Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated February as Black History Month, an annual celebration of achievements of Black Americans. In recognition of this month, The Broadside, talked to students, faculty and administration at Central Oregon Community College about historical racial inequality that has persisted and what is being done to combat it.
A campus administrator gives a college success presentation and believes he has made a positive connection with the crowd of high school students. Afterward, he realizes several students had a different connection with him. While cleaning up the auditorium, he finds a piece of paper where a student had written “all niggers must die.”
Gordon Price, Central Oregon Community College student life coordinator faced this situation shortly after moving to Central Oregon in 2004.
“I was sitting there, picturing giving wisdom to these bright-eyed college students and feeling like I was connecting with them,” Price said. “They’re up there in the seats writing hateful things about me.”
For Price, this incident was proof that “racism is present everywhere” and that “Central Oregon is not immune to that.”
“When you come here as a black man, you’re already very aware of your uniqueness in the community,” Price said. “Anyplace I go, I’m usually the only Black face in there. That’s something you acclimate yourself to and prepare for.”
Price is an avid hiker but said he is still “considerate” of where he is going based on his skin color.
“I know from personal experiences, and experiences of others, there’s certain places that I don’t want to put myself in,” Price said. “A white man might be more worried about a mountain lion, instead of the Klan, running around and catching you on a hiking trail.”
COCC student, Teryl Young has also faced racial discrimination in his time in Central Oregon and is currently active in promoting an increase in Black history in education in the COCC & Central Oregon community.
“A lot of people here don’t generally deal with a lot of people of color,” Young said.
Young points to the early history of Oregon to partially explain current racism.
“In the 1800s, when blacks were free, many of them came to Oregon,” Young said. “Oregon was one of the first states that adopted an exclusion rule where blacks would be whipped every six months just for living in Oregon.”
Young originally moved to Oregon from Virginia in 2007 to help take care of his wife’s aging parents. He is currently a Criminal Justice student and hopes to enter the field of computer forensics.
In Oregon, Young said that the largest issue is subtle racism.
“Here, it’s not always in-your-face racism,” Young said. “But you notice how people look at you and what the atmosphere is when you come in.”
Even at COCC, Young has noticed that often nobody will sit by him until the whole class has filled up and there’s nowhere else to sit. He has also noticed than his contribution to group work often won’t be used.
“At first, I thought maybe it was just me but then I heard others saying the same thing,” Young said.
COCC Multicultural Director Karen Roth believes that these subtle forms of racism can be more damaging than overt racism because they are more difficult to address.
“Students of Color have shared with me that often no one will sit next to them in their classes,” Roth said, “or that other students don’t want to be partners with them on group assignments.”
These behaviors are “micro-aggressions,” Roth said, and they often “foster” a hostile environment that negatively affects how welcomed students feel at the college.
People often learn to be racist very early in their lives, according to Roth.
“It’s a very rigorous process by which we are taught that white people are more intelligent, more capable, more trustworthy, and more beautiful than people of color,” Roth said.
The media, legal systems, schools and even friends and family often only contribute to reinforcing the “notion that white people are ‘better,’” Roth added.
According to both Roth and Young, the biggest key to eliminating racism is education.
“If America knew its true history, that would wipe out racism,” Young said.
Elementary schools clear through college curriculum often “suppress” large portions of United States history, Young said.
“We need to give praise to people who did things well, but a lot of the not-pleasant things that aren’t taught remain issues still today,” Young said.
Because as Price noted, “history is always written by the victors,” most school curriculums teach only selective information about Black history.
“They’re not necessarily going to write something shameful about their past,” Price said.
Roth believes white privilege is still in operation in educational institutions today.
“We need to teach our young children very early about valuing differences and treating people fairly,” Roth said. “We need to advocate for multicultural curriculum in our schools.”
Racial inequality can be seen even in more current events, according to COCC sociology professor, Tom Barry.
Barry pointed to the war on drugs as an example of a situation of inequality.
“We started looking at the war on drugs, not because it was the wrong thing in terms of racial inequality, but because it was too expensive,” Barry explained.
Racial discrimination is also often seen in hiring processes even today, according to Barry. Hiring audit studies conducted in the past five years where researchers send out 100 applications with the same qualifications and see how many callbacks they get based on race, gender or ethnic sounding names. In most all of the studies, Barry said, males with “white-sounding” names, with the same qualifications, typically received more callbacks than other groups.
“There are biases that still exist that people aren’t even aware of,” Barry said. “Discrimination isn’t always ill-intentioned, because people often aren’t aware they’re displaying discriminatory behaviors.”
During the 2014 academic year, Barry gave an on-campus discussion on discrimination and inequality. To advertise the event, posters were placed around campus before the event, Barry received a photograph of one of the posters that had been defaced with a note on it saying words to the following effect:
“Don’t be fooled the real war is being waged on heterosexual caucasian males in general and the institutions of higher learning are shamefully supporting this bigoted endeavor.”
Nothing became of the note, though Barry did have security present at the event. This is a sign to Barry that even at COCC, racism is “alive and well.”
As a professor, Barry said there are occasional instances of discrimination he’s witnessed in the classroom setting.
“I take the perspective that when students communicate things it’s not necessarily because they intend to,” Barry said. “Students, like anyone else, are caught up in a system where they’ve developed ideas about race that may not be an accurate representation of the way things are.”
“It’s an everybody issue”
Barry believes that there have been significant positive changes in terms of equality among all groups, but believes the work must continue.
“We can get fatalistic sometimes about the issue,” Barry said. “We have to get energized to make change. It is by having conversations to bring awareness and discussion that change can happen.”
Often times, according to Barry, issues continue because nobody will talk about them.
“People are fearful of saying the wrong thing,” Barry said. “You only have to be fearful if you had something to say that’d be wrong.”
Talking about and understanding and accepting differences are crucial to eliminating discrimination. Roth noted that noticing differences are vital to societal existence.
“I’m not in favor of us becoming a “color-blind” society,” Roth said. “Rather, I am an advocate of our society embracing the value of diversity and overcoming our preferential treatment based on the color of our skin.”
While Price believes people will always automatically notice differences, he noted it’s what is done with that difference that will cause change.
“I hope we can get to the point where we are color-blind in our reactions,” Price said.
Price believes the only way to find solutions to issues is to acknowledge the past and current situations and accept responsibility on all sides.
“It’s not a black issue, it’s an everybody issue,” Price said. “That’s the point we have to get to. Working together is the only way we’re going to get somewhere positive.”
Young’s largest role model for racial equality was his father-in-law.
“He didn’t see color,” Young said. “He saw me as being a person just like him. He didn’t care about my color.”
“If you want to solve crime or any other issue then work with people you don’t know and treat people how you want to be treated,” Young said. “All in all, we are one human race.”
“If you see something, say something”
Often the key to resolving racism is bystander intervention, according to Price.
“If you see something, say something,” Price said. “Don’t be that bystander that just witnesses and doesn’t say something.”
Through the COCC office of student life, there are avenues set up to report incidents of racism or discrimination on campus.
“Discrimination that remains is because people don’t put their foot down and they turn aside,” Price said. “If nobody says anything, nothing changes.”
Both Roth and Price agree that one of the keys to reducing racism on a campus level is to confront issues as soon as they arise.
“We need to confront racist jokes and racist ideologies,” Roth said. “People need to speak out whenever they notice racism.”
1844 – Slavery declared illegal in the Oregon Country and original exclusion law called “Lash Law” is passed
1854 – Oregon’s exclusion law is repealed
1865 – the 13th amendment banning slavery in the United States passed by referendum in Oregon
1926 – Oregon repeals its exclusion law, amending the state constitution to remove it from the Bill of Rights
1951 – Oregon repeals its interracial marriage law
Molly Svendsen | The Broadside