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

In my final post in this three-part series, I want to first briefly recap why I feel the failure of busing in my home town, Portland, Oregon, set the tone for the decades to come. As mentioned, the program was strictly one-way. Black students from the east side of Portland were bused to white schools in predominantly white neighborhoods. Typically there were about 2 black students per class. For example, in my school we had 3 classes per grade level (K-8), with about 28-30 students per class. So we’re talking roughly 1 percent of the student population.

At the end of the day these African American students hopped on the bus back home. They weren’t invited over for play dates and didn’t participate in activities with the rest of us. The schools did what they were mandated to do, but generally speaking, most black students weren’t a part of the social structure of our school. The burden to fit in and succeed was placed upon their shoulders. A few somehow succeeded and actually decided to continue on to our high school instead of returning to their neighborhood high school.

One of those students was a girl in my grade. When Robin first started, she was a free spirit much like my black friend Monica from fourth grade. But as she continued she became more serious and conformed to “white standards” of behavior. I hate to say this, but as a track star who took home several state titles, acceptance by the white student population perhaps came a little bit easier for her as everyone loves a winner. She was elected our Rose Festival princess (this is a big thing in Portland) and went on to become the first black Rose Festival queen since the court’s inception 50 years earlier. After high school Robin went on to University of Arizona, continued with track, and even was the Fiesta Bowl queen one year.

People look at her and say, look, she did it, Robin benefited from desegregation and busing. But did she? Only she can answer that. My feeling is that her success made white people feel good because it helped erase some of their white guilt. It makes it easy to overlook all the other issues that busing failed to address. For example, why not spend more money in the schools black students attend to help give them access to the teachers and tools that white students have? Can you imagine if a white student would be told that he had to take a bus to the black community in order to get a good education? No, of course not. There’d be a riot.

And that is how we get back to Black Lives Matter. They are sick and tired of being treated different by law enforcement, especially the men. This has to stop. It’s been 7 years since the BLM movement started with the acquittal of George Zimmerman. What has happened in the meantime? Pretty much nothing. That is, until the death of George Floyd. This time we all saw on the internet and there was no denying it. But did it need to come to this? NO!

So, white people, pull your heads out of the sand and start walking the walk, not just talking the talk. The protests are a start. But we need to acknowledge the problem, and not be afraid to stand up and do what is right. Do not let this go away.

Watch your own behavior. Children learn from us. They’re like sponges. Do you say racist things without realizing it? Stop it. Do you avoid black people in public places? Again, check your behavior. Take your children to the “other side of town” and support black businesses. Advocate for black history as a year-around subject. One month is simply not enough.

Quit pretending you’re liberal and for equality when your behavior says otherwise. Case in point. I live in Colorado and the local college town, Boulder, is filled with Bernie Sanders supporters. The residents and college students are known for their liberal mindset and damn proud of it. But the reality is totally different Black students at University of Colorado have said many a time that the university is not inclusive. One student from another state told a reporter that she was excited to go to school in Boulder. The reality was far different that she expected. Not only was the campus environment not welcoming but residents treated her like an outsider when she was working in retail.

It’s very easy to join a protest with your white friends because it’s the trendy thing to do. But do it because you’re dedicated to cause. Learn and listen to black people on the Internet. I’ve heard so many raw and real stories. It may make you feel uncomfortable. You may be in denial. But until we admit that we’ve failed black people, nothing will change. Our discomfort is nothing compared to what they’ve put up with for hundreds of years.

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.