My name is Molly Franks. I am speaking tonight as a dedicated biker, who lives in this neighborhood. I ride my bike on Williams several times a week, all year round, to work, to visit friends, or to run errands. I love living in a city that does so much to promote biking and other environmentally friendly modes of transportation. I also am speaking as a white Portlander who is committed to working for racial justice and equity. For people who are new to this neighborhood, or don’t know its history, it may seem like making a few changes to the lane configurations to increase safety for bikers is a no-brainer. What’s all the fuss about, and why are some people calling it racist? The answer (or part of the answer) is that it’s about a lot more than just some lane changes on Williams.
Racism isn’t just people in white hoods burning crosses, or even white bikers saying racist things about black people in cars. It’s also about ongoing exclusion from city decision-making and lack of civic investment in (and sometimes flat out destruction of) black neighborhoods. Racism is found in discriminatory housing practices that for much of history were perfectly legal. Though they may technically be illegal today, they continue to be widespread (See the Fair Housing Council reports in 2009 and 2011). Housing discrimination (the practice of red-lining) in other parts of Portland concentrated African Americans in this neighborhood. Not coincidentally, the construction of the I-5 freeway, Memorial Coliseum, and Emanual Hospital destroyed hundreds of black-owned homes, churches and businesses. These projects, like improved bike routes, may technically be for everyone. But whom do they benefit most directly, who pays the highest cost, and who makes the decisions? Racism continues to affect this neighborhood, through the process of gentrification, where civic investment has largely benefitted an influx of white residents (like me!), while long term black residents can no longer afford to live here and are being pushed out to “the numbers” – streets far out in east Portland, where neighborhood connections are lost and African Americans often aren’t warmly welcomed.
One way that racism operates is that the people harmed most directly are the ones who see it most clearly. Those of us who benefit often don’t even see it. As a bike advocate, it may be easy to think, that’s history, this is now. But ignoring the pattern is being complicit in exclusion. You may not have been part of the history, but you probably do receive the benefits. And Portland’s African American community continues to pay the costs. There’s clearly a pattern, and the way a small group of white advocates were moving neighborhood changes forward quickly with limited community involvement was in keeping with that pattern. It is completely understandable that black folks are sensitive about more changes in their neighborhood.
There’s been a lot of talk recently in many different circles about “equity.” This is a chance for the city to show with actions that it’s serious about inclusion and racial justice. We can create a process that recognizes the history of institutional racism, that involves communities of color in decision-making, and that more equitably shares the benefits and burdens of civic projects.