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September 5th, 2001 | News Stories
 

What Derry Jackson Started

     
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Six weeks ago, Portland School Board member Derry Jackson uttered the words heard 'round the city.

"I see the Jews running everything," he told The Oregonian. "Today they run the country."

In retrospect, it's a shame that it was Jackson who spoke. He's now so thoroughly discredited, both for allegedly assaulting his wife and for not paying property taxes, that it has obscured the fact that his feelings about Jews--however hurtful or misplaced they may be--are shared by many in the local African-American community. For proof, you only had to attend a small community forum at a Northeast Portland bookstore on Aug. 11, where an audience of 35 people lit into Jews, whites and blacks who'd called on Jackson to resign.

What's more, the resulting maelstrom over Jackson's comments in Portland's Jewish and progressive communities has clouded over the city's far deeper racial divide.

There's no getting around it: At 78 percent, Portland is America's whitest major city. And, at 8 percent, the African-American population is comparatively minute--with most blacks concentrated in North and Northeast Portland. (Jews make up perhaps 3 percent of Portland's population.) Moreover, African Americans are still more than twice as likely as whites to be stopped by Portland police officers, and they are more than twice as likely as whites to do hard time in jail for comparable crimes.

And what's become clear in the last few weeks is that there is something bigger than a few ill-considered words mouthed by an elected official stirring things up. There's black anger. There's white liberal guilt. There are Jews who see in Jackson's words an assault on their right to exist.

But mostly there's race, and it seems that once white Portlanders get beyond trotting out their standard line of "inclusivity now, inclusivity forever," they are afraid of facing the fact that their good intentions have done little to improve the lot of the city's African Americans.

According to the most recent results, students at predominantly African-American Jefferson High School average 761 on the Standard Achievement Test; across town, at Lincoln High School, students average 1,160. Here's more: Whites in Multnomah County make $13,000 more a year than do minorities. Sit down and talk with African Americans and you'll hear the consistent claim that they feel unwelcome in a city that claims to include them. In fact, you'll hear that Portland is a stone-racist Honkytown and that the form of racism practiced here is so subtle that white people hardly know they're practicing it.

As for Jews, they have managed to assimilate at will--indeed, become part of the power structure--which may explain some of the tension.

In an attempt to understand such dangerous country, as well as the dynamic behind the heated reaction to Jackson's comments, WW asked members of the African-American, Latino and Jewish communities to sit down with us and cut loose.

The version of that conversation that follows has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Participants Alan Wone, 28 Poet and performer.
Dick Bogle, 71 Former Portland city commissioner and police officer, now a freelance jazz critic. James Posey, 55 Construction contractor, critic of the city's economic development programs in Northeast Portland. Stew Albert, 61 Longtime activist, Yippie and sidekick of Abbie Hoffman, as well as author of the '60s memoir Who the Hell is Stew Albert, to be published by Red Hen Press next year. Maria Rojo de Steffey, 56 Multnomah County Commissioner. Elise Marshall, 48 Deputy chief of staff and police liaison for Mayor Vera Katz. Alan Graf, 51 Lawyer, police-accountability activist and host of the KBOO-FM program "Rebalancing the Scales of Justice," Thursdays at 6 pm. David Walker, 32 WW film critic and publisher/editor of BadAzz MoFo.

  The Interviewers
Caryn Brooks, Arts and Culture Editor
Philip Dawdy, Reporter
John Schrag, News Editor
Mark Zusman, Editor

Willamette Week: Let's start with Derry. What was wrong with what he said?

Alan Graf: The basic thing that he said-the Jews run everything-that's the same type of language that was used by the Germans during the Nazi era to justify killing six million Jews. I think bringing up those sort of generalities is really dangerous and hurtful.

Isn't there some evidence that Jews control a disproportionate amount of power in this country?

Dick Bogle: It's a widely held belief among African Americans that Jews do control the entertainment industry.

Alan Wone: The other thing is, you can say whatever you want about white people, but once you say 'Jew,' that's the word that-ughh, that's the worst thing you coulda possibly said.... Michael Jackson had a song saying, 'Jew me, kike me,' and that had to be taken out.... He went back and re-recorded it.

Why do you think that is?

Wone: Because that's the fear that's been set in order from the controllers of the industry, and the controllers are primarily Spielberg, Katzenberg, Geffen.

Stew Albert: If I read [Jackson's comments] in a nationalist or Muslim publication on the East Coast, well, that'd be par for the course, that's the dysfunctional dialogue. But this is sounding out of place in Portland. It's undoubtedly true that a certain stereotype of the Jewish people circulates among blacks.... There are many Jews in a variety of positions of power in America. The problem is, if we talk about the Jews controlling this and the Jews controlling that, it leads into or provokes a kind of thinking where 'they're the elders of Zion who secretly meet and run things, with a common strategy.' Jews have been very successful in America, that's why Jews like America so much, because it's the least anti-Semitic country in the modern world and they've been able to take advantage of that, but there is no secret Jewish cabal.... You know, in the Jewish community there's a statement: two Jews, three opinions.

James Posey: I can't speak for all blacks...but black people can't afford to hate Jews. People who want to denigrate Jews are the same people who want to kill all the black people.... The most violently talked-about individual is Farrakhan. Even he pales against the white supremacists that are trying to kill off the notion of Jews.... So let's put this in perspective, we're on the same team.

The history of black people in this country is docile. There is no real evidence of us hurting anybody but ourselves.

Elise Marshall: One of the things that I want to get out on the table is the issue that really started this conversation with Derry, and that was about the disparate educational attention among majority and minority cultures in the Portland school system. That's what started this conversation. I actually have a theory that the whole reason this black-Jewish thing came up is because Derry and Marc Abrams don't like each other, they have a problem getting along together.... I just don't give a damn about what color anybody is on the school board. I do care that 65 percent of all African-American students going into Portland public high schools don't meet the standard of achievement.

I think the reason Derry's comments struck such a chord is because Portland-and Oregon-is inherently white. And people feel like, 'How dare that person'-or they probably use the 'n' word-'make a disparaging comment against Jews.' I think a lot of it is righteous indignation against Derry because he said something that people assume a lot of other black people think or feel.

What's really unfair to the African-American community is a question that Philip [Dawdy] posed to me the other day, which is, what is this divisiveness or what is this division among African Americans in the community over Derry's comments? And what I said was that's how we get characterized when we have a diversity of opinion, a different attitude, a different insight. Black people can't express different opinions without being called divisive or having problems within the African-American community, and the majority culture is afforded that opportunity, that luxury, that being able to have a diversity of opinion. And then we have a diversity of opinion-all of a sudden, there's a problem in the black community. James [Posey] is absolutely right...we need to be able to do the same thing that the white community does and speak as individuals in this community, because we are not all the same.

Posey: This is the part where I come in on and certainly agree with you: It is a power-structure issue, because...clearly we know that these kids, when they go into this school system and they come out at the end without any skills and abilities, then what we're really gonna be faced with...in slavery times they had what you call sharecroppers...black people are sharecroppers in this community. They don't have any control, they get what's left.

Bogle: Yeah, the whole thing about Derry is moot. ... The heart, to me, of race relations in Portland is not any conflict or tension between Jews and blacks...it's between African Americans, and the overall white population.... I saw a story this morning that talked about the disparity in income of educated people-what is it, $50,000 for an educated white person doing the same job as an equally well-educated African American getting $37,000? That's the big picture right there. You can fix the schools, you can educate the kids and they can come out as finished products, but if that's the situation they face, number one, it's wrong, and number two, they'll leave here and we'll have a black brain drain. That's not the fault of Jews.

Graf: Well, I think that if you are a minority who has felt oppression and then assume a position with power after that, you have the duty to use that power to help everyone who is oppressed to rise up beyond that oppression. You have an extra duty when your race or your culture has gone through that, and so, when the Jews say 'never again,' that should apply to every race, every culture, every religion. So I think Jews especially should understand what it's like to be on the receiving end of the stick.

Albert: I've heard that before and even half-believe it sometimes. But it is problematic because it does put a special thing on Jews to be better than everyone else. To be a super-people, you know. A lot of Jews have been oppressed, and now that they are doing better, they say, 'Well, I'm going to enjoy life. I had it rough in Russia back in the shtetls. Now I'm here and I'm doing OK, I want to enjoy life.' People who've been in the concentration camps-many of them are very bitter about human nature and aren't going to be saints about it. So you're setting up sort of a risky category when you say Jews have a special responsibility. They have the same responsibility as every human being. Including blacks who've been down and then risen up. Same responsibility. No more no less.

Let's change direction. Is this a racist city?

Maria Rojo de Steffey: Let me give you example of racism in this city. This is a true example I've faced often. I walk into Nordstrom's, Meier & Frank, and I get followed, because they want to make sure I'm not gong to steal something. That is pure racism to me because I am brown. I live in Northwest Portland, I go to those little shops on 23rd Avenue, and I watch who they're watching-and they only watch me, 'cause I'm the only dark-skinned person in the store. That's racism, flat-out.

James, you said something at the meeting of Reflections [Bookstore, on Aug. 11] that stuck with me, and it was on this theme: You said to people there that you were under attack, whether you know it or not. What do you mean?

Posey: We're behind. Black people are way, way, way behind. If we started today, from a equitable standpoint, we still would have a hard time keeping up. And I'm talking primarily economics here, 'cause let's just put it into perspective: Economics has to do with power, has to do with relationships, has to do, most importantly, with respect. White people in this town don't necessarily respect black people in the same sense that they respect everybody else, whether they be Jews or whoever else, 'cause respect is based on this neutrality-which, by and large, black people don't have in this city.

Wone: I get pulled over twice a week going into Northeast Portland. I get pulled over all the time in Northeast Portland, Hillsboro, Gresham. I have no criminal record but it's a consistent situation that goes on, not just for me, but for everyone in my age range, and we are the targets: These hats, these shirts, these pants and the way they're fitting.

Posey: My point is this: We have to hold mutual respect for one another.... I can't always be begging and you can't always be giving and [still have] you respect me. I can't be the subject of The Bell Curve, while you're going to MIT and creating whatever. I can't always be down here and you're always up there...and you respect me and we have a cordial and mutual respectful relationship.

Graf: I've gone through this with Mayor Katz for a long time, and I've said a number of times that if the police were picking up people off the streets and racially profiling them because they were Jews, the City Council would be doing a helluva lot more than appointing some placebo police-review board. They would actually be doing something and acting a lot stronger instead of giving lip service to racial profilers.

Marshall: Alan doesn't have any credibility with me in a lot of ways, and I don't mean Alan personally, but white people-since Alan can't be racially profiled, since you can't be racially profiled. We in the African-American community appreciate support from everyone in this community, and I think we get a lot of support, but...I resent greatly when white people want to tell me how it feels to be racially profiled, because they've never been stopped by the police because they're black. So their credibility only goes so far with me.

James, you were getting at something I wanted to segue into, which is there's something else coming at blacks and Jews, but in particular blacks. What is it? You said it was another force...

Posey: Another force that's coming at blacks?

Yeah, you said it was the same force coming at blacks that's coming at Jews...

Posey: White supremacy. ["Yes!" and "Absolutely!" come from all sides in agreement]

When you say white supremacy, do you mean the [Aryan Nations] people at Hayden Lake up in Idaho, or do you mean regular white people?

Posey: Naw, naw, let me just break it down to you: White supremacists are those individuals who want to maintain the status quo.

Elise, you're an African American; you work for Vera Katz, who is Jewish, and was very clear in her response to Derry. Did you feel personally conflicted with her response to Derry and her objection to what he said?

Marshall: ...I happen to know through my parents, through education, through history books and my own passion for the civil-rights movement, that Jews helped finance the civil rights movement.... I'm aware that Jews helped provide legal defense for the civil-rights movement; I'm aware that Jews were hung for helping African Americans in the South for the civil-rights movement. I have that history...so my feelings about his comments were no different from her feelings about those comments: I felt exactly the same way she did.

Albert: Part of what's really awful about Jackson's comments is that it distracts people from looking at the structure and system of racism.... When Jackson made that comment, he wasn't only hurting Jews or Jewish kids who may be in the public-school system knowing that someone on the board is an anti-Semite, he was hurting black people-yeah, he was-because he was misdirected, and that's one of the worst things about anti-Semitism: when it pops up in a black venue.

Derry's comments came in a conversation about disparity in school achievement and the underlying sensibility that Jews or people in power are holding back those who are not. From a resource point of view, in the last six years a lot of money has been poured into Jefferson High School, and yet achievement is still very poor. What responsibility do blacks have for this?

Marshall: Anybody who thinks that resources is the problem is stupid.... That's a stupid comment to make, because I'm a product of Portland public schools, and I have family members in Portland public schools, and I think I know one of the major problems with Portland public schools-and it's called apathy. There is a distinct difference between how people are taught at Vernon and King and how people are taught at West Sylvan and Alameda. And anybody who says that's not true is a liar. Or misunderstands. It has nothing to do with money, it has everything to do with your commitment to the schools. There are white teachers at Jefferson High School who at 2:45 duck and run to their car and get out of that neighborhood and get home safely as quick as they can, because they felt like they were ambushed sitting over there from 7 in the morning till 3 at night. They don't care.

It's one thing to say we all have to do for ourselves; that's fine, I agree with that. It's our responsibility to pull ourselves up by the bootstrap, I don't have a problem with that, but if the white person earns $50,000 and I earn $25,000, then it's not my problem anymore.

When I started working for the city back in 1979, there were plenty of black people working for the city. There were so many black people in City Hall, it was like a party. I look around City Hall now and I can't find a brother or sister to chat with. They ain't there. They're gone, and what happened to them, happened to them because they were not afforded the opportunity to continue to move up. They were pushed out of the organization, and it was a pathetic thing to see happen, and I've watched it for almost 25 years.

What about the African-American teachers?

Marshall: I think the struggle was that it takes a culture of a school. I think the success of West Sylvan is the culture in the school: the principal who sets high standards, the teachers who have to meet those high standards, the parents who have to meet those high standards. It's not an individual; it's a culture within a school, where those students are there to learn and those teachers are not gonna let them out of there without learning. I had children at Whitaker Middle School tell me that they went to the principle to say, 'Hey, we heard there's gonna be a fight after school,' and they reported they saw the principal running to his car to get out of the neighborhood before the fight at the Mister Burger on the corner started. And kids in that school knew that the principle did that, knew that he didn't care, knew that he wanted to get out of that neighborhood. He didn't live within the inner city, and he's gone to another school district. He blamed it on a lack of support from the school district, and that might be true, but what I'm saying is that if you really want to get back to Derry's frustration, I haven't heard anybody-white, Jewish, black, Hispanic, Chinese-in this community say that they don't care if African-American students or Hispanic students aren't educated properly. What I see is apathy from people.

Let's get back to Derry's comments. What if he had said the same thing, that Jews control everything, but he had used a different minority, like, say "Irish." Would it have created the same backlash, or would it have just been thought of as a stupid comment?

Posey: You know, on the East Coast you can distinctly tell Jews culturally from white folk back there. We get into this issue of whether Judaism is a religion vs. a race and all that, but the reality is Jews back east are really known to be Jews. Here, I can't tell you from a Jew, but can you tell me from a black person? Well, Vera Katz is a Jew, [but to blacks] she's just another white woman running the City of Portland. Nobody would even think of her being a Jew; I didn't know Dan Saltzman was a Jew until he volunteered it. But I don't have the luxury of telling anybody, 'Hey, I'm a white guy'...you see my point.

Marshall: I know for a fact in Portland there are a lot of African Americans who don't know a Jew from a white person.

Albert: Most white Portlanders don't know the difference.

Try asking for matzoh at Fred Meyer...

Albert: They think it's cheese!

Marshall: When I go to Washington, D.C., and New York and Miami and Houston and San Francisco and other metropolitan areas, I feel so much better. And the reason I feel so much better is because I don't stand out, you know I'm not a novelty. I can go to the (Oregon) coast, I can go 60 miles away and have people stare at me.

David Walker: You can go 60 blocks.

Marshall: I went into a restaurant up in Washington near Mt. Adams just a couple weeks ago. I went into the restaurant to get directions, and all six people in the restaurant turned to stare at me, to the point where I said 'Hi' to everybody. Because I was scared-it scared me that everybody was staring at me. So you gotta understand that being an African American in Portland is an uncomfortable position to be in, because you're not just the minority, you are a really minute minority. And what I really resent is when you guys [the media] want to know how the African-American community feels about an issue: Go talk to the African-American community, go talk to a number of people. Don't talk to the same 10 people over again, because as I said earlier, it's really important to understand how you minimize the rest of us, how you marginalize the rest of us, when you have your go-to people. And I can't say it enough, because my parents instilled this in my head: It's what they did in the South. White people in Portland do what white people in the South did. They have their house Negroes, the Negroes good enough to come and work in the house, and usually they're light-skinned,and they might be able to read a little bit, maybe the Bible a little bit. And then you have the field Negroes who aren't allowed to come into the house, and that's how we are treated in Portland.

Walker: Portland as a city, we're 30 or 40 years behind the times. So the statement that Derry made is a huge deal in this city, 'cause it's so new...if this had come out in New York, it wouldn't have been that big of a deal. What we are seeing now is a growth and a changing process that's going on in this city. What James [and Elise are] talking about-this plantation mentality and sharecropping, and also the house Negro and the field Negro-is all problematic to a city that is still out of step with time.... And we're just now starting to feel the sting that other major cities felt 20, 30, 40 years ago.... It's not necessarily going to get any better. You kinda have to go through that baptism of fire.

Posey: Portland veils itself as a progressive city and 'We're tolerant, we're so tolerant.' The worst form of racism that you can possibly encounter is for people to placate you and become paternalistic with you about really where you're trying to go and what you're like.... (But) the majority of white community....why should they care? Ask the question: Why should they care, if no one's having a race riot, if it doesn't interfere with their comfort of living, then they go to Lake Oswego? Why should they care-they can go to the Beaverton mall, they don't have to go to the Lloyd center. Why should they care?

Walker: There are too many black people that are concerned about how racist white people are or how white people aren't doing anything for them.... I don't give a shit that white people aren't doing anything for us. I'm an American, OK, and I happen to be black. I believe in the American ideal, which is, if you want it, take it. We sit around and bitch and moan, and I see this a lot in the black community about what we're not getting and...they're not gonna give it to us.... Why should they give it to us? If the roles were reversed and we were in power, and I was the most powerful black man in the city, if I was running the city, I wouldn't necessarily want to give any of it to white people. We're an oppressed people, what are we gonna do about it? I gave up a long time ago expecting white people to deliver us from white people's evils.... We're gonna have to deliver ourselves. Superman is not gonna be a white guy flying into the ghettos, saving us from a burning building.

Nevertheless, Derry's comments were an expression of a frustration against those who are perceived to be in power.

Posey: 'Cause black people are sharecroppers in this community. They don't have any control; they get what's left. It really frustrates me that we as black people can't even speak because the media is the way in which we are speaking, and you're going to put this piece together, and you're going to put it together the way you want.

 
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