I saw a middle aged African American man talking to himself outside the window of a ground floor office on my way back from the press conference on the state of Black Oregon at the World Trade Center this morning.
The man, who was obviously mentally ill, paused very close to the window of the IT-support firm, as if to make a point to himself. Inside, a white employee in his early 30s stood to look out at him, and after a moment, tapped on the window with a malicious knuckle. The black dude's monologue was interrupted and he flinched. Inside, the window tapper laughed from the belly, while his two (also white) colleagues grinned. Then they all got back to work. I stood watching their exchange by my bicycle in the intersection on 1st Avenue as two green lights came and went.
How can we be so awful towards other people, I wondered. Was it only the man's race that came into it? No. But I did wonder if he'd been white, whether the IT-support technician would have felt quite so disconnected. Then again, I remembered, most IT-support people are assholes. And I rode off.
At the press conference, Senator Margaret Carter was sure to invite State Treasurer Ben Westlund and North Portland State Representative Tina Kotek to the front of the audience this morning to hear her remarks on the new report. "I want to challenge the people in charge," she said. "Not to let this book just go on the shelf and raise dust."
Carter was presenting the results of a damning new report by the Urban League of Portland showing blacks in the state have not made any significant progress in key social and economic areas in the last ten years. In fact, despite Oregon’s pro-diversity rhetoric, in some areas equality for African Americans has taken a step backward over the last decade.
The average African American Oregonian household makes $16,000 less annually than the average white household. African American children are twice as likely to be living 200 percent below the poverty line than white children in Oregon and their parents are six times more likely to be in prison. Unemployment statewide is at 12 percent, but close to 24 percent for African Americans: "When you look around in your offices and you don't see anybody looking different from you, there's a problem," said Carter.
"Portland Oregon gets high praise for quality of life," said Mayor Sam Adams, who sat across the aisle at this morning's event from former State Senator Avel Gordly, who this weekend called for him to be recalled. "It's the best place to own a dog, ride a bike, it's the best place for small business, we get all kinds of praise but we need to be humble that the quality of life offered here in Portland is not available to all citizens."
"This is a human tragedy in our midst," said Adams. "We can do something about it, and we must." Adams said the report was a "clarion call" to leaders to focus on implementing its recommendations. "There needs to be a community response," he said.
"Despite some of the comments I've read on blogs and some of the questions I've been asked this morning this report does not say woe is us, we are victims," said Urban League president Marcus Mundy. "We are strong. This report is a starting point."
Mundy said Oregon had an "incredible creative class," a "pioneer mentality" and a "progressive attitude" that encouraged him in the fight against the "systemic disadvantages that accrue to us." The report is "a reality check" for anyone considering that the election of Barack Obama means we are living in a "post-racial America," Mundy said.
Meanwhile, that window-tapping incident is still stuck in my head.