Members of the Oregon House of Representatives are speaking up after a series of comments made on the floor during a hearing earlier this month caused widespread concern regarding racism and racial equity.
“I wish that I could say I was more shocked,” Rep. Wlnsvey Campos, D-Aloha, told OPB. “But given the way in which things have gone just over the last few years, the way in which we have seen blatant racism, folks have really felt empowered to say those sorts of things.”
Campos is referring to comments made by Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, and former Rep. Mike Nearman during floor debates on June 2 over Senate Joint Memorials 2 and 4. The pair of resolutions ask Congress to delete language from the U.S. Constitution that says slavery is an acceptable criminal punishment, as well as urge federal lawmakers to re-examine reparations for Americans who are descendants of formerly enslaved people.
Both measures generated significant discussion and passed the House on nearly party-line votes with a few exceptions. These efforts are part of a larger effort by Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) lawmakers this session to address systemic racism and racial justice through bills tackling issues such as police reform, anti-discrimination, equity in housing, healthcare, education and many more topics.
But some lawmakers are feeling demoralized, and yet unwavering in their duty, after comments by their colleagues seem to seek to diminish their efforts at advancing racial equity.
During those conversations, Republicans and Democrats discussed the merits of the largely ceremonial efforts to lobby Congress to take action that Oregon lawmakers feel are in line with the values of their constituents and Americans at large.
House Majority Leader Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-NE Portland, told OPB she’s committed to helping BIPOC lawmakers in accomplishing their goals this session. She said it’s important to call out racist and concerning statements but also help educate, not ostracize.
“The truth is, when privilege is all you’ve ever known, equity feels like discrimination,” Smith Warner said. “I get that, and there’s a whole thing about, can you get people to acknowledge the racist system without them feeling guilty? Because when you feel guilty and you shut down, you deny it. ‘Well, it’s not my fault. I didn’t do it.’ And I think you heard a lot of that on the House floor.”
During a speech by Rep. Post, and two particular speeches by former Rep. Nearman — who last week became the first Oregon House member to be expelled from the body — sparked a wider discussion among Democrats over whether or not their colleagues understand why the two joint memorials are important to the broader work lawmakers have put on center stage this session in calling out systemic racism.
Rep. Post made a five-minute speech in which he got deeply personal, telling his colleagues that as a child he visited family in Arkansas and learned his family had once owned slaves.
“It was a terrible time in American history. A terrible time and I’m ashamed my family apparently took part in it, but it doesn’t mean I could vote for something like (SJM 4),” Post said.
Post went on to question why Oregon’s Congressional delegation, being largely a Democratic majority for the past few decades, hasn’t attempted to take up this work.
“Where’s Ron Wyden? Where’s Jeff Merkley? Why didn’t they move something like this?” He said. “I don’t think it’s our job… There’s a lot of things we should be ashamed of in America’s past, but we move on.”
Merkley, one of Oregon’s two Democratic U.S. senators, however, did co-sponsor a 2019 bill by Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, that would have established a commission to study and develop proposals on reparations.
Nearman’s speech during discussion of SJM 2 questioned the merits of the efforts in general, stating that he doesn’t think Congress ever actually sees these resolutions or takes them seriously, but that it’s okay for the body to express its will in such form.
Nearman said that he believes humans find their dignity in their productivity in whatever they do, from careers or being a parent to volunteer work and hobbies.
“When we take that away from people, that has consequences that go to the very depths of what it means to be human,” Nearman said. “I fear that this proposal, if it were to be enacted, would have those kinds of consequences. It would deprive people of their dignity.”
He went on to explain that he once visited the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem where he met prisoners who were working in the woodshop there. He said that the labor prisoners complete there provides them a sense of dignity and helps curb behavioral problems because prisoners don’t want to risk losing their “job.”
Nearman admittedly mentioned that those prison workers make pennies on the dollar for their labor.
“I’m going to be a ‘no’ on this bill in solidarity with the dignity of human people that need that work,” Nearman said.
Smith Warner and Campos weren’t the only two to reject what they heard on June 2. There were several other House members who were somewhat perplexed by what Post and Nearman had to say during those floor discussions.
Rep. Zach Hudson, D-Troutdale, rose to speak following both Nearman and Post’s speeches. In his address to colleagues, Hudson urged them to correct long-standing issues, rather than to deflect the problems many Oregonians are facing.
“To look simply for blame, to arrive at the easy conclusion that the blame doesn’t rest with us and therefore to wash our hands of it, is all too easy,” Hudson said. “We need to ask the question, was wrong committed? Do its effects still persist today? And given that they do, what do we need to do about it now. This memorial won’t fix everything, but it will send us in that correct direction.”
Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Happy Valley, said in her closing statement on SJM 4 that she came to the Oregon Legislature to be a “vessel” for the will of her constituents, and she asked the same of her colleagues in urging support for the measure.
Later that afternoon during the House member’s opportunity to give remonstrances, they rejected the notions put forth by Nearman, Post and others that spoke on the memorials.
“It’s important for all of us, especially those born with certain privileges, to listen and avoid substituting our own experience for those of others,” said. Rep. Jason Kropf, D-Bend. “Earlier we heard a desire to just move on from racism. Systemic racism and its impacts have not gone away. It isn’t something that happens somewhere else by someone else. It’s a system of oppression threaded through much of our daily life.”
Rep. Dacia Grayber, D-Tigard, told a story of an experience her son had at a mall near her district where he and a friend, a young Black man, were treated differently when playful teenage hijinks brought mall security down on them.
“No matter how well-intentioned, when we say, ‘I see no color,’ it invalidates the lived experiences and traumas of our Black, Brown and Indigenous brothers and sisters,” Grayber said.
Campos — who carried SJM 2 on the House floor — said Post’s assertion that Oregon and the United States need to “move on” felt like an erasure of the many racist incidents that take place in America every day.
She echoed comments made by Rep. Hudson that it’s her and other members who are committed to the responsibility of strengthening the dialogue around efforts to educate and inform people who might understand the underlying purpose behind these seemingly symbolic measures.
“We just had to expel a member of the body because of actions that endangered so many folks, in particular BIPOC legislators and staff. We see folks now comfortable wearing shirts with the Confederate Flag or driving around a few blocks from here,” Campos said. “So for someone to say, ‘Just move on,’ felt really as if there’s a lot more work to be done.”