Oregon’s “Progressive” Past and Present

In Honor of MLK Jr.:  It’s Time to be Blunt about Oregon’s “Progressive” Past and Present.

On Sunday, January 15th, at an MLK Jr. Celebration titled “Advancing the Dream,” Portland’s new Mayor, Ted Wheeler, listed milestones of Oregon’s dark, racist past. Wheeler noted, “The 1857 Oregon Constitution explicitly excluded black people from living in Oregon. There were 20,000 KKK members in Portland in 1920. During WWII, Portland wanted black workers, but didn’t want black neighbors. Vanport was created outside of the city limits for a reason. 18,000 people were displaced by the Vanport floods, 25 percent of whom were black.”

Wheeler hadn’t planned to give the crowd a run-down of Oregon’s exclusionary past during his speech. He had come with a written speech, likely full of inspirational and justice-oriented rhetoric , but admitted to the crowd that he rewrote it while other leaders were speaking in order to reflect their perspectives.

One of those leaders that Wheeler listened to was NAACP Portland Chapter President, Jo Ann Hardesty. Hardesty illuminated the need to be honest with ourselves about the outcomes of progressivism:

“We know we’re in for a storm. We have to be prepared for the storm. We are not living in a time where liberalism passes for equality. When you look at the outcomes, we don’t live in a progressive state. Our first order of business is we have to tell the truth. As I get older, I have less and less patience for pretend liberals and people that accept the status quo as it is.”

There are many statistics that uphold the truth of Hardesty’s statement about outcomes. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently published an analysis of hate crimes reported within the first 10 days after Donald Trump was elected president. With 33 hate crimes reported, Oregon came in as 10th in the nation.. However, due to our small population in comparison with the other nine states in the rankings, we were ranked 1st in hate crimes per capita. How could such a “progressive” state reflect such regressive behavior?

In 2013, Oregon’s high school graduation rate was the lowest of any state in the country, at 68.7 percent, with a graduation rate for Black students at 57%. How could a “progressive” state have the lowest high school graduation rate in the country, with such a wide racial disparity, only a few years ago?

It’s time to be blunt about Oregon’s “progressive” past and present. What does progressive connote in Portland? Many young liberals from across the nation have flocked to Portland for its relatively cheap prices and “progressive” culture: music, art, bike lanes, innovative restaurants, abundant parks, and access to the outdoors. Portland developers have sold Portland as a liberal haven. Consequently, the city is rapidly gentrifying, and affordable housing is increasingly rare. Instead of empowering our most vulnerable community members, progressivism has pushed them out.

We need to focus on being radical instead of on being progressive. One aspect of being radical is recognizing all of our privileges, whether they be race, gender, age, physical, or class related, and using the privileges we do have to advocate for family and community members who have less privilege or less access to institutions.

At the MLK Jr. Celebration on Sunday, January 15th, Mr. Wheeler locked eyes with Ms. Hardesty. Wheeler told Hardesty that he would advocate for her, in recognition of the fact that she does not have access to the same decision-making spaces that he does. On that day, Wheeler laid his white, male privilege across the podium and declared that he would use it in the fight for pluralism.

As Hardesty attested, we live in a dystopian political landscape, reigned by hate, trolling, and being offensive. We are lucky to have local representatives, such as Commissioner Loretta Smith and State Representative Janelle Bynum, who are women of color and mothers committed to justice and dignity for all people. At the MLK event, Bynum recited Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too” and elaborated, “I represent the numbers, the 100+ club. I powered through over 4,000 doors myself, determined to gain my seat at America’s table. I didn’t want our children to be banished to the kitchen. That’s why I marched.”

Smith and Bynum now have a seat at the legislative table. They work in tandem with other elected officials, all of whom we must hold accountable.

On January 15th, Ted Wheeler asked the crowd:

“Do you all feel like we’re being tested? The test is this: can we celebrate and embrace pluralism in this community in the toughest political environment? Are we willing to be deliberate in our defense of our values? You can’t stand in the middle. It’s on one side or the other. We stand on the side of justice. Pretty words. Tough actions. We have to fight for pluralism.”

Now I ask myself and you, dear reader, “Are we willing to hold Ted Wheeler and other elected officials accountable for their pretty words and speeches?” Let us redefine what progressive means in Portland. Let us make radical demands in defense of our neighbors and families and those who have less privilege than we do.

In the words of Dr. LeRoy Hayes, the chair of the Albina Ministerial Alliance’s Coalition for Justice and Police Reform, “There is a present state of insurgency and turning back the clock. We must go forward. We must keep advancing the dream, a community of beloved justice.”