Citizen's View: The critical challenge of calling out racism
Over the past few months, Lake Oswego has been dealing with increased incidents of racist behavior. High-profile accounts like the racist graffiti at Lake Oswego High School have grabbed peoples' attention, but what LO residents need to understand is that individual or small-group racist occurrences such as these are end products of systemic racism — an organized system of white supremacy that is widespread and woven into the fabric of America.
In fact, Atlantic journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it this way: "For most African Americans, white people exist either as a direct or an indirect force for bad in their lives." Whether or not one believes this, it is how many African Americans feel.
Nearly 87 percent of LO's population is white, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, and most residents probably don't think of themselves as racists. We have black friends, "mixed" kids and spouses of different ethnic groups. But it's more complicated than that. Systemic racism and the attendant quality of white privilege are deeply rooted. They have been purposefully assembled, carefully coordinated and put in place to benefit white people.
In "Racist America," Pulitzer Prize-nominated sociologist Joe Feagin explains that, "Systemic racism includes the complex array of anti-black practices, the unjustly gained political-economic power of the whites, the continuing economic and other resource inequalities along racial lines, and the white racist ideologies and attitudes created to maintain and rationalize white privilege and power." One part of dealing with racism demands coming to terms with the fact that we, white people, benefit from systemic racism and white privilege — every single day.
Another part of countering racism is confronting it. In a recent Lake Oswego Review article ("District urged to help foster safe learning environment," April 20), it was telling that nowhere was the word "racist" or "racism" used. The failure to tackle racism head-on will only result in impotent policies, useless feel-good rallies and hollow education programs. Furthermore, addressing racist behavior at schools, while necessary, is not sufficient. Kids learn racism and, for the most part, they're not learning it at school but at home.
LOSD Superintendent Heather Beck stated, "We will encourage more parent education programs at the elementary school level in the coming year to supplement the junior highs and high schools. The more education parent groups can help with, the more parents can help their children understand the impact of their words and actions to help students step up to report occurrences." But while education programs for students are not a bad idea, I suggest it is adults who need the most help. To make meaningful progress, adults must identify and acknowledge their own racism and do their best to overcome it.
The Review article also noted one glaring example of systemic racism highlighted by Lake Oswego parents Sukhwant and Jasjeet Jhaj. They referenced the LOSD Report Card from 2015-16, which shows that while 77 percent of students in grades 9-12 were white, the number for staff was 92 percent. Equally alarming is that the Report Card indicates there was not a single black staff member in grades K-8. While Beck said staff are participating in leadership and equity trainings, it seems obvious more needs to happen. Although hiring black staff and teachers will not alone remedy the institutional racism that is evident here, it will be a step in the right direction for the school district.
Writing in The Atlantic, Tressie McMillan Cottom states, "Those of us who know our whites know one thing above all else: Whiteness defends itself. Against change, against progress, against hope, against black dignity, against black lives, against reason, against truth, against facts, against native claims, against its own laws and customs."
If we can be more honest with ourselves and each other, if we have the courage to hold ourselves, our neighbors and our community accountable, we have an opportunity to enact positive changes. Conversely, if we are unable or unwilling to admit that systemic racism and white privilege are significant problems in our communities and institutions, we will most certainly never make progress.
Paul T. Miller holds a Ph.D. in African American Studies. He is the author of "The Postwar Struggle for Civil Rights, African Americans in San Francisco" and has taught classes on racism in America and African American history at both San Francisco State University and Temple University. Miller lives in Lake Oswego with his family. Reach him online via Twitter at @paul_t_miller.