Color matters
Author: Paige Parker
Posted: September 30, 2010

ANN CURRY-STEVENS, an assistant professor of social work, expected sobering findings as she began researching social and economic conditions of Multnomah County's communities of color. But what she found was worse than she anticipated: overwhelming, pervasive disparities between people of color and white residents.

The data shocked her. In measure after measure, Multnomah County's people of color lag behind white residents. On average, they earn half as much, and they're twice as likely to live in poverty. Nearly one-third of the county's people of color have not graduated from high school, compared to 7 percent of white residents. The disparities—many of which have their origins in Oregon's early history—are getting worse, and they're more pronounced in Multnomah County than in Washington's King County, which has similar demographics.

Curry-Stevens called the county "toxic" for people of color when she released "Communities of Color in Multnomah County: An Unsettling Profile" this spring.

"This research causes me personally to say, 'How did I come to believe Portland was progressive?'" Curry-Stevens says. "Our progressive identity gets in the way of naming racism."

The Coalition of Communities of Color, whose membership includes more than 40 culturally specific organizations in Multnomah County, requested the research.

This partnership between PSU and the coalition, says Curry-Stevens, is leading to research that is more robust, insightful, and powerful than if either entity was doing it alone.

Lee Po Cha, the coalition's co-chair, looked to PSU for demographic data on people of color, which he says is more sophisticated than the 2000 U.S. Census numbers. He calls the undercount of people of color in the census "unbelievable" and expects even less accuracy from the 2010 census because of changes in the survey format.

The report estimates that people of color make up roughly 26 percent of Multnomah County's population. That includes, from most populous to least, Latinos, Asian/Pacific Islanders, African Americans, Native Americans, and African immigrants and refugees. The Coalition of Communities of Color also made the unusual distinction of including the Slavic community because of the issues and disparities they face in Multnomah County.

PSU is working with the coalition on six more community-specific reports. Armed with better data, coalition leaders plan to press local governments for policy changes that, they hope, will reduce disparities and promote culturally specific services.

We spoke to four alumni and one master's candidate about the challenges they've faced as people of color living and working in Multnomah County. Having a college education means they've already beaten many of the odds highlighted by the report. And today, most of them are working from within Oregon institutions to eliminate racial disparities.

Margaret CarterThe slow pace of progress

When Margaret Carter '72 (pictured at left) won her house seat in 1984, it was the first time an African American woman had been elected to the Oregon Legislature.

A quarter century later, when she left the state senate, Carter was one of just three people of color in the 90-member legislature. That's not progress, says Carter.

"It is hard for women to raise money, and doubly hard for people of color to raise money," Carter, 74, says. "When I ran, it was a group of white people of goodwill who believed in me. They helped me raise money. They campaigned for me. And I don't see that happening anymore."

Carter's career was slow to take off. Carter says she worked for years in the counseling department at Portland Community College without being considered for an administrative position. All too often, she says, talented people of color are overlooked for promotions and other opportunities that could build their leadership skills and political connections.

"But I have hope... that white people of goodwill will get together, see who is not at the table, and do something about it."

Carter left the Oregon Senate in 2009. Her resignation to take a job as a deputy director for the Oregon Department of Human Services drew some criticism, but not because of her race. It was party affiliation and alleged favoritism that worried a few politicos—issues that those who wield power and influence regularly face.

Judy BlueHorse SkeltonEqualizing education

Judy BlueHorse Skelton '06, MA '08 (pictured at right) returned to school in her 50s and assumed she'd fit right in. After all, she'd spent 15 years working in schools and on education issues in such positions as cultural student support specialist for Portland Public Schools, a member of the Oregon Indian Education Association board, and a co-teacher for a Portland State Capstone course.

And yet, "I felt like an outsider in higher education. I was surprised that it was like a foreign language to me," she says.

A Nez Perce, Cherokee, and Chickasaw, BlueHorse Skelton says individuals at PSU offered her support, guidance, and encouragement. Her experience gave her greater empathy for young Native students and made her a better educator.

The problem, she explains, is that Native students rarely see teachers or other adults at school who share their heritage. Textbooks teach little about Native contributions to American culture, or they offer cursory, clichéd stories.

"When you don't find yourself in an institution, when you don't hear the stories that speak of you, you automatically disengage," she says.

Now an instructor of PSU's Environmental Education Through Native American Lenses course, BlueHorse Skelton says she's dedicated to improving the system.

"I compare it to a Nez Perce story, where coyote has to enter the belly of a monster to transform it," she says. "We have to go inside institutions, sometimes, to change them."

Jimmy Le and his sister Kim, washing a family carA life of open doors

For Binh "Jimmy" Le, Multnomah County has provided nothing but opportunities, making this 26-year-old's story a sharp departure from the Communities of Color report's findings.

Le '07, MPH '09 is the son of Be Le and Dung Tran, both Vietnamese immigrants. After settling in Oregon in 1975, Be Le landed a job at Columbia Corrugated Box, where he still works as a box maker. Dung Tran, who immigrated in 1980, is a homemaker.

Neither Binh Le nor his sister, Kim Le '09, spoke English when they enrolled at David Douglas District schools. Still, they thrived. Though he attended school with few other Vietnamese students, Binh says he never felt out of place or experienced discrimination. Both Binh and Kim were awarded PSU's diversity recognition scholarship, which paid their tuition for five years. Today, Binh is on the brink of pursuing either a Ph.D. or becoming a physician's assistant.

"We like to seek out opportunities," Binh says. "We don't wait for them to come to us."

In contrast to Binh Le's experience, the Communities of Color report found that profound differences exist for the local Asian community compared to whites. Nationally, Asian Americans tend to have incomes, poverty rates, occupations, and education comparable to or better than those of whites. Not so for Multnomah County's Asian Americans. According to the report, this community, in comparison to whites, is less educated, holds significantly more service positions and fewer professional ones, earns close to 19 percent less in family median income, and has 8 percent more of its children living in poverty.

Kory L. MurphyHelping to foster change

Oregon's Native American and African American children are far more likely than whites to be removed from their homes and, once in the foster care system, may languish there for years.

Kory L. Murphy (pictured at left), an African American graduate student in social work, is attempting to change that as an Oregon Department of Human Services analyst focused on child welfare racial equity. Murphy, 37, was born and raised in Portland by a single mother and a supportive extended family. He graduated from Benson High School, then played football and earned a degree in sociology at University of Oregon.

Murphy was identified as a gifted student in elementary school, which is rare in Portland Public Schools, where African American boys are disproportionately targeted for special education. Murphy says he had strong African American male role models in his family, at school, and in sports. Still, the conditions that allowed him to succeed are far from systemic, Murphy says.

Murphy's personal and professional experiences convinced him that Oregon's social programs must be overhauled to eliminate racial disparities, and that people of color must be involved in designing new systems.

"What happens more often than not is that we run on Eurocentric tracks," he says. "It is not just overt racism. Whoever is at the table when social policy is made, gets to shape that social policy."

Shelli RomeroSimmering prejudice

Being born to well-educated, middle-class activist parents all but determined that Shelli Romero MPA ’01 (pictured at left) would go to college and become a successful professional.

And so she did. Romero's now a commissioner on the Housing Authority of Portland Board, vice chair of the Portland Parks Board, and a public policy and community affairs manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Romero, 42, acknowledges that an advantaged childhood and her fair skin have protected her from hard-core discrimination. Still, she's experienced feeling less than welcome as a Latina in Multnomah County, most recently in the battle over renaming a Portland city street for Cesar Chavez.

"I'd go to public meetings and some of the things I'd hear out of people's mouths were just disgusting, hateful," Romero says. "At times, it made me disappointed and ashamed to live in Portland. It also gave me more drive and passion to do what's right."

Equity and social justice are tied to income. People of color are more likely than whites to be among the poor and working poor, Romero says, and those who are stuck in poverty are at a lifelong disadvantage. Removing the financial aid and admissions barriers that keep undocumented immigrant students out of universities could chip away at generational poverty and boost the economy, she suggests.

"We need a work force that these kids in a lot of ways cannot be a part of. We have all of these kids who are not contributing to the tax base in the way they could, and who aren't paying tuition the way they could."

Paige Parker is a freelance writer based in Portland.