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Who’s Zoomin’ Who?: Will Portland's Racial Equity initiative be just another empty exercise?

by | May 8, 2021

I’m not in Zoom meetings as much as a lot of people are, thankfully. But I am in them enough to notice the delicate reconciling between attempted professionalism and the acknowledgement of home life. At first, many of us fought the new reality of interrupting pets and forgetting to mute. Then, as the truth of poor Jennifer and I’m not a cat moments persisted, our new forms of clumsiness became more acceptable. This isn’t to say that our collective lack of self-awareness has diminished, necessarily. It’s just become more evident and tolerable. For instance, it is now cringingly obvious when people are pretending not to text during a Zoom meeting, but somehow it’s never obvious to the texter.

Back in March I wrote a column about Portland’s Racial Equity Steering Committee [RESC], a 13-member group tasked with creating a list of recommendations to the City Council on ways for Portland to combat systemic racism. The column explained how this idea is not new and likened it to the Kerner Commission, a similar group created by the Johnson administration as a reaction to the Long Hot Summer of 1967. The Kerner Commission’s findings were that Black people were angry because of white racism (Surprise!), and a series of economic and social programs, as well as a restructuring of American policing, were recommended as potential solutions. LBJ ignored the commission’s findings.

I left a few things out of that column. I didn’t mention the similar findings of many reports since the Kerner Commission’s. I left out the Department of Justice reports on the police departments of Ferguson in 2015, Baltimore in 2016 and Chicago in 2017, for example. I also left out the fact that the Kerner Commission itself wasn’t new. Just two years earlier, in 1965, the McCone Commission investigated the causes of the Watts riots. There were investigative committees for the Harlem riots of 1943 and 1935. There was even a Chicago Commission on Race Relations that investigated the causes of the Chicago riots of July and August, 1919.

This is why, when the RESC was formed, a thunderous sound akin to hundreds of busy bowling alleys could be heard all over Portland as Black folks’ eyes rolled. This is not to say the RESC has no value, or that the Black and brown people involved have misstepped in some way. On the contrary, their work is invaluable. Not only is the documentation itself absolutely necessary, but the effort alone speaks to the resilience of hope. It is something we as a people and as a country very literally cannot do without.

The problem is, as noted by influential sociologist Edward Shils, “two transmissions over three generations are required for a pattern of belief or action to be considered a tradition.” By this standard, over 100 years’ worth of commissions followed by inactive leadership certainly qualifies as an American tradition. It is now traditional of American leadership to ask 100-year-old questions with 100-year-old answers as though they’re new. It is now a well-established tradition of American leadership to cravenly behave as though problems are insurmountable when the obvious and very same solutions have been thoroughly documented for over a century.

And so, we must look to the Portland City Council to break this tradition.

During the City Council’s April 26 Zoom meeting, three members of the RESC, Councilor Pious Ali, Dr. Lelia DeAndrade and Dr. Samaa Abdurraqib, presented their report. As they spoke about the process and gave an overview of the report it became clear that some city councilors don’t understand that frequently changing browsers can be seen by the flashes of light on one’s face. Or the reflection in one’s glasses. Some councilors took the time to say all the right things about the importance of the RESC and its work, only to be interrupted by sounds of text notifications. One councilor was so involved in whatever he was texting that he didn’t seem to notice how often his phone was visible on-screen.

I don’t know what the City Council will do with the RESC report, but I am hopeful it will help them begin a new American tradition in leadership, one of focus and action. I am hopeful that one day we can stop rewriting the Kerner Report, and stop echoing the words of Dr. Kenneth B. Clark in its conclusion: “I read that report … of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts Riot.

“I must again in candor say to you members of the Commission — it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland, with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations and the same inaction.”


Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at


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