By Jake Thomas
Authors of the “State of Black Oregon” report appeared before the Multnomah County Commission earlier today. Photo by Jake Thomas.
In August, the Urban League of Portland released its “State of Black Oregon” report, which detailed how the state’s African American population is at or near the bottom of almost every social or economic category.
Shortly after the report was released, Marcus Mundy, the civil rights organization’s CEO, began making rounds with policy makers to make sure they act to address the daunting challenges facing the state’s African American residents.
Earlier today, Mundy, along with three other individuals who helped author the report, appeared before the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners to urge them to take bold action to address the disparities facing black Oregonians.
Mundy pointed out that Oregon’s black population represents about 7 percent of the population state wide, but the report highlights how members of this small social segment face disproportionate rates of unemployment, incarceration, health problems, and a host of other maladies.
He asked commissioners how they would act if 7 percent of the county’s bridges were in disrepair, or if 7 percent of the roof over their heads was leaking.
“I think the answer is: You’d have to care; you’d have to act quickly,” he told the commission.
Mundy also invoked the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to express his concerns about how the report might be received.
“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding of people of ill will,” said Mundy, quoting King.
He mentioned that some of the issues addressed in the report were outside of the purview of the Multnomah County government- which provides social services, infrastructure, and other bread-and-butter functions for residents- but hoped they would provide some political leadership on the issue.
Carolyn Leonard, an education specialist who helped craft the report, also appeared before commissioners to point out that that too many African American youth weren’t meeting basic educational benchmarks, or were throwing in the towel on school completely. She argued that if an entire segment of the population was being left behind it would have consequences for everyone else.
“Change is occurring. It’s occurring too slowly, and too little too late,” she said grimly.
Shelia Holden, who contributed research for the report on the economic condition of the state’s African American population, told commissioners that she worried that people in positions to help address the problem would cling to traditional thinking and not embrace bold and innovative solutions to issues facing black Oregonians.
She called on the county to continue diversifying its workforce, and take greater steps to steer money toward black-owned businesses. Holden also asked commissioner to provide more training for green jobs, like building weatherization.
“The important thing is we see this as a ‘we,’” said Holden.
Speaking last, Tricia Tillman, administrator of the state’s Office of Multi-Cultural Health and Services and contributor to the report, said that Multnomah County described how African Americans suffer from high infant mortality, strokes, and low birth weight.
She noted that the county had taken some meaningful steps to address some of these issues, like low-birth weight, but could be doing more.
In particular, she hoped commissioners would look into providing culturally-competent healthcare for young African American males, and hoped that the county would look into the reasons for the health disparities.
“I think Multnomah County had done a good job of predicting or documenting rain, but an equal amount of effort has not gone into building an ark,” she said.
Mundy closed up remarks by asking commissioners to establish “zero tolerance” for racial disparities.
“I agree, let’s build the ark,” responded Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler, who said that more attention in particular needed to be paid to disparities in the justice system.
“Frankly it’s not the kind of conversation this community is going to have unless it’s forced upon us,” added Commissioner Jeff Cogen. “Most white people don’t want to believe that we still have racism.”
Commissioner Deborah Kafoury said that the county often congratulates itself for its innovative approaches to various issues, but sometimes needed to hear what it was falling short on.
“I want to thank you for coming before us and telling us we’re not doing a good job at because we need to hear it,” added Kafoury.