My view: Oregonians agree that state's racist past was wrong
In the 1990s, when I was in my twenties, recollections of the 1940s — Rosie the Riveter workers, the G.I. Bill, the lack of equal rights — seemed to me like fiction, encapsulated in a dream-like state of black and white imagery.
As I get closer to the age of 50, having gained a sense of how quickly a half century flies by, my perspective has completely changed. Now even the 1800s feel relatively recent, and I can feel and see the ripple effects and imprinting of the past everywhere I place my attention.
It was only two of my lifetimes ago that the Oregon state Constitution contained language that banned African American and Chinese people from moving to Oregon, and for those who already lived here, banned them from owning real estate, or participating in any contracts. Not until 1926 did the voters pass the removal of such language, with more than a third (37.5%) voting to keep this exclusionary language in place.
Similarly, on Nov. 8 Oregonians weighed in on a legislative proposal to remove from the state constitution a reference to state-sanctioned slavery as a punishment for crimes. Although it passed, more than 40% of voters (and a majority of voters in most rural counties) opposed the change.
Earlier this year, Oregon Values and Beliefs Center (OVBC) asked Oregonians to assess the level of fairness of historic race-based exclusionary laws in Oregon, as well as their level of support for financial reparations for descendants of enslaved African Americans.
Oregonians are mostly united in their acknowledgment that historic racial exclusion laws were not fair to African American Oregonians.
As we teach our children, if something is unfair, how do we make it right? One form of acknowledgement and apology that has had some success in the United States is financial compensation, commonly referred to as reparations.
Although no amount of money can mend the past, financial reparations are seen by some as providing an opportunity for a government, institution or family line to acknowledge harms done in their name, to apologize with a tangible offering to those who received unfair treatment. This is an option for Oregon, an option that would leave an imprint onto the structure and standards of the future.
Support drops for reparations
Although there was strong support among Oregonians that racialized exclusion laws were unfair to African Americans, when asked whether they support financial compensation to Black Oregonians who can document these harms, support lessoned.
Oregonians were asked in February: "Taking into account the ways in which Black Oregonians were historically left out of opportunities to 'homestead,' to own a home, or to attend universities, do you think there should be financial compensation offered by the state to repair these types of lost pathways to generational wealth to Black Oregonians who can document these harms?"
• Statewide, 39% say yes, there should be financial compensation offered by the state of Oregon to Black Oregonians.
• More specifically, 40% of both females and males, 33% of those 65 and older, 40% of both BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) and white Oregonians, and 47% of those with four-year or graduate school college degrees are in support of financial compensation.
• Oregonians are not firm in their opinion against financial compensation. Only about a third (29%) say "definitely no," while 17% "lean no." An additional 15% are unsure.
Comparably, Oregonians show a bit more support for recipients of reparations being community-wide instead of individual-based. When the framing of the question was changed to assess level of support for "state or federal economic stimulus payments to communities of color," Oregonian support goes up to 53%. Support is highest among those 18-29 years of age (62%) and those who identify as ideologically liberal (75-80%).
One common reason people do not support reparations is the worry that financial compensation would be too expensive and complicated. Past precedent shows these efforts do not need to be all or nothing to move forward — there are many examples of reparation projects implemented by universities, towns, states, religious institutions and the federal government within their budgetary limits.
As with all research, the questions this project answered inspire us to ask more questions, some of which we can ask now. Questions like:
• For those who do not support financial reparations for African American Oregonians, what are their reasons?
• Would having additional information about historic racism (such as exclusion laws), the documentation requirements of past harm, or examples of successful reparation projects affect Oregonians' feelings about financial compensation?
Some of the questions that arise are deeper, existential even; questions that we answer by planting seeds now and seeing what grows in the years to come.
• What imprint will our decisions today leave on the Oregon of tomorrow?
• What will future generations think about our values and beliefs now, in the context of their own society, 50 years from now?
We at OVBC will continue to research Oregonians' attitudes about these issues to determine changes in feelings over time as we watch our future unfold. Just as my lifetime beheld the invention of the smart phone, the legalization of marijuana, and a mega housing crisis, there will be unimaginable changes over the next 50 years.
Some Oregon lawmakers and community groups already have proposed offering reparations.
Where we find ourselves culturally and communally in 2072 depends on the choices we make now.
Robin Quirke is the research director of the Oregon Values and Beliefs Center, an independent and nonpartisan statewide opinion research organization. Quirke also co-directed the landmark study, Finding Common Ground in a Divided Culture. They live in Eugene.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.