Critics wonder why Gov. John Kitzhaber booted two members off the Oregon Commission on Black Affairs last year -- but the governor refuses to explain why he did it.
By Lisa Loving Of The Skanner News
The chair of the Oregon Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs this month officially apologized to Gov. John Kitzhaber for making racially insensitive comments about Black students and their families during a public hearing.
Meanwhile, state officials have still never explained why they booted two men off the Oregon Commission for Black Affairs last year with an announcement of an "investigation" that also involved a third commissioner.
A spokesman for Kitzhaber reconfirmed that he has no comment about the firings or about what the investigation involved or concluded.
The most recent snafu for the advocacy commissions involves Stephen Ying, chair of the Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs and co-chair of the Oregon Council on Civil Rights.
In a public budget hearing March 11 in which members of the state advocacy commissions testified before legislators, the commissions' administrator, Lucy Baker, described a collaboration between the Hispanic commission and the Oregon Education Investment Board in examining race-based disciplinary disparities that The Skanner News has reported on in the past.
A recording of the hearing shows that after Baker's testimony, Sen. Doug Whitsett, R Klamath Falls, raises the rhetorical question of why Black and Hispanic students are disproportionately singled out for school discipline compared to Asian students.
Here is a transcript:
Whitsett: "This paper is a very interesting dichotomy on that last sheet. On the advocacy policy briefs. You're looking at 16 percent Black/African American students being disciplined and 11 percent of the Native American and Alaskans, nine percent of Hispanics, 2 percent of Asians. Has your commission looked at the reason why the discipline of the Asian and Pacific Islander community is about less than a third of that in the Caucasian community? And tried to make some…"
Baker: "Sense of it?"
Whitsett: "To make some conclusion as to why they are less than one eighth what they are in the Black community?"
After being invited to explain his opinion on the disparity by Baker, Ying then goes on to say:
"I think that Asian – the culture-wise—is they are disciplined strictly, at home and at school too. I think they are more aware of not being—they have to be strivers for the highest score in school too and also discipline-wise. They – culturally -- they do discipline strictly at home and probably at school too. Myself (undecipherable) way to teach our Asian kids, you have to strive to the highest score and discipline at home and at school."
On the recording, Whitsett replies, "That does make sense." He goes on to ask Baker, "I would like to know what your agency has been doing to try to meld those two different cultures together and understand the difference and to make a difference between the cultures?"
Representatives from the Black and the Hispanic commissions then, gently, go on record suggesting Ying's observation is off-base.
"We can't just blanket the issues of looking at a high percentage of Hispanics and say we don't have the disciplinary patterns and routines of Asians," said Andrea Cano, chair of the Oregon Commission on Hispanic Affairs. "There's a lot more complexity than that. This is just the start of the discussion."
"First of all good question, excellent question, there was an article in the New York Times last week that talked about this very subject," responded Oregon Commission on Black Affairs Chair Isaac Dixon. "It's become such a subject of study and investigation that the US Department of Civil Rights has opened a discussion into it.
"There's something going on and the pattern is so widespread and so consistent across the United States that there's more than just – our kids are disciplined at home," Dixon said.
(On a related note, last year's report from the Coalition of Communities of Color, "The Asian and Pacific Islander Community in Multnomah County: An Unsettling Profile," found that, "Multnomah County's Asian and Pacific Islander communities fare far worse than their national counterparts. From education to health, earning power and more, the county's more than two-dozen Asian and Pacific Islander groups have more in common with other people of color than with Whites." )
In his apology letter to Kitzhaber, dated April 2, Ying writes:
"Thank you for letting me know about the response your office has received regarding my reply to Senator Whitsett's question around discipline during our budget hearing. My comments were from my personal experiences in my own family and not intended as the answer to the disturbing disparities in school discipline between students of color and white students. I care deeply about equity, and education in particular is a priority for OCAPIA and for me. I regret not addressing my remarks in broader terms.
"Because of the power of the moment and because I felt put on the spot, I didn't have the wherewithal to own how hurtful that question was, not only to me but to other people, namely African Americans. Instead, I stumbled through an answer based on my home experience.
"This experience underlines for me the impact of framing questions in racial ways that pits African Americans against Asians. The most important outcome for me is to recognize that such questions don't yield the powerful discussion or answers we need and do not help our children in the end."
Controversial former Women's Commission Chair Sue Castner fired off a letter to state officials about Ying's comments.
Castner, who is Asian American and is now a Florida resident, made waves a few years ago over how fundraising dollars were spent after her departure from the Commission. She supports the two fired Black commissioners -- as well as a women's commission member thrown off that panel by some of her fellow commissioners -- and is vocal in demanding more transparency from the state.
She says Ying's comments bolster the model minority myth – and she wonders if there is a double standard by state officials regarding advocacy commissioners' behavior.
"Whitsett's idea of 'melding' two or three different cultures is repugnant to me," she told The Skanner News. "As if a Black or Asian or Hispanic is inherently lacking in something and can be improved upon by 'melding' with a superior race or culture.
"I don't know if any commissioners really objected to this," she says. "If I was there, I would have laughed out loud. But IF a commissioner objected, they risk their funding."
Last summer Kitzhaber booted off the Black affairs commission former chair Cliff Walker and Commissioner Willie Woolfolk. Commissioner Lorraine Wilson of Hermiston was also investigated, but state officials even now refuse to say why or what the investigation involved.
Kitzhaber spokesman Tim Raphael last week said there would be no comment on the status of that situation.
Castner – an outspoken critic of the Commissions' operations – points to an unfavorable report on all the state's Commissions last year by the Oregon State Auditor which underlined financial irregularities and a lack of oversight as compromising the panels' contribution to state government.
She is also critical of what she describes as the Commissions' no-show in achieving Tuition Equity for undocumented college students, a watershed achievement of the 2013 legislative session.
Online documents listing those who testified before the legislature on HB 2787 appear to indicate a lack of involvement by Oregon's Advocacy Commissioners with the exception of Rep. Lew Frederick, who serves on the Commission for Black Affairs.
Castner finds this to be an important point.
"HB 2787 will unequivocally assist some undocumented immigrants receive in-state tuition," Castner says. "The advocacy commissions are seated to advocate for these underserved constituencies.
"I'm curious as to whether or not this was intentional or if it merely fell off their radar screen," she says. "And it answers the question: would these underserved communities be hurt if the OACO didn't exist? In terms of tuition equity, obviously not."
Lew Frederick disagrees.
"What I am very pleased about right now is the fact that the commission is looking at real issues," he said last week. "You have James Morris and Isaac Dixon saying, ok what can we have an impact on and what can really have an impact on the community?
"Economic development, housing, health care -- they are actually looking at those issues to see where we can have an impact. Not a symbolic impact but a real impact in supporting legislation that really does something," Frederick says.
"So when all these people were saying this commission isn't doing anything – they were right.
"It hasn't been doing anything for years but now that's changing."
Find out more about the advocacy commissions by going to their website.