Professor given $40,000 grant to study race

When Portland State Professor Ethan Johnson began studying Spanish in college, his professor suggested he go to Mexico for the summer.

When Portland State Professor Ethan Johnson began studying Spanish in college, his professor suggested he go to Mexico for the summer.

Johnson stayed a year and developed an interest in racial studies that he plans to pursue this summer with a $40,000 grant he received from the Ford Foundation. Johnson will use the grant from the Ford Foundation to study issues of race and culture in South America.

Johnson said the perception of race in the United States is much different than in South America. In South America, Johnson said race disappears and class becomes important. Black people make sense of race through their place in the class system in South America.

“We don’t see the diversity in blackness,” Johnson said of the U.S.

He said that issues of race in the U.S. cause the country to ignore other vital issues, such as class and gender. He plans on adding his research into his Ph.D. dissertation that may some day become a book.

This is not the first Ford Foundation grant Johnson has received-he was also granted $25,000 in 2003 that first sparked his dissertation for his Ph.D. The money allowed him to travel to Ecuador, where he lived for a year.

For this grant, Johnson will return to Ecuador several times over the summer: once at the end of May, once in July and once in August. This summer, Johnson will observe the “itinerant teacher” program, which provides mobile training in multiculturalism to teachers in Ecuador.

“They may let me participate in some way,” Johnson said. However, mostly he will be observing and taking notes.

When he first went to Mexico in college, Johnson said he was surprised to learn that many black people live in South America.

“I’m not considered black in South America,” said Johnson, who teaches in the PSU Black Studies Department. He said he became interested in the idea of race in Latin America, and the experiences of black people who live there.

Raised in Oakland California, Johnson grew up in a bi-racial home. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley, he then completed his master’s degree at Stanford University. He taught high school Spanish in California, and then moved to Japan for three years, where he taught English and Spanish.

In 2003, Johnson worked on his grant in the town of Esmeraldas in the Northwest area of Ecuador. Johnson said the majority of black people in Ecuador live in that area, and he studied how education and racial inequality were linked.

Johnson is expanding on that topic for his postdoctoral dissertation. Last November, he traveled back to Esmeraldas to observe the first-ever black studies program in Ecuador.

Now, he will be incorporating the progress of that program into his dissertation, documenting how teachers use the new ideas in their curriculum.

The Ford Foundation grants require their recipients to focus their work in diversity. The grant will allow him to focus on his writing until next spring, when he will return to teaching at PSU.

“I will miss my students,” said Johnson, adding that he has had a few challenges in the past year. He said that it was difficult to put all the time he would like into teaching, while still working on his dissertation.

“I think it’s a really great job,” Johnson said about teaching. He said it gives him variety and flexibility. Having grown up in a family of educators, he said it was the natural path for him to take.

When Johnson was working on his first project in Ecuador, he brought his wife and two sons along. Now he has three sons, ages 9, 6 and 3. Their art hangs on the wall of his office, next to the bike that he commutes to PSU on everyday.

Johnson said he plans to stay in Portland and hopes to continue teaching at PSU.

“I like it here. I’m not trying to uproot,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that Portland is quite a change from Oakland, where race issues were acknowledged and dealt with in a way that he said Oregonians don’t.

“Race isn’t even on the table here,” Johnson said.

Although he likes Portland, he said that racism hides behind the liberal rhetoric.

“A person said ‘We don’t have that problem here,'” Johnson said, adding that he thinks that is not true. “Segregation is huge.”

He applied for the grant in January, and then learned he had received it on April 18. His wife called him at school when the mail came.

“It was a big day,” said Johnson. “I got the big envelope.”