This thing we call race

What are my thoughts on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? Sometimes I entertain myself with the question: ‘If he were alive today, would the world be different?’ I am unsure. What happened to the hopes of millions of people in this country who supported the work that he and others did? King died when I was four years old. My parents named my brother after him, as did thousands of others probably. Growing up, I can remember thinking that there is no way this can continue, and by that I meant the social and economic inequality I witnessed growing up in Oakland, Calif.; the wars we were fighting in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Grenada; Rodney King and the burning of parts of LA; selling arms to Indonesia to kill hundreds of thousands in East Timor, South Africa; and the general stealing of resources from underdeveloped countries. I believed that people eventually were going to see the light and just not accept what was happening to them, it was so clear.

Some things did change. There are more Black people and other racialized groups represented throughout our society than there were when King was alive. As a result it makes it easier to claim there is no longer a need for society to take race into account as a factor shaping the opportunities for work, housing, education, penal system and death, which lasted for about 20 years until the Reagan Era began. And with that, because race has been ambushing a social class understanding in our society since the end of slavery, class has had little chance to take its place as what ultimately shapes the life chances of everyone. There are even Black people who are intellectuals, politicians and judges that hold to the belief that we no longer live in a society based on racial inequality and discrimination.

The individual has stepped in and has put the genie (race) back in his/her box. The dominant themes, ideas and how many of us make sense of the world today are individuality, accountability, choice and meritocracy. I personally do not have to look far to know that this cannot be true. Through my teen and college years there was no way I would have made it without some loving guidance by my parents and a few self-appointed mentors. Growing up, I saw many of my peers who did not have what I had fall into death, drugs and institutions. As a high school teacher in Oakland, I witnessed much of the same.

Coming to Portland as a student/scholar of this thing we call race, I started looking into housing, poverty patterns, academic achievement and a little history. It’s my job. I was quickly reminded that some things stay the same. Portland mirrors the rest of America in regards to these issues. One of the most salient differences for me between Oakland and Portland is the proportion of White to Non-White people. There is little comparison; in Portland the proportion is much larger. As a result, for many people, race is not perceived as a problem. Very simply, many White people living in the Portland Metro Area do not have to live, work or even talk with Black people. Thus, the perception is that racism is (and has) not been a problem here, as one person said to me when I first arrived. Additionally, many Black people, because they are relatively a small minority, have had little voice and are sometimes silent because in order to make changes they have had to rely on sympathetic ears.

To tell you the truth, I have never been a really big fan of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I think about race and what it means to be a Black person everyday. I don’t think King cares much for it either. Now, I could tell you what I want, but I only have a page.

Ethan Johnson is an assistant professor in the Department of Black Studies. His classes and research focus on racial identity and discrimination, education and comparisons regarding the meaning of Blackness between North and Latin America. Currently he teaches two courses at PSU: Blackness, Identity and Education in the U.S. BST 416/516 and Introduction to Contemporary Ethnic and Race Relations BST 214. He also teaches a Black studies course at Grant High School.