Stuck on Square Two 

Oregon's Slow Road to Racial Equality

A COMPREHENSIVE and damning new report by the Urban League of Portland has concluded that African Americans in Oregon have not made any significant progress in key social and economic areas in the last 10 years.

"Right after the election of Obama, people started talking about, 'Are we living in a post-racial society?'" says Midge Purcell, an organizer for the Urban League, which put together the report with volunteer help and grant money over the past 10 months. "While some progress has been made, especially around attitudes, there are some very, very deep structural barriers to racial equality in Oregon as a whole. We decided to do this report because the data is indisputable."

What the data shows is grim. The Urban League partnered with consulting firm ECONorthwest to sort through mountains of existing census and demographic info and came back with startling analyses.

The average African American Oregonian household makes $16,800 less annually than the average white household ($30,000 compared to $46,800). Thirty-eight percent of African American children live in households with incomes below the poverty level, and their parents are six times more likely to be in prison than their white counterparts (2,763 black people and 458 white people are incarcerated per 100,000 Oregonians—a rate similar to the US average).

Although African Americans make up 7 percent of Portland's population, 45 percent of Portland's homicide victims are African American and 35 percent are white, according to 2005 Bureau of Justice statistics.

Oregon Action Executive Director Jo Ann Bowman says the high incarceration rate can be drawn back to an education system that is biased against black students. The report shows that African American students are twice as likely as white students to be expelled or suspended.

"I wish I could say I was surprised by the results of the study—but I wasn't. We just have institutions that have not changed with the times," says Bowman. "It doesn't take rocket science to figure out that if kids are not in school, they're on the street and much more likely to be impacted by police officers."

Both Bowman and the Urban League recommend the state aggressively invest in educational programs that intentionally target African Americans, such as early childhood programs and cultural competency training for school staff.

"Education institutions have an expectation that kids operate as if they're white middle-class kids," says Bowman.

Also driving inequality, according to the study, is African Americans' poor access to credit, which could help to start a business or buy a home. Only 37 percent of black households owned their homes, versus 68 percent of white households.

A study performed last year by the Oregon Center for Public Policy confirmed the suspicion that Oregon banks had seriously skewed lending practices: Blacks and Latinos in Oregon were twice as likely to end up with risky subprime mortgages than whites of the same income level.

It has been 83 years since Oregon formally repealed its exclusion law forbidding African Americans from residing, owning property, working, or voting in the state, but the landscape of elected officials in Portland and the state has actually become whiter today than it was 15 years ago. Portland has not had an African American city council member since 1992. The Senate in Salem has only two black members, the House of Representatives has none.

"African Americans are an afterthought in the [political] recruitment process," says Bowman, who served as a Northeast Portland state representative during the 1990s.

At an Urban League dinner in 2004, Governor Ted Kulongoski addressed the need for concrete reforms in Oregon. "Worker training, affirmative action, public investment in higher education, enforcing anti-discrimination laws, and promoting diversity are all part of my economic development agenda," he said. "Because these policies will help bring success for Oregon's African American community." Five years later, it's clear those words have fallen far short.

"I want to challenge the people in charge," said State Senator Margaret Carter, launching the Urban League's report at a press conference on Monday, July 27. "Not to let this book just go on the shelf and raise dust."

"Portland, Oregon, gets high praise for quality of life," said Mayor Sam Adams at the press conference. "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 because the quality of life offered here in Portland is not available to all citizens."

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