In 2020, the local government I work for adopted anti-racism and equity as core values (alongside transparency, communication, collaboration and fiscal responsibility). This was, in part, in response to the pandemics of racism and COVID-19.
We have heard similar words before, including the 14th amendment, Civil Rights Act, and Voting Rights Act. Yet none would say that simply declaring it has ever made it true. Due to the country’s long history of white backlash in response to racial progress, it is easy—but simplistic and damaging—to reduce our experiences to only a “white” and “non-white” dynamic. We all swim in these waters and we may unwittingly uphold institutional racism or internalize cultural norms that stem from white privilege, xenophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and more. It takes active, dedicated effort to understand, address and work against structures that shape our behaviors and worldview more profoundly than we want to believe.
The increased attacks on Asians and Pacific Islanders are yet another in an unrelenting series of waves of anti-AAPI violence in this country, with its own history that must be understood alongside the history of violence against Black, Indigenous, and additional communities of color and identity.
Recently, we have called for more accountability from media and social media for their role in aiding and abetting hateful rhetoric that sometimes lead to hateful action. Undoubtedly, media has also delivered pro-social outcomes. This does not relieve us, however, from the responsibility of examining where it has led to individual and societal harm. Facebook and Twitter are not the hate groups or individuals that use their services. But they do provide a platform, the tools and unaccountable amplification processes that have, in some cases, directly led to violence. There are important civil liberties and civil rights issues here. There are no easy answers and there are many values that can seem to be at cross-purposes.
Local government also functions in some ways like Facebook: as a platform that provides the tools, processes and amplification that sometimes are directly related to harm and violence, as well as the common good. The long list of violence perpetuated against Asians, Pacific Islanders, and additional communities have been aided and abetted by all levels of government: exclusion acts, Supreme Court decisions, unequal protection, direct violence, etc.. While the City of Portland has acknowledged this history by declaring anti-racism a value, the declaration is only a start. And government has far more accountability to the public than Facebook.
From my vantage point, the attacks expose the way local government has set the rules and conditions for civic engagement that lift up or tragically fail global and disenfranchised communities that make this place home. The attacks expose how our public involvement frameworks and prescribed methods of participation reflect or undermine how communities seek to engage, and how these processes distort the distribution of influence and power. Our civic engagement systems directly impact communities’ participation and deliver predictably uneven outcomes.
The attacks further expose how these rules, conditions and frameworks directly impact people’s ability to walk down the street and simply belong. Today’s forms may not be as obvious as the Chinese Exclusion Act or Oregon’s Black Exclusion Laws, but they follow in their footsteps. These issues require political, moral, and multicultural leadership, not simply technical fixes or more process that deliver no outcomes.
The attacks expose the conditions and values we have embedded in our structures of government over generations. While it is hopeful that we have recently adopted anti-racism as a value, we must not let it remain only as a word on the page. Government has a history of violating words, even at the level of treaties between sovereign nations. The attacks—on many communities—must also reveal our collective will and courage to hold our public platforms accountable for delivering upon the values that we have declared.