The Utopian Dream of Portland Is Lit by Flames of Racist Hatred: Educating the Next Generation Is Our Only Hope for Change


Susan Anglada Bartley I Race & Ethnicity I Commentary I June 29th, 2017



When I moved to Portland 17 years ago, freshly graduated from New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study with a degree in History and Literature of Marginalized Communities that I studied to earn with people so brilliant, people who worked so hard, researched so deeply that I should probably not say that I am associated with them--people like the great Dr. Tricia Rose, professor, warrior, TV commentator, and author of Black Noise and several other texts, people like Dr. Robin Kelley, highly regarded professor of History, author ofRace Rebels and Thelonius Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original and numerous other books and articles--toting Albert Gallatin Scholar and Founder's Scholar awards for my academic work, I was totally unaware of the depth of racism I would encounter in Oregon.

I left New York City with a dream of the West handed down to me by the beat poetry movement, namely Allen Ginsberg, who I deeply admired and had the chance to meet personally before he passed away in 1997, and from my Uncle Kearney, a member of the 60s counterculture who left his Detroit home to wander across the country and up and down the West Coast of the United States, staying at communes in Traverse City, Michigan, Hood River, Oregon, the Russian River, California, and finally in San Blas, Mexico, where he lived for 15 years. My journey West, then, did not initially arise from a desire to fight racism; it came from a desire to follow the footsteps of a dream that is in fact very racist--the escapist dream of the White American hippie. I was born a hippie. I was spoon fed the hippie dream when my uncles would wander into town from the road to visit, full of the shine of San Francisco (and full of marijuana), full of guitar, full of long hair, full of sex, full of Love. They basically told me three things -- Fuck the Man, Everyone is Your Brother or Sister, and Go West! These boys were raised in Detroit--they felt a brotherhood with Blues Music, felt close to Black Urban Poor folks, thought Black and Brown women were BEAUTIFUL, and felt no responsibility to serve anyone or change shit--other than guitar strings. It was through this lens of reality that Oregon always glimmered in the distance, like a mountain range to equality, peace, and brotherhood! New York was nothing like that. New York was halls, and elevators, and stairways. New York was smelly subways. New York was rich people who I served in restaurants or cocktail bars. Or New York was going back to Buffalo...and after what I felt I achieved at NYU, in honor of my Mother who never went to college, I couldn't give up on having a different life. To clarify--this dream wasn't consciously racist; but the unconscious privilege in the concept that one can just leave, escape the system and establish oneself in the magic of the West is the epitome of White blindness-- only a young White college grad would ever believe in the existence of such a Utopia (and let's not forget that it is all related to the constantly reproduced dream of settler colonialism).

Seventeen years later, I write in an area of Portland once called Felony Flats, where impoverished Whites were known to congregate and participate in the underground economy through collecting and selling metals and trading in mind-altering substances (and still do). While it once was a neighborhood populated by more White people, the neighborhood is now one of the most diverse in the city, with large Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican, Somalian and Ethiopian communities coexisting with working class or unemployed Whites. The heartbeat of the neighborhood is either the parking lot of 7-11 at 82nd Avenue and Flavel, a methamphetamine and heroin and oxy sales station which is very close to a public park that holds much-debated homeless encampments, or the Vietnamese Buddhist Monastery at the end of my block, where monks meditate in silence for long periods of the day while people of all of these communities, including white-supremacist Nazis, walk by outside, or perhaps it is Franklin High School, a school with a lot of pride and a lot of poverty where I dedicated my life energy as a teacher and program leader for 13 years.

I write in an historical moment where a frightening murderous racist hatred has splashed blood on our streets. This hatred is not a new hatred; it is a hatred that has incubated since the inception of the State of Oregon, which, as an article for The Atlantic by Alana Samuels notes, was founded as a racist Utopia in 1859. It is a racist hatred that often wears a "progressive" disguise; it is a hatred that occupies every facet of public life, from public education to the mayor's office. And if we are going to hold onto our humanity, educators, parents, and citizens who care about the future of the State must use our collective power to rip racism from its roots and reforest. But to do so we must first see the way it operates, understand our role in it, and educate children in solidarity against it.

In 2013, I won an H. Councill Trenholm National Education Association Human and Civil Rights Award for my work to dramatically increase the number of students of color in Advanced Placement courses at Franklin High School. It seems appropriate, now, to point out that one can only win a Human and Civil Rights Award for opening doors that are already legally supposed to be open to everyone in a very racist environment. What doesvery racist mean? Doesn't racist sum it up? Very racist means that the culture inside schools in Oregon, minus a few islands, caters directly to White privilege and actively polices, rejects, intimidates, and totally fails students of color. Very racist means Black, Latino, Native, and Asian students being marginalized, in mass numbers, to remedial and lower-level courses while White students are ushered into higher level opportunities. Very racist means that the experience of children of color in Oregon schools are significantly different, based on their race, as are the results they get from their education. In the mid-2000s, I saw this going on at the high school I taught in, and worked with two tremendous Black Principals--Dr. Charles Hopson followed by soon-to-be Dr. Shay James, to end gatekeeping at one school. Through building solidarity between a group of teachers and counselors through the program I co-founded (called The Advanced Scholar Program) we opened the gates and provided needed supports and mentoring for students of color and students living in poverty. Through this work, we also became the school with the number one graduation rate for African American students in the State of Oregon. But soon after the fanfare of the awards (I also won the OnPoint Community Credit Union Award in 2014, which paid my mortgage for a year) wore off, I began to look beyond the myopic focus that was required to do the work I did at Franklin to examine what was going on at other schools.

The problem was, and is, everywhere. Students of color are relegated to lower level courses and locked out of AP programming, especially in Science and Mathematics, all over the State of Oregon. Noting this, I set out with a group of former students of color who are currently in college to author the Bill of Rights for Students of Color in AP & IB Courses. The document gives specific direction to the Portland School Board regarding exactly how to eradicate barriers for students of color. It contains budgetary suggestions, as well as immediate actions that can be taken by Principals to remove barriers like we successfully did at Franklin in the past. After creating the document, we built a coalition of local leaders including prominent leaders of the Black, Latino, and Native American Communities like Portland Black Parent Initiative Executive Director Charles McGee, I AM Academy Executive Director and Real Estate Investor Ellis "Ray Ray" Leary, Don't Shoot Portland Founder Teressa Raiford, Andrea Morgan of CAUSA Oregon, and now State Representative Tawna Sanchez. Each time a new leader signed on, we updated the school board, totaling more than eighty emails back and forth. Soon, the Bill gained national attention. Multi-platinum rapper Scarface signed on, as did Olympic Gold Medalist Steve Meslar. My college roommate, MacArthur Genius Michelle Dorrance, also reached out to sign on to the Bill of Rights, as did the League of Women Voters, and many other local and national leaders. With tremendous social pressure behind it, the Bill was passed unanimously by our school board. An article was published on the NEA Ed-Votes Website, encouraging other school districts to pass similar legislation. And then the school board and district totally failed to act on any of the initiatives in the Bill. Perhaps their failure to act can be blamed on lead contamination that was found, at exactly the same moment, in most of the Portland schools, making not also poisoning the children the clear priority for the district, trumping and overshadowing educational equity.

Very racist also means that throughout my experience of fighting for racial justice in Portland Public Schools, I have faced significant backlash from white administrators and even fellow teachers (though, interestingly, no African American administrator has ever admonished me or punished me in any way). After winning the awards, I was moved into an office and given no desk, while my male office mate had a desk. When I requested a desk, I was given a children's school desk, where, as an award-winning educator with clear, well-documented and published results, I was supposed to do my work adjacent to my male counterpart with an adult desk. While working on the Bill of Rights, which I completed entirely outside of the school day (documenting my hours so as to avoid the assumption that I was working for justice on company time), I was regularly berated by several administrators, and again placed into an office with no door to the main hallway so that students could not come in to see me. I was also told that in order to continue to operate my extremely successful program, I had to do it with less time, little real support, and constant threats of funding cuts. From 2003 to present, when I called out gatekeeping, I have been bullied by small groups of fellow teachers who do not agree with or understand civil rights law, or suggest that I am making trouble by suggesting we focus on examining the significant inequities in the system that relate to the way we do our work--and actually focus on serving children of color. When I say bullied, I mean ostracized and gossiped about; I mean that my work has been degraded multiple times. Though I have had eight Gates Scholars come through my classroom, some white teachers who are themselves incapable of conceiving of Black, Latino, and Native American academic excellence put down my work by claiming that I am making things easier for my students, or that my grading systems do not equate to their rigorous standards. Really, they are afraid to face their own complicity and responsibility in the system they have devised, with support from administrations, to uphold White supremacy in Portland Public Schools without ever even stopping to care. Of course, there are many educators who supported and collaborated in the work of eradicating racism, but these educators have never been asked to lead, and have never been in the majority -- we are always pushing against a racist status quo that governs public education in Portland, Oregon.

They'll say they cared. They'll say they devised systems, helped students write special essays about African American history. They'll say this and they'll say that--but some will know what I mean when I say no one ever really stopped to care. I mean it was never the sole focus for a significant number of years in many schools others than one or two. I mean that there was never a time when every single teacher was asked to take five years to really work on their relationships with students of color. There was never a time when every administrator was asked to look at who they privilege in the school, and how they make staff of color feel in the school environment. There was never a time when administrators were required, with appropriate accountability, including penalties for not doing the work, to examine the inequities in their advanced coursework, discipline data, grade data, and graduation rates for students of color. This district has never stopped to really listen to the amazing voices of the former students of the I AM Academy who will tell you one by one that the reason that they stayed in school, and often the reason they are alive is in part because of the wisdom of African-American educator Ray Leary--a man who himself has faced continued hatred, discrimination, and threats to his excellent program simply for doing great work with Black boys. This district never put its foot down around obscene parental funding at Lincoln High School, a school known to serve privileged White students on the West side of town, turning a blind eye regarding additional funding that parents put in to set their own kids up to win when they face less privileged schools in academic and athletic competitions.

And, it's not that the school teachers never stopped to care. Of everyone who is culpable for the racist system, teachers cared the most, but we are still complicit in the fabric of racism; we are still accountable. The truth is so hard to hear! To teach in Portland means to be complicit in a racist system. And there is racism in the roots of the system. In a 2016 article for KATU News, investigative report Joe Douglass writes, "African American K-12 students in Oregon are 2.3 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students...black children in Portland Public Schools are four times more likely to be suspended or expelled". But the racism doesn't end there--the racism thrives in the way history is often taught--as evidenced by the rape culture denial letter that went viral earlier in the year from a Social Studies teacher in Portland Public Schools. The presence of a prominent, if not LOVED, history teacher denying the existence of rape culture is an abomination of the field of history itself, for one cannot teach the history of Western Civilization and also deny the omnipresence of rape culture. To do so is a total denial of the reality of the history of the world. To do so is to deny the existence of women in history at all. To specifically deny the existence of Native and Black women is misogynoir, is absolute fiction, is simply the rhetoric of supremacy. Racism also shows up in Forensic Science courses, where some teachers still use terms like Mongoloid to describe people of Asian origin, Negroid to describe people of African origin, and Caucasoid to describe White Europeans. These terms, which were invented by racist Scientist Blumenbach in the 1780s were strictly forbidden, even by my history teacher, Mr. John Toy, in the early 90s, who was educated by Catholic Jesuits in New York City. It is an abomination that these terms are still in use in this state, but I've heard about their usage in a science class as recently as this year. Portland educators never stopped to truly investigate their curriculum for racist and sexist attitudes and make appropriate changes to rectify inappropriate attitudes found therein.

A diversity training program called Courageous Conversations, offered through the always-under-attack Office of Equity aimed to gently ask White educators to examine our biases--and many did, but some tried to refuse the training or chose not to absorb the benefits and made a joke of it as time went by. That eradicating racism is not the topic of discussion for every educator in the state every day of the year has troubled me since I arrived seventeen years ago; that systemic and overt racism is not the topic of discussion in every school now that we cannot deny the existence of a thriving, deadly white power movement in our city and state makes me wonder what the fuck I am doing here. One time, when faced with the reality that a student of Mexican heritage who was in fact a genius could not go to college because of his immigration status, I prayed on my knees, asking God to simply make me a woman of great faith. I prayed it sincerely. Sincerely, I prayed it. I prayed it with depth, with all of my heart. I can only say that if you ask God to make you a person of great faith, she is likely to give you some challenges.

The City of Portland, too, never stopped to care. Portland never stopped to care when Kendra James was murdered in her car by police while trying to unfasten her seatbelt. They never stopped to care for Quanice Hayes. They never stopped to care--it got so bad in schools that they sometimes just painted over swastikas and didn't report it to the parents. It got so bad that I once heard about a kid being sent back to class by an administrator when a teacher sent them out because they had swastikas drawn on their jean jacket---but the administrator didn't confiscate the jacket or send the kid home. He just told him to roll up his sleeves and go back to class. Isn't that just the way it is, Portland, Oregon?

I now realize that a large part of the problem that white Portland has with racism is that for many, they have been raised in such an isolated white supremacy that they really haven't had much contact with Black or Brown people, other than in this dynamic where they have total power. Black and Brown children are the only contact many white educators have, and Black and Brown children are under them. If they have contact with other Black or Brown people, it is often in a condition of subservience. There are, for example, many fancy restaurants, with almost all White waiters, and all Central American and Mexican workers inside the kitchen. The color caste system is so prominent and visible in Portland that many white Portlanders don't see any reason why that should change, nor do the teachers who come from this same society. Thus, the sharp and humiliating tongue of the White teacher is like a double lash on the backs of Black and Brown children who must bear the brunt of that pain twice as painfully as a White child who does not have to assume that some of the hatred is not just for their youth, but also for who they are as a person--at a soul level--their identity. For many students of color, the humiliation from racist encounters in Portland Public Schools causes feelings of dejection so powerful that students feel more comfortable outside of school and far away from certain classrooms, which ultimately impacts their ability to navigate the system, and reflects as low grades and lower graduation rates for students of color.

It's not that every teacher in Portland Public Schools is actively racist, except me. There is, in fact, a legacy of anti-racist work that started before my arrival, like the work of former teachers, who took students from Portland to Alabama to walk in the footsteps of Dr. King (a trip that continues through the dedication of several current educators). Currently, there are cells of anti-racist educators at many schools throughout the city; few of them will tell you that their work is fully supported. Many have faced significant challenges in order to stay focused on supporting students of color. All will speak of the greater financial support they would need to provide greater resources for students of color. Many anti-racist educators in Portland know the great faith required to continue to fight for achievement for students of color in a district that prioritizes equity in messaging, but not in reality.

What if every teacher in Portland felt part of the movement to transform Portland Public Schools? What if every teacher had the skills and humility to actually relate to and support students of color? What if every teacher was willing to look inside our attitudes, and inside our curriculum, to eradicate racism with the goal of creating social change in the city of Portland? What if?

I've been thinking a lot lately about the foundations of anti-racist education...and how they were laid in me. As I previously mentioned, my hippie Uncles were obsessed with Howlin' Wolf, and all of the Blues greats -- I had Blues songs for lullabies and still do. I get it that they were appropriating a dream -- but in that particular dream, there was a solidarity between White and Black working class dudes that I really have not seen since. For me, anti-racist education began in a bizarre if not obtuse, but totally child and heart-centered school, founded by complete hippies, called CAUSE School. This school was founded on the principle that through community-based education, community action, and education totally focused on unity between students of different races, anti-racist and non-violent social revolution could be activated. Throughout my early childhood, I was constantly surrounded by intelligent, counter-culture black adults who were speaking the language of Black Power. Whether they were struggling to get by or pursuing a doctorate, I felt a great sense of love and respect for the many Black adults in my life -- and I readily and eagerly gave that love and respect, and learned how to receive that love and respect, which was the greatest gift I ever received in terms of becoming an educator -- for I did not ever have to say, "I have a Black friend." I was part of a community that included many Black people who loved me and who I loved; in fact, my very definition of love came from the feelings I had from people in that community. Black love was my definition of love -- and though I am fully white and have lived a life of incredible privilege -- I also had the privilege of understanding some of the language of Black love. Part of that language is that you can't come out here as some dumbass White woman and define Black love. That would be some bullshit. You have to feel it. And I do.

If I really had to explain anti-racist education, I would say it through this anecdote: when I was a little older, attending another extremely radical hippie diverse Montessori school in the early 1980s, I noticed a Black boy who was very unclean. This school was also in the middle of the most impoverished Black neighborhood in the city of Buffalo, NY -- a community totally devastated by crack cocaine. Many other children said that his Mother was on crack. This made me so sad when I went home that I snuck into the cabinet and brought this boy a bar of soap. When we were in the hall alone, I walked up to him and quietly offered him the bar of soap.

SMACK!!!!

"I don't need no soap, White Bitch!" he said, slapping me hard across the face.

That was perhaps the best anti-racist education a White person can have. I was slapped out of savior at age eight. And it was a righteous slap. It was not a slap where you go tell the teacher. It was a you-better-fucking-not-go-tell-the-teacher-or-I'll-fucking-kill-you-next-time-slap. It was a slap into total submission and full realization that you do not pity Black people or in any way make assumptions about their level of resourcefulness or resources because you will have another thing coming. In my earliest years, I was surrounded by the children of Black nationalists who regularly spoke about African power. In my 7-9 year old Montessori class, we studied South Africa in great depth. The teachers focused on helping us to understand the meaning of racism, and working hard to connect us, through helping us to look at racism in our own society and in ourselves.

In my recollection, there was some very specific language they used that was effective for my young mind. When I say these words, I know that the intellectuals who read this will get their guns and start shooting me down with great acuity for how little deconstruction I am going to do here; however, in defense of these radical educators of the 1980s, they did something really amazing through focusing their entire methodology on anti-racist language. While they focused the curriculum on showing us the history of oppression and revolution throughout the world in depth, they also used slogans that a child could easily remember to help us to understand anti-racist philosophy in the way that worked for the mind of a 5 to 9 year old. The words they wove into us as we sat on the floor looking up at their mythic storytelling were, It's what's on the inside that counts.

It's what's on the inside that counts will not heal the deaths of all of the Black and indigenous people who have died, to date, from the largest genocide in the history of the planet. It's what's on the inside that counts will not bring back Trayvon, or Emmett, or any of the millions who died in the chokehold of White power, but for God's sake, Portland, we cannot go on like this.

Portland teachers need a new language and an entirely new focus on anti-racist education. Dr. Rosenberg's work on non-violent communication is a great place to start; and we must also be willing to take direction from our local educators and leaders of color who can convene and, if supported appropriately with pay, can help White Portlanders to understand what they don't see. Every teacher must be willing to investigate our own curriculum each year, each week, each day, to work toward bettering our relationships with students. We can do this by requiring that every teacher change from a teacher-centered model to a student-centered model that utilizes non-violent communication, as well as a variety of other techniques that I will discuss in a future article. Above all, we need more Black, Latinx, and Native American teachers in our schools. We know that the state tests filter out candidates of color because of various forms of bias. We also know that our schools are often currently not comfortable places for Black and Brown staff members. We must call for changes in how teachers are hired while also requiring administrators to work on school climate with a specific focus on racism, sexism, and White male supremacy, and how they manifest in staff culture.

We must turn the schools upside down, shake them, and put them back down with new walls, higher ceilings, open doors, and more light. In creating a new infrastructure that supports students of color, we can look to the legislation that is already provided for us by Dr. King, Reverend Shuttlesworth, Fanie Lou Hamer, and other heroes of the early NAACP and civil rights movement who fought to write their suggestions into law. Until this transformation takes place, the Portland School Board, current district leaders, high school principals, and even teachers must accept full responsibility for evident civil right violations and a culture of racism that operates in the public system. The Utopian dream of Portland is lit by flames of racist hatred. Focusing on eradicating civil rights violations in every school, supporting the Office of Equity in a large scale collaborative project to examine all questionable curriculum to remove racist attitudes, and gathering together as anti-racist educators to teach the next generation both anti-racist philosophy and inclusive student-centered curriculum is our only hope for change.



Susan Anglada Bartley is an activist, writer,​and teacher in Portland, Oregon. She earned her B.A. from NYU, and her M.Ed from Portland State University. She was awarded a National Education Association H. Councill Trenholm Human and Civil Rights Award in 2013 for her work to end racism in public education. She presented her work on Systemic Barriers to AP and IB Courses for Black, Native American, and Latino Students, and co-presented with Pedro Anglada Cordero, MSW on Invisible Fences: Removing Obstacles for Latino Students at the Teaching for Social Justice North West Conference and at the Evergreen Education Association Diversity and Social Justice Conference. She has published articles with Artvoice Buffalo, Literary Arts Portland, The National Education Association Magazine, NEA-Ed Votes, Latino Rebels, and The Hampton Institute: A Working Class Think Tank.