Black lives do matter, but why is it taking so long? – Part 2

As discussed in my previous post Black lives do matter, but why is it taking so long? – Part 1, I grew up in the lily white West Hills of Portland, Oregon during the 60s.  Portland’s black community was over on the east side of the Willamette River, geographically  and socially isolated from the white enclaves of Willamette and Kings Heights, and Council Crest.

I attended Chapman School in NW Portland. I myself rode a bus to school, but only because I lived out on Skyline, five miles away in unincorporated Portland. So riding a bus was nothing unusual. However, beginning around 1972, another bus started dropping off kids at my school. This bus carried black kids being “voluntarily ” bused in from Albina as a part of Portland Public School’s “Schools for the Seventies” plan under the direction of Superintendent Robert Blanchard. As a fourth grader, I had no awareness as to why this was happening. But as I started school that September, I remember seeing the faces of two rather apprehensive African American students in my class, a boy and a girl, in the sea of white faces.

chapman school
Chapman School

I also remember that I was not particularly happy with my teacher assignment. By this age I knew from older friends and my brothers who the favorite teachers were and Miss Elmquist was not on the list. Not that she was strict. Not at all. On the contrary. She had a reputation for disorganization and boring lessons. I loved learning and thrived with teachers who were stricter and had a strong work ethic. So from day one I was pretty depressed.  Not only that, my best friends from my early years weren’t in my class, so I was in desperate need of a new friend. That new friend turned out to Monica, the new black girl assigned to our class.

Monica was sweet and kind, but it was apparent from the beginning that she was struggling in the classroom. One day I had gotten a hall pass to go to the bathroom and found Monica down there playing on tops of the toilet stalls. I already knew Monica from the playground. She was the best climber on the Monkey Bars and taught us how to play Double Dutch. Pretty soon Monica and I were sneaking out during free reading time and playing down in the bathroom. I was already reading way ahead of my grade level and it had no effect on me.

However, Monica’s time away from the classroom had a huge effect on her. Thinking back I still am amazed that Miss Elmquist never seemed to notice it. Or perhaps she didn’t care. I’ve spent time reading about the busing program and it was highly controversial and so poorly thought out. Reflecting about it now, I truly believe this was Portland’s lame attempt to jump on the desegregation bandwagon. How could sticking a handful of black kids in a school without any black teachers, counselors, or administers, be a good thing? Unlike Berkeley, California’s busing program which was a two-way program, PPS was strictly one-way – that is black kids went to majority white schools.

Monica only lasted one year at Chapman. It clearly was too difficult for her. As my dad would say, Monica was a “token” black. A chip to be played in card game that was all about numbers and not about the children themselves. In !972 the number of children being bused to white schools increased by nearly 900 students in one year, from just under 500, to 1400. It may have looked good on paper. But the real question is, did any of these students benefit? Did any of the white students benefit? Did they learn empathy and appreciation for a student of a different race? I seriously doubt many did.

In my opinion, this was a missed opportunity for Portland. Two-way busing might have encouraged more interaction and understanding between black and white students.  The busing program was shelved by the 80s and eventually PPS adopted more of a magnet school approach.

However, what does all this have to do with the Black Lives Matter movement? Well, a lot. Too much to discuss in one paragraph. I will try to give my perspective in my next post. It certainly won’t have all the answers, but I will give my opinion on why nearly 50 years later so little has really changed.

Black lives do matter, but why is it taking so long? – Part 1

Over the course of the last week I’ve been thinking long and hard about George Floyd and the countless cases of police brutality towards African Americans. I’ve been on this earth nearly six decades, yet to me, I sometimes think very little has changed.

It’d be very hard to tell my thoughts in one posting, so I’m going to recount what I remember of  my experiences through several posts.

I grew up with white privilege in Portland, Oregon, although it took me a long time to realize it. Right before I was born my parents bought a house on the west side of Portland in a semi-rural neighborhood. My dad was a real estate agent and had done a lot of research. He wanted to get out of the urban area and be in a good school district. We had a big house, big yard, and good neighbors. Most of the people were professionals – several attorneys, one judge, and my dentist lived next door.  For the most part all white. One family was half-Persian (Iranian). But that was as exotic as we got.

But what was the real reason for our move to the west side, other than a larger house for our growing family? (I was the youngest of 4 kids.) My dad didn’t mince words. Portland was changing –  specifically, the east side, or the Albina district where my dad had grown up and where he and my mom first lived after they got married in the late 50s. During WWII most of the black families lived near the shipyards in an area called Vanport, but after the flood in ’48, those families were only allowed to move to certain areas of NE Portland (Albina). Then with the construction of the Memorial Coliseum in ’59 and Interstate 5 in the early 60s, more black families were forced to relocate to predominantly white neighborhoods in Albina. The great white flight to the west side and suburbs had begun.

As a young child growing up in the West Hills of Portland, I was indeed very sheltered from what was happening over on the other side of the Willamette River. Rioting, looting, and arson took place, with many business boarding up permanently.  In the early 70s my dad would take me over to the trendy new shopping center called Lloyd Center and we would pass by parts of Albina that were burned out or boarded up. My dad still knew people over in Albina and checked on them periodically. To me it was like a whole different world. I’m sure I realized I was lucky but I don’t think my dad said anything overtly racist. In fact, we had a couple fellowship activities with the Congregationalist Church over in Albina and I recall it as being fun. But beyond that, my interaction with black people was very limited.

That is, until Fourth Grade. That is when my new best friend was a girl named Monica.

To be continued . . .