Racial-based Organizing Out of Necessity in Southern Oregon

SOMETIMES, FACTS DO NOT align with lived, emotional experience. In January 2017, shortly after Donald J. Trump assumed the office of President of the United States of America, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) designated five Oregon communities as “Hate Cities”: Silverton, Salem, Portland, McMinnville and Ashland.

Long-term residents, who do not identify with racist thought patterns, might dismiss the evidence SPLC used to apply this designation as arbitrary – too broad a brush, which unfairly includes them. The label was earned thanks to the tolerance of a radio personality and a few (minor?) reported incidents. Surely, the scarcity of evidence is not indicative of all 22,000 men, women and children living in Ashland. This isn’t a place where hate lives. Or, is it?

American history is not kind to the Rogue Valley. Yes, residents acknowledge the history of Oregon here. As late as the 1970’s, the entire 22 miles were considered off-limits to “Black” people when nigh time arrived. For many people of color, that feeling of being undesirable remains, especially in May after the Klu Klux Klan engaged in a recruitment drive.

Three and one half years ago, as the pain of Eric Garner’s death sparked spontaneous national protests,  a small group of Ashland residents decided to do something more than complain about the state of American race relations.

Founding member, SOU professor and Latina, Alma Rosa Alvarez is the Racial Equity Coalition’s (REC)’s main spokesperson. She published a response to recent Klu Klux Klan activity in the Mail Tribune on May 11, 2018.

She explains, “We started out as a group called Ferguson Space. There were some of us that wanted to create a space for mourning, disappointment and anger after the decisions were made to not indict Eric Garner’s killers. The community had already been upset by what happened in the case of Michael Brown. Somehow, I think that folks thought that the Garner case would surely get a guilty verdict–it seemed so obvious, but of course, that did not happen. Those of us that worked at Southern Oregon University (SOU) knew that a space was provided for the campus folk to express themselves. We were concerned that the larger community was not provided with a space, so we tried to create it. We had a large group of people attend, grieve, be angry. We had one counselor at hand to help out. Throughout the course of the night, the conversation shifted to racism in the valley. The second time we met, the focus sharpened even more to local racism, and then we knew we had something local that we needed to address. I am sure that there are other organizations like ours that do similar things: educate, offer some advocacy, etc. We probably are not that original, in that sense, but we came out of a community response and we grew organically.”

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Because so few African Americans live in Oregon, the focus of racial animosity centers around the Latinx community, although not exclusively. (Alma Rosa takes pains to articulate that REC is an all-inclusive organization, welcoming anyone willing to work on their implicit and explicit biases.) Many felt targeted by the Trump campaign and saw their fears materialize on the local level. Those harboring racist thought patterns became emboldened and acted on said thoughts, rather than keeping them to themselves.

“Anecdotally, [REC] heard from many Latinx youth that they began encountering even more racism than they had before Trump one. Latinx people had reported having individuals come to them and ask them when they were going to be deported or leaving the U.S. We don’t have a measurement, but there is quite a bit of tension. One of the anecdotes shared with us is that there are some clerks in local stores that refuse to check out Latinx clients,” Alvarez said.

Par for the course, when discussing race, those in the dominant society may experience confusion around Alvarez’s statement. It doesn’t land well. Meaning, the sentiment may arise that racism is not something individual “Whites” practice. Interpersonal interactions do not bear such fruit. The push-back that People of Color (POC) experience discomfort in the presence of a large population of “White” people comes across as immaturity on the part of the POC, not the dominant society, which doesn’t view POC as anything different than themselves, i.e. human.

Alvarez continues, “It can be very lonely without someone who can sympathize or empathize. One strategy I had early on was to retreat back to California, where I was from. These little shots allowed me to sustain being in the valley. Over time, I have established a network of people, and this is my biggest coping strategy. For folks, though, that are new or don’t have partners, again, I want to reiterate how lonely it can be to be a POC.”

The sense of loneliness is increasing with the success of IP22 meeting the political standard, earning a spot on the November ballot. It feels like the dominant society doesn’t want to share Oregon with Latinx persons.

“I envision the REC getting more involved politically and in activist,” Alvarez said.  “We have, for example, a Sheriff’s election that will happen. We will want to get involved to ensure that we have a candidate that understands POC and that has undergone implicit bias trainings. We also hear that there will be a proposal to remove sanctuary status in the state of Oregon. We should work with other groups on making sure that this proposal doesn’t move forward.”
For more information on REC and its activities, please visit the website: https://www.racialequityso.org/

Words by Kokayi Nosakhere

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