Equity is About Justice

The murder of George Floyd, like every racist police killing that preceded it, hits every Black person at a deeply personal level. Every Black mother is filled with both rage at the murderers and fear for her children; and I am no exception. And yet, the anxiety and disquiet that I feel is heightened to a large degree simply by the fact that I am no longer a New Yorker (who happens to be Black); I am now a Black Oregonian. 

It is a strange phrase, particularly to an outsider; almost, but not quite, contradictory in its terms. Those of us who are Black know that the reason for this apparent contradiction lies deep in Oregon’s history, a history that is so present that it never allows us to forget how very different we are here. Barely 2 percent of Oregonians are Black — and we have always been here, even though the state was founded on the bedrock principle of keeping people like me out of their White Utopia.

Ever since I moved my family here, I have struggled with this reality. I grew up in New York, in the most diverse county in the country. Since then I have lived throughout the country. But never, until now, have I lived in a place that challenges me day-in and day-out with the question of belonging. 

Portland, of course, is an oasis of white liberalism. We often talk about DEI, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Aspirational code words that keep us moving forward but also words to which lip service is easily paid. I’ve been heartened this week to see my fellow Portlanders expand their vocabulary to call for justice for Black people and people of color. 

That’s an important step. But it is one this country has struggled to move through or beyond.

In recent days I have been contemplating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In it, Dr. King wrote that he had “almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

I can’t help but wonder the extent to which the well-intentioned “white moderate,” who Dr. King called out for standing in the way of change in 1963, differs from the well-intentioned white liberal of 2020 who extols the virtues of orderly DEI but can’t stick the landing on the messy work of justice. 

Equity is about justice. To achieve it, Oregon needs a diverse and fully-funded education system. Oregonians deserve a criminal justice system that prioritizes the well-being of people of color and Indigenous people, a system defined by courts and law enforcement officers that are affirmatively anti-racist. We need environmental justice and a new system of wealth creation. And to achieve inclusion we must ensure that all of these systems value Black Life. 

I have two Black sons, both in elementary school. This week, I began the first part of what will be a long, heart-wrenching and ongoing conversation with them about what it means to be young Black boys in America. The conversation about slavery. About Jim Crow. About white supremacy. About the origins of this nation, built atop stolen lands and genocide. The conversation that tells my boys, 155 years after Emancipation, that racist policemen still lynch Black fathers and brothers like George Floyd. The conversation that tells my boys that they are not safe in America. 

But there is another part to the conversation. The part that teaches them about the centuries-old legacy of struggle: about John Brown, about Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, about Dr. King and SNCC and Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, about Barack Obama and Black Lives Matter. And about the tens of thousands of diverse people who are rallying and marching every day, in every city in the country, including their own city, demanding change. Demanding something more than statistical diversity benchmarks. Demanding real policing reform. Demanding justice. 

Now here’s the story I want to tell my boys in the future. I want to tell them that 2020 was a turning point for this nation. It was when we turned from a shameful past to embrace the truth and make racial justice part of the fabric of America. This is when we created a new and fully-funded education system, a new criminal justice system, and an entirely different method of policing. When we saw inequality numbers go down and environmental justice go up. When we in words and deeds, policies and practices, valued Black Life.

That’s what this Black Oregonian wants.

— Michelle J. DePass