I think of Portland.
Whenever a racial issue results in members of the majority being dismissive of minority complaints, insisting that — for example — well-paid NFL players have no reason to protest … I think of Portland.
That’s because oppression isn’t limited to drinking fountains with “white only” signs. Because it isn’t limited to the South. Because it isn’t necessarily overt. No, the most stinging brand of racism typically lingers beneath the surface.
Not that I have first-hand knowledge. I have long benefitted from all the privileges that come from being white in this country. And for those who deny the advantages of being white, for those who insist that all you need to get ahead is some brains and a lot of bootstrappiness, well, they should think of Portland.
You see, Oregon was founded as a white utopia. The original constitution forbade blacks from residing, working, or owning property in the state. And although laws changed over time, Portland State professor Darrell Millner sums up the situation in an Oregon Public Broadcasting documentary: “What those exclusion laws did was broadcast very broadly and loudly that Oregon wasn’t a place where blacks would be welcome or comfortable.”
For decades during the 20th century, a policy from the Realty Board of Portland prohibited realtors and bankers from selling homes to minorities in white neighborhoods; Albina, in Northeast Portland, became the only neighborhood where blacks could live. So, when officials wanted to build Memorial Coliseum and the Interstate 5 freeway, they chose Albina and removed hundreds of homes and businesses occupied mostly by minorities.
Then came a proposed hospital expansion. A total of 22 blocks were torn down in the heart of the African-American community, with residents being unaware of the plans until authorities told them they had weeks to move. As PSU professor Karen Gibson said, “That’s why black people saw it as ‘Negro removal.’ ‘Time to go, we need this land.'”
Now, all of this has nothing to do with NFL players protesting oppression by kneeling during the national anthem. And yet is has everything to do with it, particularly after President Donald Trump made the issue unavoidable. Why Trump brought attention to the protests — and unwittingly multiplied them — is difficult to comprehend. It seems like there are more important things to talk about.
After all, in August, white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Va., evoking Nazi imagery and shouting anti-Semitic slogans while treating the cradle of American democracy as though it were Nuremberg. But at least they didn’t kneel for the national anthem; some of them must have been very fine people.
After all, recent years have seen numerous shootings of unarmed black men by police officers, allowing bad cops to besmirch the vast majority of officers who are noble public servants. But at least bad cops don’t kneel for the national anthem.
Empathy, not rage
It is the police shootings that initially triggered the NFL protests, and it is the police shootings that have been obfuscated by the yelling about those protests. It seems that a discussion about police shootings would do more to make America great again than worrying about Americans exercising their constitutional rights.
Which brings us back to Portland. Because the history of the city — bucolic, progressive Portland — symbolizes the lingering impact of covert racism. If your parents had been forced to sell their home below market value to make room for a hospital expansion, how would that impact your finances today? If they had to close their business to make way for a freeway, what would you think about America’s power structure?
Some people will dismiss this as an attempt to generate white guilt. That’s not the case. Instead, the goal is to suggest that maybe we all should listen a little more instead of complaining about other people’s complaints. Because, in the long run, empathy is more powerful than rage.