The year is 2017. The African-American community in my city is no more. What was once a thriving, vital cultural enclave in my predominantly white city has been dismantled. Barbershops, barbecue joints, nightclubs, bookstores, and any number of black-owned businesses serving the community have been replaced by upscale grocery stores, coffee shops, high-end restaurants, boutiques, and any number of white-owned businesses serving the new residents. You can still find barbecue, but not like the old traditional.
Twenty years ago, numerous African-American grassroots and religious organizations serving the African-American residents who made this community their home did abound. These organizations were responsible for programming aimed at helping youth excel, seeing to the health needs of the elders, and providing employment services, to name but a few. Over the past two decades, these organizations have been in decline as those they were tasked to serve have left.
Did I say left? Actually, the former residents were systematically moved out to make way for the more affluent. Realtors descended on the community, literally knocking on doors offering the homeowners a fraction of their home's actual value in cash if they would sell immediately. Some homeowners, particularly those in financial distress, took the money. One of the reasons for their distress was the unwillingness of the local banks to allow them to borrow money against the value of their homes. Where realtors couldn't get homeowners to sell, the city raised their property taxes, making living in their homes unaffordable. To top all of this off, statutes were put on the books allowing landlords to evict their tenants without cause by giving them a simple 90 day notice.
In the 1990s, this dismantling went unnoticed by all but a few, though all the necessary systems and conditions were in place. Today, the community is unrecognizable to those of us who knew it a mere 15 years ago. The community that sprung up during World War II when African Americans, mostly from the South, moved here to work in the ship yards, was torn asunder and its denizens moved to the less desirable outskirts of the city, to an area dubbed “the numbers.”
Did this happen in a city in a 'Red' state? Were these the machinations of your run-of-the-mill, stereotypical conservatives? Hardly. All this took place in one of the most progressively liberal cities in America, in one of the 'Bluest' states in our country. Portland, Oregon.
In a city that has a national reputation for being on the social cutting-edge, the powers that be continue to work to culturally isolate themselves, and hardly any of Portland's white citizens act as if they are aware that this is happening. At the same time that these citizens pat themselves on the back for creating one of the most 'livable' cities in America, they have made it, and continue making it, more and more unlivable for citizens of color.
Of course, this movement has not been without its consequences. Black students no longer had their old neighborhood schools to attend. The schools in their new neighborhoods, schools that have historically served their white constituents, have been ill-equipped to work with their African-American students and their families, and certainly not up to the task of addressing their needs. Few teachers and administrators understand the mores and nuances of African American culture. Most do not understand the role relationship building plays in the culture, and so do not identify the need to connect. Consequently, most are at a loss when it comes to building connections in a manner that resonates with those they are trying to serve. As a result, discord as well as dropout rates have increased, while at the same time the quality of education black students receive has declined.
Like the local schools, social service agencies in these areas are also unfamiliar with addressing the needs of African-American families. Many of their workers, the great majority of whom are white, have little experience working with families of color. Worse still, some of those workers are fearful of those families. Very often this results in well-meaning workers inadvertently angering and alienating those they are genuinely trying to help. In such instances, everyone loses.
And we haven't even begun to discuss the psychological, emotional, and spiritual impacts on a people who have lost their community. I can only imagine what it must be like to not have a familiar place to go; where I can feel connected to my roots; where I can be with people who look as I do, have similar sensibilities and reference points. Today, in Portland, if you are black, no such place exists.
White Americans who do not think about this may be excused, for it is our privilege to not have to go anywhere that we do not feel a part. Likely, Portlanders did not think about this, and Portlanders are decent people, right? We are progressive. We are forward-looking. We are socially enlightened. We certainly are not racist . . . Yet, we destroyed a community.
This is the big disconnect. On the one hand, Portlanders believe themselves to be good, inclusive, progressive, tolerant people . . . and I believe we are. On the other hand, most Portlanders remain unaware of our state's racist beginnings and how our state's historic racism plays a part in our institutions. And Portlanders are not unique in this respect. Most white Americans remain unaware of how our country's history of racism has been baked into the institutions of our society, how those institutions benefit even the poorest of white citizens, how those institutions continue to impact our fellow citizens of color, and how they contribute to the separation between white Americans and everyone else. So, we remain unaware of how those institutions can encourage us to view each other through the lens of 'us versus them,' and how that lens promotes disharmony and isolation. Perhaps of greatest import, we remain unaware of how that lens diminishes us.
As America rapidly evolves into a society in which Americans of color outnumber white Americans, it is becoming increasingly important for us to learn how to act as one, how to make choices for the greater good, how to truly be a village. At the end of the day, this is the only approach that makes sense if we are all to thrive. Doing so first requires that we understand and respect each other, for understanding and respect are the roots of connection.
Until now, our sisters and brothers of color have had to develop an understanding of white America simply in order to survive. They have a much deeper understanding of white America than most of us know. They have had to work to integrate into the dominant culture. They've had to develop an understanding of our value structure, the manner in which we communicate, how we view fundamental concepts such as time and space, in order to be able to adapt. At the same time, those who have been most successful have kept their identity, strengthened their roots, and passed their legacy on to their children, while at the same time making significant contributions to our society.
It is time for white America to return the favor. It is time for us to open ourselves up to understanding the ways of others, to begin to explore how we can best integrate into their cultures, and how we can work together for the greater good. It is time for us to connect, join the village, and fight for justice for us all.