January 18, 2021

Racial Equity: Our continuous struggle

The Martin Luther King Junior Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The beginning of this new year is a time to reflect, but also — more importantly — a time to act.

As we pause today to honor the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., we must also take a moment to think — and be real — about the dreams we have for our shared nation. Dr. King once wrote, "Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle."

Although it’s taken our country more than 230 years to elect its first Black, South Asian and woman vice president and the state of Georgia its first Black and Jewish senators — we did it. This is a historic moment. Not because identity and representation are qualifiers for success, quite far from it, but because they show our nation that change is indeed possible, even for America.

James Baldwin famously wrote, "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

As a nation, we can't begin to dream about desegregating our education and housing systems or advancing environmental justice or reimagining safety and our criminal legal system, without first facing hard truths about racism and white supremacy that have taken root within our democratic institutions. Only then can the hope and joy that I know we all dream about in our shared future be actualized.

It is written on the Statue of Liberty that America is a home for exiles. It doesn't take us long to realize that America has long been the welcoming, safe and free home of white exiles from Europe, a home that has not evinced the same kind of maternal care and concern for Black people stolen from their homelands and forced into transatlantic slavery. It is no wonder that in one of their sorrow songs, Black folks could sing out, "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child."

What great estrangement and sense of rejection to cause a people to emerge with such a metaphor as they looked over their lives.

Nearly 60 years ago in Oregon, Dr. King came to Portland to advocate for desegregation. In the morning, he spoke at a Civil War centennial event at Portland State College, now PSU; in the afternoon, he delivered a speech at Lewis & Clark College. Then he met with community members at the home of Urban League President E. Shelly Hill, attended a gathering of Black faith leaders at the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church parsonage and closed the evening with a speech entitled "Facing the Challenge of a New Age," before 3,500 people at the old Civic Auditorium.

Dr. King’s speech at Lewis & Clark, which he called "The Future of Integration," declared, “We have come a long way toward making integration a reality, but we still have a long way to go," adding, “If democracy is to live, segregation must die. Segregation is a cancer in the body of democracy that must be removed if the health of the nation is to survive.”

Swap out racial injustice for segregation and Dr. King’s words are just as relevant today as they have been for generations.

We live in a participatory democracy. To upend centuries old systems of white supremacy takes collective, multi-faceted, long-game work and we don’t have to go in alone. I came to Oregon because equity is my struggle, that principle for which I agitate. This beautiful state, with a deeply complex and contradictory history, was created with an explicit purpose of racial and Indigenous exclusion. It still needs agitation.

For Meyer Memorial Trust, equity — which in essence is agitation — is at the heart of everything we do. Last year, we leapt forward to be more explicit about acknowledging that racial equity is central to our mission of a flourishing and equitable Oregon. We also created Justice Oregon for Black Lives, a five-year, $25 million initiative aimed at making strategic investments in the lives of Black Oregonians and hired its first director, D’Artagnan Caliman.

As a philanthropic institution, we understand that our nation has taken countless positive steps to actualize racial justice and racial equity. But over and over again, we trip and fall backward — by way of white supremacy, anti-Black racism and prejudice in all its forms.

Agitation is how we reconcile the distance between where we are now and living our ideals of equity.

In this moment, when despair threatens each day, I reflect and draw inspiration from Dr. King’s famous “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” speech at New York’s Riverside Church, in which he declared that “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” adding later that “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism.”

― Michelle

P.S. This year The Skanner Foundation will host its 35th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast virtually. You can register to attend the event for free here.