By: Julia Page

From an outsider’s perspective, Oregon may appear to be a progressive, liberal state. National news stories have centered on cities like Portland and Eugene, whose residents are often portrayed as modern-day hippies and progressive activists. With these types of stories circulating nationally, it’s easy to see why people may believe the state has moved from its racist past.

However, if you look further into the state’s current affairs you find that Oregon is still full of racism.

Following the widely publicized death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white Minnesota police officer, the unresolved racism of Oregon and the United States as a whole has returned to the nation’s regular news cycles through the Black Lives Matter movement.

In response to the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to raise awareness of the racial injustices faced by the Black community.

As stated on the BLM website, the movement is both a political and ideological intervention in a world that has been systematically and intentionally created to oppress the Black community’s humanity, societal contributions and resilience.

Since the BLM movement began, its following has continued to grow. The awareness of cases similar to that of Trayvon Martin’s has grown alongside the movement’s supporters. 

According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by sociologist professors Frank Edwards, Hedwig Lee and Michael Esposito in August 2019, Black men are about two and half times more likely to be killed by police than white men. One in every 1,000 Black men is expected to be killed by police.

To shed light on what being Black in Eugene feels like, Ethos magazine invited members of the local Black community to freely write or speak about their experiences, thoughts and feelings about the movement. Ethos received written and oral submissions from a University of Oregon student, a local podcast producer, the president of the local chapter of the NAACP and the leader of a prominent Eugene Black Lives Matter group. Their diverse experiences and views all show the racism in Eugene, Oregon and America. 

Just as Maxwell Ntege addresses the illusion of progressivity in Minnesota, the same can be said about the state of Oregon and the idea that ‘liberal college towns’ like Eugene have little to no racist encounters.

Since Oregon passed its first Black exclusion law in 1844, which ordered all Black people to leave Oregon, the state has been well-known for its racist actions. The emergence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s helped to further strengthen the racially discriminatory ideologies that existed within the state. By 1923, the KKK had acquired over 35,000 members in Oregon.

Although the KKK became prevalent in Oregon almost 100 years ago, supporters of white supremacy can still be found throughout Oregon today. In recent months, the continual rise of BLM protests in cities such as Portland has led to the resurfacing of white supremacists supporting anti-BLM groups.

It wasn’t until 1959 that Black Oregon residents solidified their right to vote through the ratification of the 15th Amendment. 

Issues of race have also arisen in the University of Oregon’s past. Since the UO was founded in 1876, the percentage of Black students attending the university in a single school year has not surpassed 2.5 percent.

In the 2019-2020 school year, only 2.4 percent of the student population was Black, a total of 548 Black students in a campus of 22,615 students.

Following the creation of the University of Oregon’s Black Student Union in 1966, a list of grievances and demands was submitted to UO President Arthur Flemming in 1968 and, in 2015, the Black Student Task Force, a combination of the Black Student Union and the UO Black Women of Achievement, sent a list of 12 demands to President Michael Schill. 

These lists of grievances and demands addressed the institutionalized racism experienced by Black students attending the University of Oregon, called for more effort to educate students on the cultures and history of minority groups, demanded more faculty of color and requested a space on campus for members of the BIPOC community to gather, study and receive tutoring.

Since these lists were publicly released to the public, some, but not all, of the grievances and demands have been met and addressed. The two of the most recent demands met were the opening of the Lyllye Reynolds-Parker Black Cultural Center in October 2019, a center that now provides a space to learn more about Black history and culture as well as a place for students to gather, and the decision to change the name of the school’s oldest building: Deady Hall.

The incident discussed by Ayisha Elliott took place in July 2015 and began as a simple call to a non-emergency number regarding a personal issue with her son. The trial for Elliott’s claim of excessive force and racial profiling against her son and herself took place in September 2017.

After Elliott’s first request for a jury trial was denied, Elliott was able to get her case appealed. However, the federal jury ruled that she “failed to prove that Eugene police used excessive force against them.”

According to the court filings of Elliott’s U.S. Court of Appeals case, “even if probable cause did not exist, the officers would still be entitled to qualified immunity.”

The murder of George Floyd and other cases involving police brutality have brought attention to the problems with qualified immunity. As defined by the Legal Information Institute, qualified immunity “protects a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a ‘clearly established’ statutory or constitutional right.”

Qualified immunity has made it difficult to hold police officers accountable for their actions and wrongdoings because courts generally require plaintiffs to back up their claims of misconduct with previous judicial decisions. This means that if the exact circumstance in question hasn’t been clearly established as an illegal action in a prior court case, the probability of government officials being convicted for their actions is very low.

The 1860 census for Oregon reported that out of the 52,465 people that lived in the state, only 128 were African American – a total of 0.24 percent. Oregon’s Black exclusion laws ended with the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1973, but Oregon has remained predominantly white.

In July of 2019, 86.7 percent of Oregonians were white and 2.2 percent were Black. In Eugene, the population was 83.3 percent white and 1.6 percent Black.

Although the number of Black students and residents in Eugene is low, there’s been strong support for the BLM movement.

Since May 29, Eugene and Springfield have seen regular BLM protests. Black Unity, one of the most prevalent BLM protest groups in the area, has been organizing largely peaceful protests and events in the Eugene/Springfield area for the last several months.