“Post-racial” America Part 1

Why aren’t there more Black people in Oregon?

A hidden history

Walidah Imarisha

June 25, 6 – 8:30 p.m.

North Salem High School


For a state whose voters have endorsed progressive issues like same-sex marriage, death with dignity and recreational cannabis, Oregon still has a ways to go in the matter of racial justice.

The Urban League of Portland’s State of Black Oregon 2015 report describes a “legacy of inequality and institutional neglect of communities of color,” and says economic insecurity in Oregon’s Black community has reached “crisis levels.”  The report cites inequalities in “key economic and social areas” beginning with a disproportionately low birth weight for Black babies, more than twice the food insecurity for Black families and documented ongoing disparities in health, education and wages.

“I’ve never been  called [the “n” word] until I came to Salem,” says Dau Tucker, who is a survivor of a widely-publicized hate crime in Salem two years ago.  In that incident, Tucker, found a bullet on her desk at Salem Health, where she is Human Resources Director – and a threat to leave or die.  Tucker is half-Vietnamese and has lived in areas as diverse as North Carolina, Boston and Seattle, says, “I’ve never been reminded of my ethnicity because of skin tone until I got here.”  She and her family moved across town to escape racism, (in her first location, some parents wouldn’t allow their children to accept Halloween candy from her family or let their kids play with hers) but find it still present in their new, more diverse neighborhood.

She recounts that in late May, 2015, “My children in my own neighborhood were called the “n” word and told to go back to Africa by Caucasian neighbor kids.  Our mailman [overheard and] told them to cut it out – and the kids refused.”  To find someone who would listen, the mailman actually had to locate and approach the Caucasian children’s parents.

“Thank Heavens that someone witnessed this and helped,” Dau says.  “When you share your experiences and you represent the minority, unless people witness it themselves, it’s hard for them to believe you.”

This month and next will see two Salem events, called A ‘Post-Racial’ America, to highlight issues faced by Blacks in Oregon’s past, present and future.  The first, “Why aren’t there more Black people in Oregon?” is an introduction to racial hatred in Oregon’s history, presented by author and educator Walidah Imarisha on June 25th.  The second, “Racism 101,” looks at both the institutional nature of the problem and what can be done for a more positive future, and will be led by labor advocate Ahjamu Umi on July 9.

The primary sponsors are the Salem Keizer NAACP and The Rural Organizing Project, with some costs covered by a grant from Oregon Humanities.  Local sponsors include SEIU, Causa and Mano a Mano.

Causa’s Executive Director Andrea Miller, speaking on behalf of the group which has advocated with Latino immigrant families for 20 years, has seen racism first hand.  “Community members face racism every day in Salem, Keizer, and across the state,” Miller says. “This racism is experienced at an institutional and structural level– through Oregon’s laws, institutional practices, and media communications.”

Oregon’s unjust past is largely unknown by current residents, but it, says Imarisha, “was founded as a racist white utopia. The idea was a location… where white people could come and build in essence a white homeland. They enforced this through every method possible.”  She cites the racial exclusionary clause, originally passed in 1844, which banned Black people from living in Oregon and which included a ‘lash law’ in its first iteration, stating that “Black people would be publicly whipped every 6 months until we left the state.”

“Oregon,” she says, “the only state in the union admitted with racial exclusionary language in its constitution,  didn’t remove that language until 2001.”

Despite Tucker’s experiencing more than 50 incidents of racism in the four years she has lived in Salem, she and her family still enjoy an Easter effort at outreach they began in other cities.  “Our tradition is that after our meal we take containers of food with dessert to the homeless on Lancaster Drive,” she says.  “The kids draw, ‘Smile, Jesus Loves You,’ by hand and decorate them.  It is something we do every year.  It saddens me that they are trying and helping the community, and have such beautiful hearts, and would be treated so badly by the very same community we serve.”

Paul Krissel, one of ‘Post-Racial” facilitators, hopes the event helps bring change.  “We want to educate people in this area about the history of racial exclusion and discrimination in this state,” he says, “and the ongoing legacy that impacts people of color in our state.”