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Office of Equity and Human Rights

Realizing Equity. Enhancing the City of Portland.

Phone: 503-823-4433

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Reflections on Racism

Photo of Dante JamesSitting on Father’s Day reflecting on my father, while at the same time swimming in the aftermath of the massacre in Charleston (“tragedy” is just such a benign term), I thought of who I am, and who and what I am connected to. My father was the grandson of a slave, his father the son of a slave. I have photos of my great grandfather taken after emancipation.  I am the great grandson of a slave. 

The conversations about race, racism, bigotry, the confederate flag, historic oppression; these conversations are not abstract discussions for me, nor for many others who can trace their immediate lineage to slavery. I knew the son and grandson of a slave, my grandfather and father.  I can still feel my grandfather’s beautiful, smooth, dark leathery skin, wince at the remembered harshness of his whiskers, and hear the gruffness of his voice.  They are both long since gone, and the chance to, as an adult, hear the stories of how lives were lived is no longer available.  It is my obligation to not forget, to consciously remember, my history and who I am. 

The events of last week, last month, last year, and the years gone by, create a constant weariness in me, and those who look like me.  We can’t always articulate it, but as Black folks, we are always wondering what the next horrific example of racism will be.  Wondering what new story will emerge describing how we were experimented on by the government, (the most recent NPR story describing a WW II experiment when Black men were locked in a room and subjected to chemical weapons to see if dark skin was more resistant than white skin).  I am tired.  I am weary.  I am motivated to try to help non-Black folks understand.  But why do I need to explain why the confederate flag is a gross reminder of what my father, grandfather and great grandfather had to suffer?  Why do I need to explain why diffusing the conversation about racism by describing the murderer as “mentally unstable” does not acknowledge the fact that the immediate cause of his acts in that church, murdering those African American men and women, was racism, not mental illness?  Why do I need to explain that the problem is not with Black folks, but with White folks? 

My current job is to address institutional racism in government.  How do I help my peers, my colleagues, my bosses understand the need to say something, to express that they hear, see and feel the pain that this mass murder has caused?  This was an act of terrorism, nothing less.  The perception of constant attack on Blackness; whether by killing or failing to care, killing or failing to provide needed and deserved services, killing or ignoring, killing or failing to speak, killing or refusing to lower a flag in respect…..all are wounds that infect the system, the system of a person’s biology or the system of government.

I and all who look like me will persevere because that is who we are and what we do.  My father, grandfather and great grandfather deserve no less.