May 24, 2017

Roots of Oregon’s White Supremacy: An Interview with Scot Nakagawa

On Saturday April 29th, over 100 White people came to 82nd Ave chanting "USA", "Go back to where you come from", "Trump", and other racist and anti-immigrant attacks. APANO members and staff observed the march and hateful rhetoric that started at Montavilla Park and ended in the Burgerville Parking lot past Eastport Plaza. APANO condemns efforts to target and intimidate our communities, has called on our electeds to speakout, and we continue to organize with residents to counter hate and work for social justice.

In addition to engaging with our members, APANO is lifting up the history of White Supremacy and the ways our community can resist and transform. Our Executive Director Rev. Joseph Santos-Lyons sat down with Scot Nakagawa the week after the April 29th White supremacist march. Scot is a long-time organizer and thought leader in fighting White nationalism, White supremacy, and intersectional forms of oppression for a generation in Oregon. Learn more about Scot’s work with ChangeLab that explores how our nation’s changing demographics affects racial justice work.

What brought you to Oregon?

I was born and raised in rural Oahu where I worked in social services for a few years right after leaving high school. I was pushed out of direct service provision by Ronald Reagan era funding cuts and restrictions on community-based organizations. I moved to Corvallis in 1985 where I worked at a multi-service community-based organization, but found it wasn’t a big enough town. I wanted to dig into a bigger city where I could spread my wings as a gay person.

What was one of your first experiences encountering White Supremacy in Oregon?

It was the 80s, not at all a warm and friendly time for Asian Americans. I was riding a bike home from work at Burnside Projects and I was as attacked by neo-Nazi’s. A truckload of white teens with sticks and bike chains starting following me and shouting xenophobic and racist taunts. I was near the then under construction Hollywood Fred Meyer and was able to escape through the construction area. It was a brief, scary moment.

I filed a report with the Portland Police Bureau, whose official position was there were no neo-Nazi’s in the City of Portland. My complaint was swept under the rug. That made me want to fight back. I joined the Coalition for Human Dignity, a Portland-based, statewide organization dedicated to exposing and confronting vigilante white supremacist groups statewide and soon became the group’s first staff. The CHD was a member of the National Anti-Klan Network, a group founded by the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a civil rights veteran. We named neo-Nazi activists, groups and strategies in Oregon, while organizing a base of opposition grounded in LGBTQ communities and communities of color, faith-based groups, and white anti-racist progressives in our state.

What are the roots of White Supremacy in Oregon?

First, we want to be careful not to exceptionalize Oregon because White Supremacy is part of our national heritage. Oregon is just one of the places where racist anxieties of early settlers resulted in the establishment of racial exclusion laws that first expelled and then excluded Black people and made it very difficult for people of color generally to live and work in Oregon. Those laws remained on the books until the 1920s.

For this reason, I suggest that we think of Oregon as a magnet for White flight from the rest of the country, not just from 1844 until the 1920s, but in the decades since then. Even after the laws fell, the unusual whiteness of Oregon made it kind of like a suburb, or maybe ex-urb is a better term, where white folks seeking a cultural homogenous community went to settle.

The author, Rich Benjamin, describes a similar dynamic in his book Searching for Whiteopia. Oregon is kind of a more complicated version of that phenomena on a national scale.

Particularly after the abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War, many whites pushed west to escape the movement of African Americans from field to factory fearing their labor would be degraded by competition from Black workers. The Oregon migration stream was driven by white supremacy in a couple of ways. Of course there was straight-up racial hatred involved. Given the period under question here, of course there would have to have been. But white supremacy isn't just a set of racist attitudes, it was a legally codified system of racial exclusion and exploitation that allowed rich white men to grow a whole lot richer because of the slave trade and slave labor, making it next to impossible for those of lesser means to compete with them. Many of them made their way here to settle in Oregon, attracted by Oregon’s ban on slavery which assured that Oregon’s white settlers would neither have to compete with slave-owning capitalists nor with freed blacks.

I think it's too easy to just focus on racist ideas in this story. Instead, I suggest we think of the migration of White people, their Westward settler expansion, as a series of expulsions and genocides driven from the top-down and not just from the bottom-up. White settlers were forced to migrate to avoid no-win competitions with major slaveholding enterprises and pushed West where many were enlisted in “Indian removal.” When Oregon was settled in 1844, settlers’ fear of Native people and distaste for slavery combined, causing whites to fear that Blacks and Native people would ban together against them, a situation that seems pretty logical as whites were gobbling up Native people's lands.

I don't want to sound like a broken record, but it's very important that we understand that slavery was the engine of capitalism in this time. This underlines the connection between race and class. Preventing slavery from being part of Oregon’s economy prevented slave-owners from pushing independent farmers and others out of the market.

These same Free Whites were also being forced into Indian wars, seeking wages, fueled by racism and fear towards Indians, driven by government policy to capture and exploit new lands. Many were coerced into being soldiers, and incentivized with the offer of land grants in order to escape indentured servitude and the widespread poverty created, in part, by Slave plantations. This context shapes Oregon’s early White population sense of self, rooting their identity in a definition of liberty that was and is dependent on racial exclusion and genocide. This sets in place a whole set of norms and a culture of racism that makes Oregon a peculiarly inhospitable place for communities of color.

Here’s what I mean. Oregon originally ratified the 14th Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause. But then a couple of years later rescinded it. Oregon didn’t ratify the 14th again until 1973. This says something about the attitude of White people regarding POC. Oregon also resisted ratifying the 15th Amendment (voting rights) until 1959, lagging significantly behind most Northern states. In 1922, the Ku Klux Klan played the role of kingmaker in the Oregon gubernatorial election, helping to win the election for Governor Pierce.

This sets in motion a pattern of White settlement that results in where we are now. Oregon is one of the Whitest states and Portland is the Whitest large city in the U.S. People often say they like moving here because it is “safe”. This idea was being articulated a century earlier. Safe appears to be a codeword for “white.”

The impression many have of Oregon, and especially Portland, as a safe haven is widespread. And the migration to Portland hasn’t stopped yet.

This history is an integral part of the culture of our state. Racial exclusion served as a kind of blueprint for the future demographics of the state, drawing whites seeking a cultural homogenous homeland in waves over many years, setting a populist tradition and class consciousness in Oregon that stands with one foot in racial exclusion. Or, put another way, the brand of freedom that drew early settlers here was defined in the context of racial exclusion.

On April 29th, 2017, approximately 200 people marched on 82nd Ave in SE Portland chanting racist and xenophobic ideals in one of the most diverse parts of Oregon. What are ways our community can organize and fight back?

I think it is important to know your enemy. We need to understand who is leading these racist and xenophobic rallies. Who is in charge? Certainly someone is. Find out who the organizers are, target them, expose them publicly in order to force people to grapple with who they follow and who they represent. In the past many of the leaders have been professional neo-Nazi ideologues. This forces their base to question who leads them, and can lead to division of their base and undermining their power.

This information will also help you better anticipate what White supremacists are doing, when and where, thus allowing us to be more strategic in our coalition building and community organizing efforts.

People should recognize that when we stand up to oppose White supremacy, we are exercising our right to free speech. We are not denying them their free speech. To silence ourselves is to de facto censor ourselves. People should stand up, protest. Keeping in mind however that escalation that results in violence can result in repression on all sides. This is especially of concern in the current Trump Administration where one of the more notorious American racists now heads the Justice Department.

We want to identify and organize people who are similarly affected by the multi-issue regressive agenda of the right wing.

Opposing these right wing groups is important because of the intensive experimenting these groups do in Oregon. Our political and media markets are easier to access and make us a target for ballot measures and political rhetoric that are consistently beyond the pale (i.e. extreme). Part of this strategy is to test messages, to listen for the response or the silence, in order to steadily push community values further towards White nationalist right-wing ideals.

Note: Rural Oregon is under siege by paramilitary white nationalist groups. This is happening all throughout the state and not just in Portland.

We should not be silent, as this implies the messages are working. Instead, people should be moved to challenge, to develop responses to reject the hateful, exclusionary proposals right wing groups and leaders are presenting. But the Left cannot be a big wall of No. We need to develop and present clear alternative ideas and make concrete proposals of our own.

Scot is a community organizer, activist, and public intellectual. He has spent the last four decades exploring cultural production and hegemony, racial injustice and racial formation through community campaigns, cultural organizing, popular education, writing, and direct political advocacy. Learn more about his current work with ChangeLab here.