As a teenager in the Southern California punk scene of the early 1980s, I thought Oregon looked like the promised land. Growing up a poor urban Black male meant my life expectancy was already among the lowest in the country. In 1978, California’s white conservative voters had passed Proposition 13, which cut taxes and slashed social services. Poverty increased as crack and meth flooded our cities. As the country ferociously debated the so-called Reagan Revolution, the war on drugs put many of my peers behind bars or into an early grave. And the music scene that had been my haven turned into a battleground between racist and antiracist skinheads.
In 1986 I fled the big-city mayhem for a better life. Leaving behind my band (which would come to be known as Sublime), I traveled north with four of my closest punk-rocker friends to the college town of Eugene. I expected to find a kinder, gentler place, the Berkeley of the Northwest. It was clean; everyone was nice. But I couldn’t get a job. I’d been working since I was thirteen and had a nice thick résumé—day labor, fast food counter, gas station attendant, security guard, light construction, apprentice carpet-layer—along with a great smile and loads of charm. I applied at workplace after workplace, thinking, “It must be me.” I had no understanding of systemic racism at the time.
Finally, someone decided to take a chance on me. The only person who would hire this young Black male in liberal Eugene in 1986 was a conservative white Republican. Darryl lived on Wolf Creek Road in the foothills of the Coast Range, southwest of town, and worked for a weatherization company based in Coburg. I was the first Black person he’d ever met. We spent eight to twelve hours a day together, five days a week, installing insulation in crawl spaces under houses. What I learned, while working the jobsites with him and sharing our life stories, was that our lives and our values were not as different as they seemed. We both believed in hard work, fair work, and taking care of your neighbors. He enjoyed learning, as I did, and he had a general curiosity and humor about life. Neither of us was afraid to express our values, like embracing the unknown, being able to count on someone else, and being someone others could count on. We were alike in many respects, if not in how we cast our votes.
Fast-forward thirty years to 2017, at a white nationalist rally that took place outside the Waterfront Blues Festival in downtown Portland just a month after two intervening bystanders were murdered on a MAX train. I overheard a journalist asking one of the white nationalists, who’d vowed to “cleanse” the city of its liberal scum, “Why Portland?” Surely they knew they’d be unwelcome in this supposed progressive paradise. What this man said in response confirmed what I see every day underneath Portland’s polite veneer. Referring to the city’s status as the whitest major city in America, he said, “You’ve done what we could only dream of in Portland.”
During the timber and culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s, I saw the formation of a simplistic narrative about Oregon’s urban-rural divide that remains entrenched today. This false narrative tells us that “urban” and “rural” Oregonians—the meaning of those words varies depending on who’s talking—are divided by more than unites us. It tells rural folks that everyone in the city is on welfare and tells city dwellers that rural communities are awash in huge government subsidies. It convinces rural communities that cities wield disproportionate political power and city folks that rural communities punch above their weight politically. Egregiously, it tells us that racism predominantly resides and thrives in rural areas.
My experience, from arriving here in the 1980s to years of organizing to, today, returning to run the Western States Center, confounds that narrative. I spent eight years working with the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment to establish over 120 multidisciplinary task forces in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming, and I can tell you that, while hate crimes are more prevalent in cities than in rural areas, the rural ones always get more attention. They fit into the narrative. I often hear liberal folks talk about rural America in ways that remind me of how the community I grew up in was stereotyped and scapegoated. The words are different, but the meaning is the same.
Looking at the complexity of race in Oregon today requires us to step outside of that narrative. It requires us to go beyond the still relatively low proportion of people of color in the state as a whole or the relatively higher numbers in our cities. It means grappling with the diaspora of Portland’s historic Black community, scattered to the more affordable suburbs by gentrification and to opportunities in other states where racism is less complicated. It means recognizing the Tribal governments and citizens throughout this largely unceded territory and the significant immigrant and refugee populations throughout our cities and suburbs, small towns, and large rural counties.
My friend Moira Bowman, director of advocacy for the Oregon Food Bank, tells me what we need are real conversations about the specific and particular needs of different communities and geographies. “There are unique needs facing families living in both rural and urban environments,” she says. For instance, we know from the US Department of Agriculture that households in rural and urban areas experience food insecurity at similar rates. According to Feeding America, the national network of food banks, the percentage of household food insecurity in Oregon varies from 8 percent in Hood River and Morrow Counties to nearly double that—15 percent—in Lake County. This is a pretty wide spread, and one that complicates the narrative of a monolithic “rural” experience.
Percentages mask the number of real people we’re talking about, the neighbors and coworkers, the folks whose children go to school with ours and who attend our houses of worship. The number of food-insecure people ranges from 200 in Wheeler County to five hundred times that in Multnomah County, where 108,470 of my extended neighbors are unsure about the source of their next meal. And yet both Wheeler and Multnomah Counties have the same proportion of folks living this reality: 14 percent. There are more food-insecure people in Multnomah County than in Polk, Klamath, Coos, Umatilla, Lincoln, Columbia, Clatsop, Malheur, Union, Tillamook, Curry, Crook, Jefferson, Wasco, Baker, Hood River, Lake, Harney, Grant, Wallowa, Morrow, Gilliam, Sherman, and Wheeler Counties combined. But I’m guessing that few people in those twenty-four counties would say that hunger in Oregon is an urban problem—not when they see the struggles of their own neighbors.
The actions required to improve food security in Portland’s outer east side are not the same as those needed in Ontario, on the state’s eastern border, but hunger feels the same no matter where you live. Too few of us are talking about the common struggles of the family farmer and the mom or dad in the city working two or three minimum-wage jobs.
Our deeply embedded and largely unexamined notions of the “deserving” versus “undeserving” poor are fed as much by the false narrative of the rural-urban divide as they are by systemic racism and white supremacy. White family farmers are seen as sympathetic. But if they’re Latino, Black, or Native? Then they’re suspect. People falling out of the middle class due to catastrophic medical bills or job displacement are seen as worthy of support only when they’re white and their houselessness is brief. When the opioid crisis hit largely white rural communities in the past twenty years, it inspired sympathy and a rigorous search for institutional accountability, unlike the drug plagues inflicted on urban Black and Latino communities in the 1980s and ’90s.
So what do you say, Oregon? Can we retire the tired old narrative of the rural-urban divide?
The truth is, we know better. There are more people in Oregon’s cities and wide open spaces who are like Darryl, the conservative fellow who gave me my first job in Eugene, than who personify these false divides. We have far more in common with each other than we do with those who benefit from the income inequality that’s at the heart of the suffering in every corner of the state.
I’m not saying that we’re all the same. There are innumerable differences among Oregonians: those whose people were here before history was written and those who have just arrived; those excited by the new economy and those at risk of being swallowed up by the digital divide. I could fill this magazine with differences, and the least interesting and least informative would still be the prevailing notions of “right” and “left,” “rural” and “urban.”
On the national level, we see how useless these categories have become. We have a president who has broken all the rules; who is unrecognizable to anyone claiming the old-school label of “conservative”; who was voted in by folks who also voted for Obama or both Bushes.
The only way to navigate the absolute chaos of this unprecedented affront to the rule of law in our democracy is to move beyond the caricature of categories to the values that unite us. In this moment, when long-standing definitions of conservative/liberal, right/left, and rural/urban have largely lost their meaning, the only divide I’m concerned with is the one between those who value inclusion and opportunity and those who don’t; those who see all people as fellow humans with fundamental rights, and those who insist on the supremacy of one race, religion, or nationality.
For all of our differences across geography, race, gender, class, political party, and so on, we live in the same house. Inside this house we have lots of fights, passionate fights about how best to manage and build our house. Those fights are important. We can’t ignore them or pretend they don’t matter. But what we most need to pay attention to are the folks who want to burn our house down: the folks who don’t believe in an inclusive democracy where all people are free to live, love, work, and worship without fear.
Oregon has been my home for over thirty years now. Even when I left for Chicago and New York City, I knew I would return. No, it’s not an easy place to be a Black man, to lead a nonprofit organization in a state still so unused to Black leadership. But if I’m going to defend the house I live in, a house built on a foundation of values that unite us, I want to do it with the likes of you, in every one of Oregon’s thirty-six counties.
3 comments have been posted.
Thank you so much for articulating this. I’m Hispanic, and I moved to Portland from San Antonio, Texas about sixteen years ago. It was probably seven or eight years before I came to terms with the racism underneath Oregon’s mossy surface. Even still, after years of living, working, and going to school here, most of my friends are white. They’re wonderful, salt-of -the-earth types- warm, open-minded, accepting. I love them, but it is a vast difference from the multicultural, multicolored world I left behind. In recent years, things have changed as so many groups from different places and different cultures have moved in- and we are going to be so much better for it.
Nicole Carruth | May 2020 | Portland, OR
Thank you, Eric. Well-written, well-argued. In working and traveling out of Portland and around Oregon, I find so many kind people of different political persuasions willing to take time to chat and share their story. Of course, plenty of caricature outside Portland as well as inside. But it's a very tired trope, the urban-rural divide. It's time to put it out to pasture. We all need each other more than ever, in many ways: most urgently in resolving to combat a new wave of hate and anti-democratic fervor. I'm glad you came back to Oregon to help rally us to that cause.
Oakley Brooks | May 2020 |
Thank you for providing valuable thought and insight into the disparities in Oregon, which can be applied to the rest of the U.S., as well. I am going to share your astute article right now!
Sara Hickman | April 2020 | Austin, TX