Systematic Racism in Clackamas County

Racism takes many forms. The overt one — a cross burning on the yard, bank refusing to loan in certain neighborhoods, and having to ride in the back of the bus — are easy to spot. The covert ones are equally insidious and almost as damaging to the soul because they are nearly invisible. This contributes to victims blaming themselves for their condition rather than the system and individuals who gain from and support racist ideals and practices.

In Clackamas County a number of situations may fall into the latter category. For example, the percentage of first nation populations and African Americans who are incarcerated for various crimes is many times larger than the rate for whites. Next to unconstitutional actions by ICE, minor drug offenses are the most glaring case.

Native Americans of our fair county between 2013 and 2016 wound up in jail at more than twice the rate of white residents, and African Americans end up incarnated at three times the rate of white citizens. Yet all three populations have the same drug usage rates.

Our District Attorney, when confronted with this reality, instead of acknowledging the problem and seeking solutions went into denial. He attacked the study released by the governor that identified the racial discrepancy in incarceration rates. He challenged the numbers and blamed law enforcement officers.

He also engaged in identical behaviors when law enforcement officers statewide called for a shift in drug enforcement policy to a mental health approach recognizing that prison is not rehab and the foundational problems of drug abuse and the crime it spawns are addiction.

At a public hearing for the county to adopt an inclusivity resolution supported by the Sheriff’s Department and the county commissioners, in what appeared to be a direct violation of state law, our DA bragged about partnering with ICE to deport our citizens of color without the constitutional protections guaranteed them by the U.S. Supreme Court.

If equality before the law is not color blind, if in our county one can be found, in the words of Trevor Noah, “guilty of driving while black,” then not only is our county routinely engaged in systematic racist behaviors, but we are also undermining the very foundation of our democracy.

In a county that is predominately white, it is easy not to see the undermining of civil and human rights, especially when led by the chief law enforcement agent in the county, the DA. It is easy to “overlook” racism promoted by the U.S. president. It is easy to see the victims of institutionalized discrimination as the “other” people.

We seem them just as easily as we see homeless vets, families living out of their cars, and all the others who have been victimized by a consumer society. Where money is king, too often our primary value becomes what can we afford to buy today. No, we say to ourselves, they are not us.

But they are us. For too many of us are but a medical emergency away from homelessness. Our social media are full of calls to send money to help those in our social network. If our sons or daughters were destitute, rarely would we blame them. Instead we could see the forces aligned against them. But when it is a Native American or African American, it is all too easy to blame the victims.

Dr. King understood that we are all in this together. He recognized that the economic system of monopoly capitalism stacks the deck against workers in general and workers of color in particular.

The final project of Dr. King was the Poor People’s March on Washington. Its Economic Bill of Rights included the following elements:

  • Recommit to the Full Employment Act and legislate the immediate creation of at least one million socially useful career jobs in public service
  • Invest in affordable housing and urban/rural development
  • Repeal punitive welfare restrictions in the Social Security Act
  • Extend to all farm workers the right — guaranteed under the National Labor Relations Act — to organize agricultural labor unions
  • Fully fund bilingual education, Head Start, summer jobs, Economic Opportunity Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Acts

All of these are as badly needed today as when they were first proposed in 1968 if we, as a truly progressive and caring culture, really want to overcome that part of our legacy which is racist and exploits the workers.