Some will have the inclination to reduce the discourse surrounding City of Portland Employee, Baruti Artharee and Multnomah County Commissioner, Loretta Smith to being only about sexual harassment. This would be a mistake. Underneath the emotionally charged and highly publicized incident are the festering issues of race, politics, history, equity, loyalty, the politics of friendship and their roles in the analysis of the behaviors exhibited by all parties.
Before going any further, we must say that Baruti Artharee was wrong. To reduce any woman to her physical attributes is inappropriate and repulsive.
Many members of the Black Community found this situation painfully divisive and disheartening. Numerous Black women and men felt torn between siding with the County Commissioner, a Black, professional female, who was publicly harassed and sexually objectified OR siding with the Black, professional, male in a leadership role with the City, who carried out the egregious offense. Some felt torn between openly supporting Baruti to protect him from the racial politics in our City or staying silent to avoid being a catalyst for the often disparate punishment meted out to Black men when compared to punishment of White men committing similar offenses. While acknowledging his wrongdoing, several within the Black community focused on what they believe to have been Baruti's intent rather than the impact. Most seemed to feel Baruti should not lose his job for his behavior. Regardless of the reasons why Mr. Artharee made these offensive comments, the objectification and denigration of women is not acceptable.
One of the prevailing lessons learned in this situation is the separation of personal and professional. In the city of Portland, when Black professionals come together with other Black professionals, especially those whom we have known for decades, we are excited by the rare occasion. We begin to chat more casually. We begin to speak more freely. We begin to use terms and say jokes that are culturally specific. Basically, there's a feeling of family. This event, although filled with a significant mass of Black professionals, was not a family reunion; it was a work function. When we blur the lines between professional and personal, offensive statements can escalate from hurt feelings to career suicide. Black and other professionals of color must be hyper cognizant of this reality because everything is on the line.
Another lesson is about leadership. We expect more from Mayor Charlie Hales. The Mayor's office is responsible for leading the City in the implementation of City Policy and for using his "bully pulpit" to influence the climate of equity and fairness among Portland Residents. We encourage him to be more visibly active in his leadership regarding issues related to equity and fairness. Moving forward we must learn to have intentional discussions regarding all of the diversity we find throughout our city including race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, and illness.
As the city begins to heal from this incident, Black women must leave the river of denial and speak up if we are to be heard. Refusing to talk about the problems within our community does nothing to help heal the scars left by our experiences ranging from denigrating words to physical assault. It is time to engage men in conversations about respect and how that translates into public policies that impact our economic, personal and professional wellbeing. Loretta spoke up. Now the question is: Will the next Loretta have to wait so long to be heard?
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere", said Dr. King. Because so much of Black history and so many Black lives have centered upon our demands for "Liberty and Justice for all" our community must NEVER tolerate sexual harassment.
Senator Avel Gordly
Kim Williams, Ph.D