09 19 2014
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Carole Smith with a Jefferson High school student

PHOTO: Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith with a Jefferson High school student (Lisa Loving)

The recent uproar concerning PPS Superintendent Carole Smith, and issues at the K-12 school Metropolitan Learning Center, have once again brought race into the forefront of public discourse.  As Socrates famously said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  If we are to acknowledge issues surrounding race, then we must not be afraid to examine them.  To state the issue clearly: race matters.  It matters in this city, our state, and in this country.  However, it is the why and how, the outcomes of the fact that it does matter, that this conversation must address.  Fear of examination does not make the issue disappear. 

There is a reason why Oregon State Statute requires culturally competent healthcare.  There is a reason why Oregon State Statute allows a legislator to request a racial equity impact statement for certain legislation.  There is a reason why the City of Portland requires an equity impact assessment during its budget process.  There is a reason why Multnomah County has an Equity Lens Tool.  Equity is about focusing on outcomes, not intentions.  Equity is a critical thinking exercise.  Equity is about being willing to have difficult conversations because race matters. 

Race matters, therefore culture matters, and race and culture impact outcomes.  In this country, the dominant culture and voice is male, white, heterosexual, and able-bodied.  This is not an indictment, it is not a criticism.  It is not calling everyone a racist, sexist, homophobe, or assuming everyone’s indifference as to the capabilities of people with disabilities.  It is an observation based on examination. 

Across the country and in Portland, children of color are disciplined, suspended and expelled at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts for similar behaviors. Race matters.  Culture matters.  The discussion surrounding MLC is about race and culture.  The history and culture of MLC were mentioned in previous Oregonian articles as important aspects to the school, and MLC was described as being founded on a philosophy and practice of “open-mindedness.” It “invited white and black students to enroll.”  If that history is no longer the case, should it not be examined? 

Black and White parents said that race is an issue at the school.  Some said that it is an issue, but not really a big issue.  This statement implies a luxury of not being a parent worried about whether their child should wear an afro to school, of being a parent not worried about whether their child’s English is good enough to participate, or not being assumed to be a relative of your child’s principal of color just because you are the same race. 

Race matters, and clearly is an issue at MLC.  Superintendent Smith has shown the courage to say that it does matter, that it impacts our children, and it should be examined.  We wholeheartedly concur.

Sharon Gary-Smith, justice activist and foundation director

Avel Gordly, retired Oregon State Senator

Gloria Gostnell, retired Portland Public Schools principal

Michael “Chappie” Grice, board member, National Council on Educating Black Children, and retired public educator

Dante James, director, Office of Equity and Human Rights, City of Portland

Judith Mowry, senior policy advisor, Office of Equity and Human Rights, City of Portland

Kathleen Saadat, retired City of Portland director and justice activist

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