's history of racial discrimination.

Growing up as I did in the Portland suburb of Tigard, then in Newberg, a little farther out, then in the mountains of Coos County, then in the town of Ashland in the Rogue Valley, I didn't see black people around. I can't remember any black classmates in any of the public schools I attended. I can't remember Asian classmates, either.

My first memories of meeting African-American people up close were when my father and I took the pre-Amtrak passenger trains, where the porters and dining car staff were black men. Then there was the African pastor from Kenya who visited our church and stayed in our home. It wouldn't be until college at the University of Oregon that I met black folks as classmates and acquaintances, and there were few of those.

I suppose if you would have asked me back in my youth whether Oregon had a problem with racism, I would have said no. I would have thought that was a problem in the South, but not in our state. I now know that such an answer would be simply out of ignorance; ignorance of the trials and tribulations encountered by black people living in Oregon and ignorance of the way racist attitudes had long been embedded in the structures of Oregon's political and social fabric.

The fact is, Oregon's constitution, adopted in 1857 and made effective in 1859, included a clause prohibiting black people from owning property in the state. Slavery was banned in that constitution, but blacks could not own real estate, make contracts, vote, or use the legal system. Oregon's was the only state constitution so to do.

The historical record in Oregon shows that a series of exclusionary laws passed in the days of the Oregon Territory. Clearly, the exclusionary aspects of the 1857 constitution were part of a pattern by which the leaders of Oregon were setting up a their idea of a whites-only society. Later on in the 1920's, the Ku Klux Klan surged in popularity in Oregon. Robed and hooded Klan members gathered in Portland, and a photograph published in the Portland Telegram in August of 1921 indicates how bold Klan leadership was in trying to influence public opinion and gain the ear of politicians. By the end of that decade the KKK in Oregon was practically defunct, but white supremacist and anti-Catholic attitudes would persist in Oregon.

It would be 1927 before the Oregon State Constitution was amended to give black citizens the right to vote and eliminate restrictions against both black and Chinese voters. It would be 1959 before Oregon would ratify the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides that a citizen may not be prevented from voting based on that citizen's “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Jon Tuttle's documentary film features multiple interviews with elder black citizens of Oregon recounting incidents of discrimination in employment and accommodation in the state. They tell of “whites-only” signs on restaurants and other accommodations in Portland and statewide as late as the 40's and 50's, and of being denied jobs commensurate with their educational background.

In Tuttle's documentary, Mark Hatfield – who would later become Governor, then U.S. Senator from Oregon – recalls a visit by Paul Robeson to Willamette University in Salem sometime in the years 1942-1943 while Hatfield was an undergraduate. Robeson, a great singer known to audiences across the world, was denied hotel accommodation that night in Salem, Oregon's Capitol City, so Hatfield offered to drive Robeson to Portland to get a room for the night.

Remarkably, Tuttle – a veteran Portland television journalist – admits on camera in his documentary that he was born and raised and educated through college in Portland, but that he'd served 20 years reporting in Portland before he ran across the story he tells. “By then, it was almost too late to tell,” he ruefully remarks. His first interviewee, Otto Rutherford, voices his agreement with this, remarking that “all of those who really could contribute; they're dead now, and I'm almost dead, so when I'm gone, I don't know who you're gonna...talk to.”

Growing up in Oregon, I didn't hear this story, either. It wasn't a story I heard at school or at church, or around the dinner table at home. Why? Well, it's pretty obvious to me that as a white family living in a white neighborhood, going to church with whites, going to school with whites, we didn't have to talk about it unless we wanted to talk about it, which apparently we didn't.

Oregon remains a pretty monochrome place. Current census figures indicate that while the African-American population of the US is at 13.2%, Oregon has a mere 2% population of blacks, and most of those are in Portland, where they comprise 6.3% of the population. I once shared an apartment with a black friend in Salem in the 1970's, and I know that he stood out in the culture of that town.

The reasons for Oregon's continuing lack of racial diversity are no doubt complex, involving many social, geographic, and economic realities. World War II brought the greatest influx of African-Americans west to Oregon to work in the shipyards, where they were denied union membership and had to live in now defunct Vanport's segregated housing. The war's aftermath put front and center for Portland citizens and their political leaders the issue of what to do with all these relative newcomers after the demand for ships for the war effort dried up, and after Vanport was destroyed in a cataclysmic flood in 1948. Perhaps spurred by this urgency, the activists of the next decades would continue the struggle for racial equality play out in the political arena in Portland and Salem, the state's Capitol.

Where is Oregon now with respect to race relations? On April 30 of this year the Portland Tribune reported on a survey of 400 Oregonians conducted in mid-April of this year for Oregon Public Broadcasting. The results show a society that is conflicted about race relations. According to the director of research,

“Oregonians expressed conflicting opinions about race relations in the state. On the one hand, they believe that racism is still a problem and that most people hold some racist attitudes, while on the other hand most think we talk too much about race relations. As Oregon’s population becomes more diverse, how we collectively address — and talk about — these tensions will be one of the key challenges over the coming years.”

Like it or not, it isn't just Oregon's population that is becoming more diverse. The whole nation is becoming more diverse in population, with whites headed for minority status. We need to be anticipating this reality. We need to find ways to talk about race relations in constructive ways.

It's hard to get a conversation going about race relations. One reason for that is obvious: the latest census figures for Whatcom County indicate that our population is 87.6 white. Our church community is overwhelmingly white. That's just a reality, but this reality makes obvious this fact: we don't have many opportunities to be in the same room and have conversation with people whose experience may be different from us.

If we did have those conversations, we might have to experience some discomfort, because a conversation about race relations is liable to be both dis-orienting and re-orienting. No one likes to be dis-oriented, but that's a necessary thing for intellectual, spiritual, and moral growth, is it not? A follower of Jesus who sits in church listening to the Gospels and also to the Scripture that formed Jesus is being exposed to a tradition in which dis-orientation and re-orientation are the pattern of spiritual growth. When Jesus calls us, he calls us to dis-orientation to old patterns that keep us enslaved and re-orientation to the values and vision of the Kingdom of God.

It has been dis-orienting to me to realize in my adulthood how racist were the foundations of the society in which I grew up, how walled-off we were in my family and church and schools and neighborhood and city and state to the plight of people who were being discriminated against in our very area because of the color of their skin. My early years were in a de facto Jim Crow state, and I'm not proud of that aspect of my heritage as an Oregonian and a Christian. I'm glad things are changing there, but it's way to early to declare a victory for what is just and right.

As I mentioned earlier, I've been reading Michele Alexander's The New Jim Crow, which I started after Bishop Rickel recommended it to the clergy of our diocese. I don't find that I can read what is presented in this book about the realities of mass incarceration and at the same time deny that racial issues divide Americans and keep many black Americans living with insecurity. I cannot read of the findings of the Department of Justice investigation of the Ferguson Police Department and not be concerned about how corruption can infiltrate a system that is supposed to be dedicated to public safety and the maintenance of justice for all citizens.

I'd like to think that I don't have a racist bone in my body. I wasn't taught to hate, after all, and I was told that we should never use those hateful words. As a youngster, I was taught a song that goes “Jesus loves the little children/ All the children of the world/ Red and yellow, black and white/ they are precious in God's sight/ Jesus loves the little children of the world.” I'm glad I was taught that song.

However, I cannot deny that I grew up within a structure which fostered racism, that was slow to change, that is still slow to change, and that system shaped me, for good or ill. And I will probably continue to encounter aspects of myself that were formed in ignorance and in unconscious prejudice. After all, if Jon Tuttle has the courage to admit that he grew up in Portland, Oregon and was educated there and worked twenty years there as a journalist before taking up the story he tells about racism in Oregon, then I can admit that part of the racism that shaped me was just the attitude of not listening, not caring, not wanting to know.

I believe that for church folk – especially us white folk – the call now is to do a lot of listening to the voices that come to us across the distance, across the racial differences, across the grain of the way we've always thought of things. I need to listen to what the “Black Lives Matter” movement is saying to us. Frankly, I get the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” One may retort: “but all lives matter,” but I think that retort misses the point these activists are trying to make. Of course “all lives matter.” But the point is, let's see to it that we take a look at structures – whether judicial or law enforcement structures or what-have-you - that have diminished and still diminish the value of the lives of people who are black, that cause people to wonder if their lives really do matter.

When we in our baptismal vows “renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God,” we're reflecting the language of the New Testament's “Letter to the Ephesians”, where the apostle asserts that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Those powers are still at work in the world. Those powers were at work when human beings captured, bought, and sold human beings for slave labor in the Americas. Those powers co-opted many in the church, and they can still co-opt us if we let ourselves in any way lose sight of the “dignity and freedom of every human person” our baptismal vows bind us to respect.

As a believer, I've promised myself to serve Christ and his kingdom, which stands in judgment on all these earthly powers, and can reform and redeem these powers. All judgment, says John's Gospel, is given over to Jesus. Let us remember that his use of that power of judgment is to convict us, forgive us, and empower us for the work of reconciliation.

Above all I must listen. Listen for what God is saying. Realize that God speaks through unexpected situations and through what I might consider to be unlikely emissaries. Be willing to be dis-oriented, so that I can be re-oriented.

What I hope for, and what we can all hope for, is the joy of discovery. Senator Hatfield describes his the joy he shared with neighbors and citizens whom he had helped to find new dignity and freedom. At the other end of hard work to achieve a more genuinely free America, we can anticipate joy.