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Why can't we talk about race?

Some say city efforts underscore lack of true integration


by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT/TRIBUNE PHOTO - Schwinn bikes are the draw for members of club Belligerante, whose Saturday night block parties in Northeast Portland attract an unusual crowd for Portland - black and white. Neighborhood rapper Clark 'Liquid Anthraxxx' Thomas counts cash after selling a copy of his latest album.There are Sunday mornings, still, when Cole Brown looks at his congregation at Emmaus Church in Northeast Portland and sees black members sitting on the right side of the sanctuary and white members on the left.

Six years ago, when Brown started his church, such scenes were more common. Sometimes he would wait until after services to talk with church members. On the rare occasions he notices the segregation now, he immediately speaks up from the pulpit.

His message? “We are here to celebrate the fact that Jesus has torn down every division. We are failing to honor him if we build those walls of division back up.”

Emmaus has, in fact, torn down those divisions better than just about any Portland institution. The congregation of about 100 on a Sunday morning is almost precisely half black, half white and except when people don’t notice where they have seated themselves, truly integrated. The effect is striking, and reminds visitors how rare such a scene is in Portland.

After services at Emmaus, few congregants head quickly for the exits. Instead, most mingle. And it then becomes apparent that this church dominated by young adults is integrated on the most fundamental level — blacks are heading off to barbecues with whites, whites are making holiday plans with blacks. Most of these people, through their church, have become friends.

In a city where whites intimately socializing with blacks and blacks with whites can be as rare as a sunny day in February, the members of Emmaus Church have bridged the divide. They do not take race for granted, but instead, guided by Brown, talk about it constantly.by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT/TRIBUNE PHOTO - Mandy Hyslop (left) and Re'Shawn Brown, holding her great niece, worship during a Sunday evening service at Emmaus Church in North Portland.

Does it matter?

Alonzo Chadwick, who attends Emmaus, lives off Northeast Alberta Street. His block has been gentrified, as have most in the neighborhood. Chadwick, who is black, says only two other black families live on his block, which used to be predominantly black.

About a month ago, a white neighbor came to Chadwick with a problem. A group of black kids had been shooting fireworks toward his home. The man had tried talking to the kids but, he told Chadwick, the kids had been defiant. Could Chadwick talk to them?

He did, and the fireworks have stopped. But the entire episode might never have taken place, Chadwick says, if not for his experience at Emmaus.

“Because of what I’ve learned here it’s caused me to get out of my comfort zone,” Chadwick says.

Members of Emmaus say the church is the only place they know of where blacks and whites gather together like this. They find mixed race crowds at clubs or in city parks, but rarely are people in those situations getting friendly with each other.

Monica Miller moved to Portland 15 months ago after living in Philadelphia and Chicago, most recently. Today she teaches about African-American culture to all white classes as a Lewis & Clark College sociology professor.by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT/TRIBUNE PHOTO - Prince Mlaudzi grabs a rebound while playing two-on-two basketball in the North Park Blocks. Sports and entertainment bring blacks and white together on an often purely social level.

“They don’t know much,” Miller says. “We’re on comfortable ground if we’re talking about gender. We’re on comfortable ground if we’re talking about the green movement. We’re on comfortable ground even if we’re talking about sexuality. But I always notice how uncomfortable students are when we talk about race.”

Miller, who is writing a book tentatively titled “Blacklandia” about the racial awkwardness she’s observed in Portland, says the small black population in Multnomah County (5.7 percent) has made it too easy for white people to avoid ever having to mix with blacks, much less become comfortable with them.

Recently Miller was walking to a downtown Plaid Pantry when she found a bleeding black man lying on the ground with his pants pulled down to his ankles. He said he had been mugged.

Miller called police, and when they arrived, she says, they insisted on talking with her before attending to the man, who clearly was in pain.

“They spent 12 minutes asking me over and over again, ‘How do you know him?’ “ Miller says. “I finally blurted out, ‘Not all black people know each other.’ “

The officer apologized, Miller says. But the incident reinforced her perception that white people in Portland have been too willing to embrace benign neglect of racial issues.

“Why am I only hearing about Occupy or why people are worried about the chicken on their plate, but not why black churches are closing down because of gentrification?” Miller asks.

I feel like Oprah

Miller’s point isn’t that Portland is a particularly racist city. In fact, she doesn’t think that at all. But people here are so satisfied with their progressive self-images, she says, that they are neglecting issues that affect the black community. As a result, she says, Portland becomes a less livable city for everybody.

Miller says she’s constantly being reminded that whites here have a lot of bottled up feelings about race they’d like to get out of their system. But they don’t know how.

She spends a lot of time alone at local bars. Miller says they are great places to do sociological research. Often, white people in Portland who start chatting with her in bars learn she has a Ph.D. Invariably after that, Miller says, all they want to talk about is race, as if after a lifetime of searching they’ve finally found an educated black person to whom they can talk.

“I feel like Oprah,” Miller says. “I can’t even sit there and have a cocktail.”

In other cities, she says, there is a comfort level in being around blacks, so whites talking with her are fine talking about the weather, the news or politics.

“All the conversations I’ve had in Portland have been more of a them-versus-us kind of thing,” Miller says. “Well, I’m not a racist. Or, I like black people. Or, I wasn’t there 400 years ago. People take it personally. That’s the white liberal guilt. They don’t want to face that these things are real.”by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT/TRIBUNE PHOTO - Franklin and Annette listen to music over drinks at Quimby's in Northwest Portland, a popular bar that attracts a white and black crowd for Monday night hip hop music.

Trumped by class

Emmaus Church leases space for its Sunday afternoon services from Irvington Covenant Church, where pastor Tory Campbell, a black man, has seen his congregation go from 60 percent black to 60 percent white in just a few years. Campbell has sought to build an interracial community, but has faced obstacles Emmaus Church hasn’t had to deal with because Irvington’s members have a wider range of ages and incomes.

Campbell says another obstacle has been his members’ desire to have church as their sanctuary, rather than a place they were “being asked to be stretched.”

Emmaus rented the Hollywood Theatre and hosted a viewing and discussion of Spike Lee’s film “Do the Right Thing.” Irvington Covenant has forced the conversation by having congregants gather at each other’s homes in groups of 40 or so to talk about race in their lives. It hasn’t been easy.

“There was some fear, some hesitancy,” Campbell says. “Some of the fear for whites was, ‘I want to talk about it, but can I bring my ignorance to the table? Can I ask those questions honestly?’ For blacks or people of color, it’s, ‘Can I really bare what my day-to- day experience is like? Will it really be understood, or dismissed?’“

City officials say they have pushed for a variety of formal conversations on race precisely because those conversations do not appear to be taking place naturally. But Alcena Boozer, a retired Episcopalian priest and former principal at Jefferson High School, says those city and school district attempts to discuss race run into seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Boozer says liberal white Portlanders are often too worried about offending blacks to even begin conversations. She recalls a white co-worker asking her to talk to a black colleague who was too loud on her phone. The white woman didn’t feel comfortable approaching her black office mate herself. If blacks and whites here engaged each other more regularly, that wouldn’t happen, Boozer says.

“People are really proud of being liberal out here, and people of color who come from other areas will tell you they don’t think it’s liberal,” Boozer says. “I don’t think it’s that liberal ... if you define liberal as open and progressive.”

When researchers simply look at where people live, Portland is not a particularly segregated city, according to a nationwide analysis led by Brown University sociologist John Logan. Brown and other sociologists have studied the inequalities that traditionally exist for minorities in segregated neighborhoods: more dangerous streets, poorer schools and public health problems such as higher infant mortality rates.

But what nobody has studied, Brown says, is whether an integrated neighborhood where minorities have little person-to-person interaction with whites still counts as integrated in the larger sense. He thinks it does, but isn’t certain.

“If they (minorities) are getting the benefits of safety and security, then diversity is working in a positive way, even if people aren’t talking to each other,” Brown posits.

But Maria Krysan, a sociologist who studies integration at the University of Illinois at Chicago Institute of Government and Public Affairs, says Brown might be missing something. The compelling idea behind integration, Krysan says, is that whites and blacks living together will have more contact and break down the prejudices sheld by both.

“But the link that’s missing is, we assume in those integrated neighborhoods people’s attitudes toward each other are better, their prejudices and stereotypes can get broken down by the contact ... but that’s the million dollar question, is that actually happening?” Krysan asks.

Daymond Glenn, chief diversity office at Warner Pacific College and author of “Critical Condition, Black Males and Multiculturalism in Higher Education,” says it might not be happening here, and the blame can’t all be placed on whites.

Blacks in Portland have developed a resistance to talking about race with whites, Glenn says, because they’re not convinced it is going to help anything. It’s more likely, he says, that whites will get blacks to work on Occupy Portland than blacks will get whites involved in problems like gentrification or school disparities.

“There’s a resistance to wanting to integrate if you have to leave who you are behind,” Glenn says.

And yet, Glenn says these conversations need to take place because whites here don’t understand how much indirect racism is a factor in their lives. He mentions education, and reports showing blacks students even in integrated schools are producing lower test scores.

Glenn says whites won’t see inequality in those schools. But for him, the fact that almost all the teachers and administrators in those schools are white, and the curriculum is European-centric, poses a hurdle for black kids.

White Portlanders, according to Glenn, are simply not comfortable talking about race, so they’ve changed the discussion. “Race in this city gets trumped by class in terms of having a conversation,” he says.

Compelling vision

Back at Emmaus Church, minister Cole Brown says he is well aware how unique a community his congregation has become. He’s aware of the city’s Equity Initiative and the Portland Public School’s current “Courageous Conversations About Race” program for teachers. But there’s something missing, he says, if those commissions and conversations are going to help the city make progress.

“It takes a compelling vision,” Brown says. “There has to be a compelling reason to take a social risk. And I don’t think Portland has given us a compelling reason to take that risk. They jumped to the conclusion of telling us diversity is good without ever telling us why diversity is good.”