“Racism is a system of institutionalized discrimination,” says Ahjamu Umi, Organizer for SEIU Local 503, “not just an attitude, [and] the only way that system can change is it has to be replaced with a system that doesn’t perpetuate exploitation. A system where people are more important than money.”
On July 9 Umi will be the presenter for the second of the two-part workshop series, “A ‘Post-Racial America?” which begin’s on June 25 with Walidah Imarisha. Umi’s event, “Racism 101,” will discuss where racism comes from, why it’s still here and how to get rid of it.
“We will deal with how this system became such a dominant factor in our everyday lives, whether we see it doing so or not,” Umi says.
Both “Post-Racial” events are sponsored by a number of Oregon human dignity organizations, including Oregon Humanities, Mano a Mano, Salem Progressive Film Series, Basic Rights Oregon, the Rural Organizing Project, the Marion-Polk-Yamhill Central Labor Council and more.
Author, consultant and musician Donnell Harris moved to Oregon with his Caucasian wife – who went to college in Oregon – about ten years ago. Both he and his wife Kathleen anticipated a progressive reception because of her experiences with loving people. But they found a Salem neighbor who harassed them daily (“it was a hard way to live,” he says,) a real struggle to find a Salem church that welcomed them and Oregon restaurants and businesses that refused to serve him.
Wife Kathleen Lewis Harris, a psychiatric social worker at Oregon State Hospital says, “I had this perception of people of Oregon, but when Donnell came out with me, I saw a whole new town.” She had assured her husband, “these people are really nice, very welcoming,” but when Donnell accompanied her to church, “one man I had known all these years, a leader and an elder, shocked me” when he wouldn’t shake Donnell’s hand.
Umi says this kind of experience is, unfortunately, far from unusual. The single most significant event in Oregon’s black history, he says, is “the fact that we have continued to exist here in spite of unquestionable odds (many of which still fully exist). That we have continued to live and prosper in a place where our presence has historically been treated as a problem at best and out and out ignored at worst.”
Citing recent high-profile examples of violence against people of color, Donnell Harris wonders if these racist actions have increased since Barak Obama’s election as President. “Some people could not handle it,” he says. He also wonders if the cases have come to light because of the sheer abundance of cell phones with video capability; “there are all these young people who are willing to turn on the cell phone and shoot what happens. But it does seem that, in a strange way, we are reliving the violence of the 50s and 60s, except that was in black and white and now it’s in color.”
It can be argued that Salem itself is now more segregated than ever, says Levi Herrera-López, Executive Director of Mano a Mano, one of the series’ sponsors. “Most non-Whites live in East Salem, but in which areas do our political and economic leadership live?” Citing the all-white composition of Salem City Council, the Salem-Keizer School Board and the Marion County Commissioners, Herrera-López argues, “The current organization of our community leads to separation. This separation will contribute to some decisions (often) unintentionally excluding people who have no representation — right now, this means non-Whites or immigrants.”
“As a white person and speaking from my experience,” says Kathleen Harris, “we in Oregon often don’t consider ourselves racist because we don’t engage in activities that are racist. We would never say something hurtful. But we also don’t take a stand and speak out against it enough. We have the feeling that, ‘as long as I am a good person everything’s okay.’ We need to acknowledge that everything’s not okay. At some point you have to hold people and agendas accountable.”
On any given day, a citizen may notice people of all races on Salem streets, in offices and in restaurants – and increasingly, in the same family. Friendships and marriages unthinkable a few decades ago are becoming nearly the norm. But Oregon – and America – has far still to go.
“We need people who are brave enough to say, ‘stop,’” says Donnell Harris. “Stop the bigotry against Native Americans, stop the bigotry against Hispanics, against gays and gay marriage, stop Islamaphobia, let’s make sexism a thing of the past. We’ve got too many uptight people who would prefer to live in a bubble than in the beauty of earth’s garden of humanity.”
Harris believes, “when enough people sing the much needed songs of ‘stop,’ maybe we can bring a change, a revolution of thought.”