“Why don’t more African-Americans ride bicycles?”
That headline from a national advocacy organization asks a question that’s common to many planners, policymakers, and advocates. It’s a question that helped spark a discussion about equity that has been a focus of many programs, studies and initiatives over the past decade.
For the most part the response to that question has centered around standard stuff like research and data, attempts to uncover the barriers to bicycling faced by people of color, and how organizations can be more inclusive. Those are important parts of the work; but what if we’ve been avoiding the root cause?
What if we aren’t making enough progress because we’re too uncomfortable to acknowledge the racist foundation of our land-use policies, transportation system and planning culture? What if the white privilege of many planning and advocacy professionals has led to the segregation of black people out of bike lanes? What if many black people do bike, but in places white people don’t usually associate with “cyclists” or “commuters”?
Those are just some of the questions that bounced around my head as I biked home from a talk given by Tamika Butler on Wednesday night. Butler was chosen by Portland State University’s Inititiave for Bicycle & Pedestrian Innovation to give the Anne Niles Active Transportation Lecture. She didn’t hold anything back.
“For me, as a black person, what does segregation feel like? It’s this feeling. This heaviness. It’s this constant thing on you.”
— Tamika Butler
Through a tapestry of personal stories, this former civil rights lawyer and director of the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition created a raw and extremely relevant picture of what it’s like to be a young, black, gay woman in America. And she did it in front of a room full of people who desparately needed to hear it.
On the surface, most of Butler’s talk had nothing to do with transportation. But underneath, it had everything to do with transportation. The title was: “Urban Segregation and the Intersections of Race and Place.”
Butler grew up in Okinawa, Japan, then lived in Omaha, Nebraska before moving to Los Angeles where she currently leads the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, a nonprofit that builds parks in underserved areas.
In front of a mostly white crowd that included an impressive amount of advocates, planners, and agency staffers from the city, region and state (even saw a few Oregon Department of Transportation staff), Butler spoke in a way that mirrored her message. She fearlessly shared how her life is worse because she’s black, and urged white people to be just as fearless in helping make it better.
“Segregation is about public space. It’s about the way we use our land. It’s about realizing this white woman doesn’t understand that the reason she never saw black folks swimming is because there were people in power who made policies that intentionally kept us away from them.”
— Tamika Butler
Butler went beyond the typical topics everyone in the room assumed a talk about segregation from a black woman would cover. Asked what the audience thought of when she mentioned segregation, Butler heard a familiar response: “Schools, red-lining, gerrymandering, white flight, interstate highways,” and so on. Those are the things white people think about. But for Butler, the issue is visceral.
“For me, as a black person, what does segregation feel like?” Butler shared. “It’s when you’re out in a rainstorm and you’re getting drenched and even when you come inside you just can’t get warm. You can’t get the chill off you. That’s what it’s like being a person of color everyday. It’s this feeling. This heaviness. It’s this constant thing on you.”
To illustrate her feelings, Butler shared a story about a co-worker who realized she’d gone swimming and said, “I didn’t know black people could swim.” After shaking off the shock, Butler explained to the woman that the reason that fallacy exists is because, “We we were in a different pool because your parents didn’t want you to swim with my mom.”
Returning to the audience, Butler said, “Segregation is about public space. It’s about the way we use our land. It’s about realizing this white woman doesn’t understand that the reason she never saw black folks swimming is because there were people in power who made policies that intentionally kept us away from them.”
Butler would intersperse stories like this with direct calls to the professionals in the room. “I think that in order to do our best work as folks in this space, we have to be willing to understand the stories of the people who often aren’t at the table,” she said. “We have to be willing to confront the racist history that our country and the systems that we have created in our country were built upon.”
Racism is at the root of land-use policy in America. Butler’s worry is that the system will never be dismantled if people are too afraid to even say that word. “How do you change systems if you aren’t able to talk about what’s really at the root of those systems?” she lamented, after telling us about a 90-minute meeting on equity she attended earlier in the day where the only people who brought up racism were the people of color.
“I don’t want to talk about equity,” she said. “I want to talk about racism. I want to talk about why it shuts down the conversation.”
And if your feelings are hurt after reading this far, Butler doesn’t care.
While acknowledging gun laws and black-on-black crime, she spoke about how black people have been forced to live in unhealthy — and ultimately deadly — neighborhoods, “Because white people don’t want us somewhere else. When they don’t have to see us, and when they don’t have to hear about our pain, they don’t have to do anything about it. And that is really tough.”
“You zoned to allow oil drilling, to allow toxic plants,” she continued. “You zoned to make it such that there are people who look like me in Michigan who still don’t have clean water? And you want me to worry about how you might feel?”
That’s what Butler calls “centering whiteness” and she’s not having it. “I mean, I kind of think white people should feel bad. Because the policies were intentional.”
Butler said she understands that talking about white privilege and racism makes people feel uncomfortable. “But the reality as a person of color,” she shared, “especially in planning spaces, especially in transportation spaces — it is always uncomfortable. But we can’t make you uncomfortable for a second because you’d rather conceptualize racism in transportation as being something that happened a long time ago? You would rather conceptualize it as being about making buses that were no longer segregated and now we’ve fixed the problem?… I don’t even put racism on my first slide even though that’s all I’m talking about because segregation makes white people feel better.”
There’s no debate in Butler’s mind: Transportation is a racial justice issue. And it’s about life or death for people of color — especially in today’s America where white supremacy is alive and well. The reality of our times added a sense of urgency to Butler’s admonitions.
“We can’t even get a flat tire on the part of the highway where we’re not supposed to be, or else, somebody’s gonna’ say we look like a dangerous dude. And they’re going to kill us!” Butler continued. “We have to realize that’s all about transportation, and it’s all about racism.”
To truly tackle equity, Butler said the people who have historically had the least, must be given the most. “You’ve got to give us more because for so long you planned your cities, you planned your institutions, you planned your curriculums, you planned everything to keep us down.” Butler said she wants a seat at the table to make a decision, not just to be a decoration.
As I soaked up Butler’s words, my mind flashed back to my experiences covering the North Williams Traffic Safety Project — especially when she said: “We have to recognize that when white people come into our spaces with their craft beer and their record players and their bikes, all of the sudden the way we’re treated in our own communities is different, because the reality is we were perfectly segregated to the other side of town; but now that you can’t afford your side of the town and you want to be on our side of town, now we’re an inconvenience.”
I’ve learned a lot about my own privilege and racism since the Williams project (and when I mistakenly identified an activist as a police officer). Hearing Butler’s words reminded me I still have much to learn. Her delivery wasn’t bombastic like a preacher, it was personal. Butler spoke from her heart. Even as she skillfully wove in comic relief (in the form of pop culture references that included Rihanna, Drake, and Justin Bieber) her fear and anger were palpable.
So, what exactly can white people do to make things better? Butler said the first step is to admit that you’re privileged, and as a byproduct, racist (“And it’s hard when your instinct is to say, ‘But I’m not a racist,” she said. “You are. We all are.”) Then apologize. Then get to work to dismantle the system. And that doesn’t mean just hashtags or changing your profile picture on social media. She doesn’t want more allies, she wants accomplices.
For white advocates, planners and policymakers it’s not just about just listening to people of color, or about feeling bad for a few hours, then returning to our good fortune of forgetfulness. We have to stand up, be ready to help, cede power, and do more to lift that “heaviness”.
“Everybody has to walk out of this room feeling they have something to do,” Butler said.
What will you do?
More on Tamika Butler: Recording of this talk is now available on YouTube. She was also a guest (with Keyonda McQuarters) on the Why Isn’t Anyone Talking About This? Podcast last week. This talk was recorded by the hosts at PSU. I’ll post the link when it’s up. Also see TamikaButler.com
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and email@example.com
Never miss a story. Sign-up for the daily BP Headlines email.
BikePortland needs your support.
Great piece, Jonathan!
My grandparents (if they were still living), none of who even went to high school, worked their butts off to become successful blue collar people, with kids and grand kids who all went to college, would dispute the whole concept of white privilege.
Yet they were probably allowed to buy a house and even get a mortgage. That house became family wealth that was passed down, something that most families of color were not allowed to do no matter how hard they worked. They got those jobs and worked hard, but might not have gotten those jobs if twenty percent of the labor force had not been excluded.
Even those of us who came from dirt-poor families, and my parents started out literally dirt poor, had privilege that was leveraged to help us along the way that was unavailable to POC whose families started with a similar lack.
It is beyond question that Steve Scarich’s ancestors participated in a racist economic system. Does that confer some obligation onto him? If so what is it, and to whom? Would that obligation be different if his parents had immigrated here when he was a child?
steve is participating in a racist economic system today…and, imo, that does confer obligation on him.
And what is that obligation?
Taking my own advice:
I’m Not Your N!gger: Can Vision Zero Work in a Racist Society?
To watch a video, apparently.
It’s strange that you missed the 3 links above that highlight past and continuing racist income, wealth/housing, and education injustice.
I suppose that I may have wrongly assumed that you, Steve, and El Biciclero agree with me that individuals in our society have an obligation to work to reverse injustice. If so, my bad.
I saw your links, and they told me what I already know — the average white household has far more wealth than the average household for other races. I recognize this is a reflection of our history. I also recognize that averages tell us nothing about individuals, and that we all face a different set of obstacles and opportunities, and bring to bear different skills and characteristics for taking advantage of or dealing with what we encounter. All of which is largely beyond our control.
I recognize our history of racism, but I do not carry your mantle of guilt. I also recognize my personal prejudices (both racial and non-racial, which, unlike racism, I have), and try not to let the color my interactions with others, with mixed degrees of success.
What more should I do? Like all conversations about this subject, there are lots of platitudes and hyper-general statements, but absolutely nothing specific or actionable.
what i got from your comment is that you are a post-racist person, that you lifted yourself up by your own bootstraps, that society (and you as a member of society) owes nothing to those it has oppressed, and that there is nothing that can be done about racialized education, housing, income, and wealth injustice
did i get that right?
Nope, wrong on almost every point.
But, *again*, what do you feel I, as an individual, not as a representative of a group, owe, to whom, and how do I go about repaying my debt?
One answer is that I owe a debt of service to society, and, if so, I would agree.
what you wrote:
what i wrote above that provoked a disagreement (?) from you and “el biciclero”:
Great. So I’m covered, right?
I am unable to comment on the thread below as it continued, so I’ll do so here.
It seems to me that you are being honest and fair in your assessment of a certain debt owed to society for advantages granted to us by nature of birth. I agree.
What I think we both also agree on is that the current leftist paradigm seems to be that this debt can never be erased. It is worse than “original sin” in that there is no redemption to be had. “Privilege” can be used as an epithet against you no matter what you have done to remedy this debt. This is a reflection of the quest for power – too often by the unscrupulous and the perpetually aggrieved.
That’s the problem with the whole “white privilege” paradigm of guilt. It means having other people tell you what you need to do to atone, but there is never an endpoint for atonement; the guilt lasts forever. Nothing, perhaps short of an entire flipping of power dynamics can be evidenced as grounds for forgiveness. And even then those with the new power will likely use it to replicate the past oppression, but with themselves at top. How do we know this? History.
I was interviewed for a job with Model Cities, a federal poverty program, in 1983 by an entire black hiring committee. After the interview, I asked ‘can you be honest with me, do I have a chance at this job?’ They laughed and said No way. Is that enough? said tongue in cheek.
Oh good, the exception that proves the rule.
All true, except the inheritance part. I missed out on that, regretably.
Better luck next time!
He may yet have parents, aunts and/or uncles who can fill that inheritance void for him.
“We can’t even get a flat tire on the part of the highway where we’re not supposed to be, or else, somebody’s gonna’ say we look like a dangerous dude. And they’re going to kill us!”
That is, in the realm of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the perfect example of “catastrophizing”.
White liberals indulging and encouraging this sort of thinking so they can get their fix of the self-righteous shame that they so desperately crave, is not helping anybody.
Privilege isn’t just what you were given, it’s also what wasn’t taken away from you. You must have the privilege of not knowing that “biking while black” is a thing innocent people have been killed for. Ignorance is bliss, sorry for taking it away.
The way I understand it, white privilege isn’t just the nice, cushy, extra bonuses and benefits white people have in America. As Tamika says when she refers to always being cold and never feeling like she can “get warm”, the mere fact that your grandparents could exist in their neighborhood (or any neighborhood for that matter) without fearing for their life every single day was a privilege. I think this is literally about life and death. White people — despite the struggles of being working poor/blue collar — can exist and we can be free. Black people can’t.
Being treated with dignity and respect isn’t a “cushy extra bonus”. It’s the baseline that everyone should expect. That there are those in our society that are routinely shortchanged does not mean that others have a “privilege”. I realize this is largely a semantic argument, but I think it is hugely important that we don’t redefine dignity as a privilege. It is a right.
Which is why the term “White Privilege” is so accurate. Because it wouldn’t exist if everyone WAS treated with dignity and respect. White people are responsible for eradicating White Privilege.
I disagree pretty completely. If something is a “privilege” it can be revoked. If it’s a right, it can’t be (at least not without due process). If your rights are not respected, it’s a violation.
Being treated with dignity is a right, not a privilege. Don’t undermine that right by mislabeling it.
By your definition, since it is a “Right” black people are treated with dignity by the police, by teachers, by mortgage lenders, rental managers, judges, HR… feel free to correct your previous statement anytime.
Unfortunately, rights are violated all the time. But it’s more powerful to say “my rights were violated” rather than “I didn’t get a privilege that was extended to this other person.”
I think you’re getting caught up in the semantics. Yes, supposedly everyone, regardless of race, etc., should by rights be treated equally in this country.
But what actually has happened that despite our lofty rhetoric of equality for all, there is in fact two sets of rules – one for whites, and another for non-whites.
So yes, the “privilege” that white people enjoy should be revoked in order for everyone to have the same “rights.”
Don’t undermine the right to basic dignity by mislabeling it a privilege. That’s the full extent of my argument.
‘Some’ black people. It is impossible, and journalistically irresponsible, to generalize about all members of any racial group.
You need to consider whether a person who isn’t white whose grandparents were in the same financial and social position as yours (if that would even be possible) would have the same chance of success, would have the same outcomes, as yours.
If you can, reflect on that, and maybe imagine how your life might be different if your grandparents were 100% the same people except for being black. Do you think that it’s all based on their hard work and perseverance, or maybe there were other factors that might have held them back?
Privilege isn’t only having an advantage, you can have nothing but not have barriers in your way that other people do have and that is a privilege and an advantage they don’t have.
I don’t actually dispute that, all things being equal, a white person does have some advantages in this country. I have no idea how large those advantages are, but, in my experience, they are probably not overwhelming. So, what do we do with that? I hear all kinds of people trying to guilt-shame white people (there was a classic example in an Antifa video on KOIN tonight). We have seen affirmative action in employment, quotas in college admissions, etc etc I’m not quite sure how much those have helped, but it seems like there is a bigger black middle class now. What I think most white people (and I’m going out on a limb here) say, so what the heck do you want us to do? Please, no platitudes, concrete steps.
A Bigger Black middle class? I want to see that. How will White folx catch up to that Bigger Black middle class? Should we start by focusing on trying to helping White schools catch up to Black schools? Or should we focus on trying to decrease the wage gap between those rich middle class Black and those poor Whites? How about if we focus on all of those White people being pulled over and killed by the cops?
How about we make the estate tax nearly 100% and use it to fund home ownership for the off-spring of people who have never owned a home. This would be a direct transfer of wealth from people like the Trumps, and let’s not forget that Fred Trump was arrested for marching in a ku klux klan rally, to the people they wouldn’t even rent to and their children.
Sure, some white folks will also benefit from such a program. If anything, that makes it better, imo, by making it more palatable politically. (Not that my politics are very palatable in the current American context.)
My reasoning is that in a capitalist society, if a group is denied capital and another group has been allowed to pass enormous amounts down through generations, then a gross disparity is inevitable. Using a hefty estate tax, and we should also crack down on pre-death transfers, to correct this doesn’t actually harm anyone’s prospects except for those who were counting on an estate they didn’t earn in any way. If we can’t even accomplish this baby step, then it does demonstrate how difficult this will be.
I’m a strong proponent of estate taxes, but it seems reasonable that if you did well in life, you should be able to help your children.
“I have no idea how large those advantages are…”
and yet you continue with:
“but, in my experience, they are probably not overwhelming.”
a ~13-fold difference in household wealth is not overwhelming?
do you believe that unborn black people *chose* to be born into lower-income families?
Here’s the average income for different households in the Portland area:
Average household income: $55,000
Native Americans: $42,206
Pacific Islanders: $39,186
African Americans: $35,246
Hispanic/Latino, Native American, Pacific Islander, and African American children in Portland are growing up in families with significantly lower incomes. This impacts so much–where they go to school, how much their parents work, their access to transportation. It’s a significant difference.
Lots of hard working people would dispute the existence of white privilege. Because of their ignorance of the laws set up to ensure white supremacy, they can feel comfortable in their beliefs that hard work is all that’s needed. But if they took a moment to study history, they would admit the truth.
This was good reporting. Any chance the talk was recorded somewhere?
Yes. It was recorded with a video camera and TREC at PSU will share it sometime this week. Here’s the page it’s likely to be uploaded to. I’ll add it to the post here as well.
I would generally be described as “white” yet my ancestors fled anti-semetism in eastern Europe in the 30’s and were discriminated against once they got here. Everyone talks about the urban renewal effors that displaced the black community in North Portland, yet they always conveniently leave out the even larger South Auditorium urban renewal in which the city literally flattened a vibrant Jewish and Italian neighborhood in South Portland. Jews were even banned from owning homes in Portland, with restrictions written into deeds. Throwing everyone into a “white” bucket and asking white people to apologize on behalf of historic oppressors we had no part in simplifies the issue and alienates allies. The truth is far more complex and nuanced than simply black vs white. Framing issues as us-vs-them and white guilt helps no one. We all need to work together instead of throwing blame around. I’m 100% willing to listen to ideas on how to fix things but I’m not apologizing on behalf of people from 100 years ago that my family had nothing to do with. Was this country founded on racist ideals? Absolutely. Guess what? Those “white supremacists” want me dead too. The solution is to get everyone at the table from all walks of life to work together, rather than just yelling and blaming everyone in sight.
I’m not attempting to discredit what are legitimate issues with race and income inequality here. And I also am not trying to make a comparison to ancestors who fled racism vs ancestors who were brought here against their will to work for free. I get it’s not the same and the history is different. I’m just using my own personal experience as an example of how simply throwing the term “white” around as a all-encompasing oppressor group is misguided. There are plenty of ways to be oppressed and it’s not all about skin color – people struggling with mental illness is one example. The speaker does bring up many valid points. We do need to get more voices at the table and actually listen, rather than just tokenizing. I simply don’t agree with the white vs. black mentality many social justice groups take on since the actual issues are far more complicated and nuanced than that, and it’s only by communicating and working together that we can fix them. There are plenty of groups who would rather not have that dialog, and that is unfortunate. We need to all listen to each other more.
One thing I did not mention in my post was that one of my grandfathers, emancipated at age 14, came to California from Kansas with no skills, and experience all the slights against uneducated ‘Okies’ before WWI. There have been so many groups discriminated against in the U.S. I recall when I was growing up in the Bay Area in the 50’s that animus against Jews was much stronger than that against Blacks.
i’d really like hear more about your experience as a jewish person of color in the 1950s, steve.
Steve. I want to hear that too. (Grabbing some popcorn)
???? Where did I say I was Jewish? What are you two smoking?
What was it like, Steve, in the 1950s?
“We need to all listen to each other more.”
And to achieve this goal white men (like me) should talk/post less and listen more.
Butler says everyone is a racist. That is fundamentally at odds with my world view.
I believe the issues surrounding the North Williams project were fundamentally economic and cultural, though they were often expressed in racial terms. I believe a similar dynamic could play out in all white communities if the existing residents thought that outsiders, backed by the government, were trying to change their neighborhoods in ways that felt alien to them, knowing that their culture would be supplanted by people with more money and conflicting values, and that, as a consequence, their shops would close, housing would become unaffordable, and their community would disintegrate. This would be especially true if they felt powerless to oppose the changes, if it felt like just one more assault by a relentless economic and cultural tidal wave threatening to overwhelm their community.
That said, I don’t deny that many viewed the issue through a racial lens, which certainly added to the tension and energized the opposition, but I simply do not believe anyone involved had a racial motive, whereas the economic and cultural motives are pretty easy to see.
Hi Hello, Kitty,
Your view of the Williams project reminds me of how I was trying to support it and justify it at the time.
I think what’s important is that it’s not about intent, it’s about impact.
What you and I think simply doesn’t matter nearly as much as what people like Michelle DePass (who first brought up racism) and Deborah Hutchins (who chaired the revamped committee) think. To them, racism was the issue. So that means, racism was the issue. Motives —— of white advocates like me or of the City of Portland (whom I vehemently attempted to defend as well-intentioned) — don’t matter. You don’t have to have malice in your mind for your actions to hurt other people.
I simply disagree that if some people see the issue through a racial lens, I must as well. I think it is perfectly valid that different people can see a problem differently. Making the issue about race, and not culture or economics, makes an intractable problem impossible, and only deepens the sense of injury.
I don’t dismiss the views of Depass and Hutchins, but I do reserve the right to see the issue differently without being labeled a racist.
Hurting people doesn’t require malintent. But that a well meaning person is an unintentional beneficiary of wrongs they had no control over that were committed well in the past does not make them a racist or imply there’s anything wrong with them. That someone is guilty of anything based only on their genetics is nonsense.
That there are entire groups of people who are unfairly disadvantaged is not in dispute. The question is how to move forward.
When laws/policies/whatever were used to scrеw populations which causes effects that last to this day, let’s fix that. Her point that those who had the least must be given the most is spot on.
But dividing the world in a way where everyone becomes a victim or victimizer based on factors they have no control over, and fixating on assigning blame on whose ancestors had which genetic traits regardless of where they lived or actually did slows rather than advances progress.
I’m so glad you went to this talk. <3
Here in Greensboro NC, a highly segregated city (a legacy of 150 years of segregation before 1970), about 43% of the people here are African-American or recent immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean, versus 40% white or European, yet according to the census and counts done by the local transportation department, over 55% of bicyclists here are African-American.
With only a four hundred people on bikes in Greensboro, how can you even know the percentage who are black with any accuracy? Whites are 50% of the workforce and blacks are 40%, so even if blacks are 55% of the 400-odd cyclists (0.3% of the 135k commuters go by bike, according to the US Census ACS), it’s not much of a disparity.
I guess I just don’t see a point here. Greensboro is another super-failure among American cities in regards to getting people out of cars and it has been a roughly equal-opportunity failure, as much as can be determined.
You are right about the overall workforce (even 400 sounds high), few of whom actually bicycle. People who bicycle tend to be student-age 18-26 in most US cities, which in Greensboro is disproportionately African-American (UNCG is 30% black and NCA&T is 90% black).
We have two public universities, therefore we have too many professors getting their students to do generally useless surveys of bicyclists going by at selected locations, so we have fairly reliable data over a period of time, as well as permanent city-installed infrared bike counters at chest height at selected locations for overall numbers. And now we are getting LimeBike data of where people are riding.
You are right, our percentage of people who bicycle regularly to work is minuscule, but so it is in most other US cities. We are apparently #610 in the World, with a 0.2% mode share, tied with mighty Charlotte, San Antonio, El Paso, and Newark. (Portland is at #157, above Stuttgart & Mumbai, but below Santa Barbara; Groningen is #1.)
Rank link: http://www.cityclock.org/urban-cycling-mode-share/#.Wgtm84ZrzDZ
My main point is that Portland has always had very few blacks to begin with, and even fewer in the last 15 years of rapid gentrification in north central Portland, so you naturally are going to get the impression that “blacks generally don’t bicycle” as much as whites (this is equally true of Seattle and in many, but not all, West Coast cities.) Here in Greensboro, as in many other US cities, blacks make up a plurality (or even a majority) of the population, but especially of the college-age population, the group most likely to ride, so our percentage of black cyclists versus Portland is much higher, a majority in fact.
And yes our bike facilities are appallingly awful, but at least we are building more, unlike Portland!
Once again another really pissed off person telling me how rotten I am. Making great strides in race relations.
Isn’t it Interesting that you get to speak for yourself, yet in your mind Tamika Butler represents her entire race?
Of course she doesn’t. None of us do.
Pro-tip: If you’re here to post a comment on how you or your ancestors don’t have white privilege: please, please, for the love of gods, do some reading on what “white privilege” actually is.
If they had light skin, they enjoyed the benefits of white privilege, regardless of how little money they had or how hard they had to work. It’s about the extra injustices that they weren’t forced to suffer.
Thank you. From the comments, it seems we have taken two steps forward, one step back in “race relations” this year.
Why go out and poll People of Color to get their attitudes on cycling when you can just throw your hands in the air and call everyone else racist?
I continue to be surprised that commenters on (what I consider to be) a pretty progressive blog, continue to miss the boat with regard to race and biking and white privilege. If your first reaction to this article is to get defensive and shout out your own examples of how you or your ancestors were subject to discrimination, please stop…and reflect that this is not necessarily about you. Hear what is being said and look at how you might move through the world in a slightly different way going forward. Listening to, and really hearing, the viewpoints of PoC are the first steps in making any sort of progress.
Great article, Jonathan!
People here disagree about everything else, why not this issue?
The issue here is that many people who would like to have a dialog with the intent of understanding and fixing the issues are constantly being told “this is not necessarily about you” or “you will never understand”. People may not be able to 100% relate to what someone else is going though, however, if we can even pick out one issue in common, then a greater understanding and empathy can grow from that. But if that dialog is never allowed to get started in the first place, then it just furthers the divide. The powers that be would love to place everyone into easily-separated buckets, but the reality is that we likely overlap more than we think. You can’t possibly understand what someone has gone though just by looking at their skin color. (Ever hear of an “invisible disability”? Many things you can’t see can affect an individual’s income levels, housing opportunities, etc.) So instead of taking mental shortcuts and labeling people by discrete identities, we should be listening to each other more, with the idea that while we may not ever understand each other 100%, we can certainly find plenty of common ground and work together to fix real problems.
Many of Butler’s points are well made such as her description of how different it is for her to get a flat tire than a white person. Just so happens an Ethiopian ex roomie of mine was in that exact situation — the cops yelled “Freeze!” That means absolutely nothing to someone who doesn’t speak good English, and he continued to approach hoping to get assistance. He was not shot, but they beat the crар out of him.
Butler undoubtedly encounters injustices that no white person does. But some things must also be going her way as she has significant international experience, a law degree, a string of executive positions, and is on the speaking circuit.
As such, identifying specific injustices (especially when combined with ideas of how to mitigate them) strikes me as a more effective way to engage people and help them recognize advantages they have and correct historical injustices than blasting people she has never met as privileged racists.
Thanks for reporting on Tamika’s presentation. It was a very moving and informative event, if anyone ever has the opportunity to see Tamika speak, it is not something to be missed. Thank you to Tamika for bringing this message to the (mostly) white folks in the room at PSU and subsequently here on BikePortland.
What were the practical, actionable takeaways from the talk – actual, concrete steps that can be taken today to increase cycling mode in Portland’s minority communities and their neighborhoods?
Extend BikeTown’s geographic reach, and greatly improve bike/ped infrastructure, I assume. Anything new?
I think this talk was more about self-reflection and raising awareness than “actionable takeaways”. It was about creating urgency for a change in perspective among white advocates, planners and policymakers.
That being said, part of the work in undoing current inequities is definitely to push for concrete changes like bringing more — and higher quality — bike access to more places.
Every person should hear Butler and then decide for themselves what their role – their work – should be. As a publisher and community leader, I have some specific things I’m going to do like look to elevate black voices and experiences more often, call out the forces of white supremacy when I see them, question every policy and project to make sure it’s fair to people of color, and so on.
What’s the main reason more people of color aren’t riding bikes? Is somebody seriously going to be able to make the case that here in Portland, my city of Beaverton or elsewhere in the valley, they aren’t doing so, due to being imminently in danger of being intimidated, threatened, or run over by some racist, driving or biking along? Significantly more so than any other person, vulnerable to motor vehicle traffic, riding along on a bike?
If I were reading that people of color are trying to ride bikes on the street, with many having done so, subsequently deciding not to because of responses from other road users having a particularly negative racist character to their presence on a bike on the road, theories extended to the effect that racism is significantly discouraging people of color from biking, might sound more credible to me than such theories tend to.
Bikes are probably the most accessible, and versatile means of personal, as compared to public transportation…vehicular transportation available today. Every week, craigslist usually has some serviceable old single speed schwinns, or mountain bikes for 75 bucks or less. Brand new junk big box cruisers and what not for maybe 150-200. There are used bikes that work, for free, too. If people of color want to ride, they could ride, and they’d be welcome too, on any bike they choose to ride, out here in the Beav, if not in Portland.
I would think the actionable takeaways would be the most important point since that is what it takes to bring actual improvements.
For example, if people are being priced out of the neighborhoods where they live, what exactly would help? If you put in rent controls, that just puts pressure on the remaining stock driving prices higher for younger people in those same communities getting started. If you improve areas, that makes them more desirable which drives prices up. And letting the areas rot out so things stay cheap isn’t any good either.
As this is a bike blog, it seems appropriate advocate for projects that bring greater access to underserved areas, being mindful of additional challenges cyclists out there may face. Some of these areas are much tougher to ride than those near the core that consistently get so much attention.
Thanks to Tamika for helping to enlighten us regarding the astounding depth of racism and privilege in our society, and to Jonathan for reporting thoroughly.
It’s easy to think the world is relatively neutral, and that our society has been guilty of suppressing people of color. True, but simplistic. It’s important not to miss the other side of that coin – that there are so many advantages for white people that are ingrained in policy and culture over many years. Even, and perhaps most importantly, how a person is initially perceived and engaged based on how they look – specifically skin color.
I think this is a really important distinction and I’ll admit that it took a while for me to fully absorb and appreciate it – not only are blacks and other minorities pushed down, but whites are also pushed up. That’s a double whammy … and the reality. Still so true today.
I suppose being aware of this double-edged sword is an important first step to acknowledging, apologizing, and engaging solutions.
I appreciate that she calls out the passivity of whites who are self-proclaimed, “not racist”, as insufficient; continuing to benefit from white privilege, and kind of hope no one notices … least not ourselves.
Doesn’t an apology require acknowledgement of wrongdoing? To whom do you address your apology, and what is the sin for which you apologizing?
Slavery and its legacy are the fundamental reality of these United States. More Americans were killed in the Civil War than all our other wars combined; a war which ended slavery, but its after effects remain…especially in the South. Jim Crow, lynching and the establishment of a one party (Democrat) terrorist state in the former Confederacy was only begun to be overturned in the post WWII period, with a key milestone the Civil Rights Acts on 1964 and 1965, the latter guaranteeing the vote to Black citizens.
Oregon and especially Portland has certainly shared in this narrative of race based exclusion beginning with our founding document on up to the present. Its worthy of note that the Coliseum was originally sited on the South Auditorium URA…which displaced Italian, Jewish and Gipsy communities, but was moved to an east side location…a Black residential area at the east end of the Broadway Bridge, by a popular vote. More displacement followed as the Interstate Freeway system chewed up Albina (Black), N. Portland (Polish), Goose Hollow (PSU student “ghetto”), South Portland and other poor, defenseless communities. More class than race, but squared if non-white.
So “What is to be done?”: learn our history…what happened to Native Americans when our European forbearers arrived; what’s the story in N and inner NE PDX when African-Americans where forced to relocate there after the destruction of Vanport. And why did these same neighborhoods loose their African-American character in recent years. And own our privilege if you are white, especially if you are male. Our accomplishments, however great they may be, came with a leg up. The heroic lives are those of people of color and especially woman of all races who have suffered, persevered, and survived despite their treatment by the dominant race, class and sex.
This is an important topic, and one of which many white folks are ignorant and to which many white folks are blind. I will agree that as a white person, I had my eyes opened to a wider view of privilege a couple of years ago, and realized that I have had some complex advantages in life growing up white in America. Without attempting to diminish anyone’s experience or pain in living a life without such privilege, I do need a bit a clarification of the intended meaning of a couple of quotes in the article.
This quote was preceded by several statements to the effect that “You” enacted racist policies. Who is “you”, which white people should “feel bad”, and by “feel bad”, does Ms. Butler mean “feel some empathy/compassion”, or “feel guilty for enacting racist policies”?
I don’t understand how “privileged” = “racist”, and I further don’t understand how “we all” can possibly be racist, if Ms. Butler, a person of color and victim of racism is including herself and other persons of color in “we all”.
I’ve mentioned before that if I scratch for some analogy in my own life to help me understand the nature of privilege (specifically of not having it) and *ism, it is the example of using “alternative” transportation. Now, that’s not a perfect example, because it is, for my privileged self, a choice, and a choice that is not apparent at every second of my life. But when I am on the road, I know that drivers of cars have all the privilege, as much as they complain about “traffic”, and “it’s just as hard for me”, and “but think how bad I’d feel if you made me run over you!”. I know drivers want me, if I am on a bike or walking, to be “somewhere else”, and then complain if “somewhere else” requires a roadway to be reconfigured with less space for driving or parking cars.
Again, I know the comparison to being a poor white guy on a bike with all those angry drivers is nowhere near adequate or commensurate to describe the life of any person subject to systemic, race-based disenfranchisement, but it’s the closest thing I can relate to in an actual, real way. The real reason I bring it up here, though, is not to be a boor, but to think to myself whether I would be right to accuse “drivers”, specifically that guy next to me on the road, of enacting anti-bike policies, or re-striping the roads or raising speed limits to make things more hostile for me on a bike. Does he/she benefit from those things? Sure. Did he/she actually enact the policies? Hmmm… Again, it’s not the same thing, but do I expect drivers stopped at a light to roll down their windows and apologize to me for the sorry state of the roads and the actions of other drivers? Should I? Should I accuse anyone who takes advantage of a system that favors private motor vehicles above all other modes of transport “anti-bike”? Should I make no distinction in labeling between the dude who swerves at me to “teach me a lesson” about who belongs where, and the lady who patiently stays behind me until I can safely move over or there is a safe place to pass—because they are both in cars? Now, I feel I can expect drivers to quit their complaining and whining every time they think I’m holding them up, and stop accusing me of not paying taxes, and suck it up if the dangerous behaviors of their fellow drivers necessitate building more expensive roads—basically, admit they have privileges and not complain if the pie starts being divided differently.
I don’t know (truly), but it feels as though admitting to being privileged and apologizing for being racist aren’t the same thing, and that one doesn’t imply or necessitate the other.
Regarding “we all are [racist]”: I find it persuasive that the roots of racism are both universal and something we can resist and check within ourselves if we’re paying attention to it. I’ve seen a lot of evidence that people have a strong “us/them” reflex, probably the product of all our ancestors living in groups of 130 or so for a million years and needing to quickly distinguish friends from enemies. These days, that’s not our social situation any more, but the reflex still shows up even though these days it’s more likely to interfere with our collective safety and prosperity. This is the sort of racism that makes Portlanders less likely to yield to black people at crosswalks.
But if we’re aware of this lizard-brain impulse the way we might be aware of, say, our natural but no-longer-healthy craving for sugar, we can correct for it and see each other as the individuals and overlapping cultures we actually are.
In the specific case of modern U.S. society, all of that bad but manageable gut-level racism has stacked up over the course of centuries and interacted with geography and violence and slavery and class to create a system that is way, way worse because it’s not only creating deceptive “us/them” divides but also permanently putting groups of people on top of each other. The median white American householder has $3,000 of liquid wealth; the median black American householder has $25. Black guys are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by a cop. Black homeownership rates are consistently way below white homeownership rates.
That shit ain’t right. I’m against it because it offends my sense of justice, and I’m against it because (despite my luck to be born into a group that isn’t being oppressed) I think I too am harmed by racism against folks of color. Preventing hundreds of millions of people from fulfilling their desires has made our country/planet/everybody a less happy, interesting, prosperous place.
It’s probably easier for me to accept the idea of white privilege (and my responsibility to help overturn its system) because I was born into a pretty comfortable family, which is thanks to my dad being able to afford to go to college because his mom’s family happened to own a little apartment building in the south side of Chicago for a while. If my dad’s mom’s family had been black, that probably would have been illegal at the time. Anyway, the ease with which I can accept the idea of white privilege is itself a class privilege, which I also have, separately … thanks in part to my grandmother’s race.
That’s how I think about this stuff. Butler has been one of many smart folks who I’ve learned from and I’m always eager to hear/think more (including disagreements with the above).
Ah. Well, I think what you are calling “racism”, I would call “prejudice”, “bias”, or maybe just “discomfort”. I’ll own up to that, and admit I do have to intentionally counter it often. But I’ve always thought of racism as a more active and intentional thing; maybe the definition (as it seems to with so many words) has changed since it was explained to me. You are correct (well, I agree, anyway), we all have comfort zones that usually look like the surroundings we grew up in.
I like your sugar example. Someone told be about some editorial the other day in which the author was essentially saying “diversity is bad“, I guess because it “causes” so many problems. My first thought was that diversity is “bad” like eating healthy and exercising is “bad”. When you’re first introduced to it, it might be difficult; you have “problems” like doughnut deprivation, and you get all sweaty and sore from working out—but it’s good for you. And the more you do it, the less uncomfortable it becomes.
“as changed since it was explained to me.”
nonsense. you yourself have participated in conversations on this very topic here on bike portland.
Yes, without having before been called “racist”, or had a definition proffered by anyone. When I was still innocent, the definition of “racism” that was explained to me (before this blog existed) was that someone in a position of power who exercised that power to intentionally demean, disadvantage, or harm in any way a person who lacked the same power—and the power structure and motivation for harm were both defined by race—was a racist. Roughly. So having the power is not necessarily racist, and attempting to demean someone without having the power is not necessarily racist (although it would be prejudiced or biased, in my own mind). My prior understanding is that anyone who lacks “The Power” cannot be racist, no matter how much race-based invective they may put forth against the powerful. Does the definition now include race-motivated antipathy toward the powerful by the less-powerful? Or did it always include that, and I was misinformed in Sociology class 25 years ago?
Racism also means an opinion that your race is superior to another. That opinion need have nothing to do with power.
Whatever would give one that idea, though?
to the best of my knowledge, the idea of institutional/systemic racism was first developed in a 1966 speech by kwame ture (stokely carmichael):
the johnson administration’s 1967 kerner commission also helped bring the idea of systemic/institutional racism into the mainstream:
I have little doubt that people that didn’t complete high school would dispute the fact that white privilege exists.
Rather than being snarky, you might cast yourself back about 110 years ago, when my one grandfather immigrated to the U.S. with his parents who did not speak English, and struggled just to survive, and my other grandfather who was ‘dirt poor’ in Kansas, and was tossed out of his home at age 14 just so the family could survive. It is so easy to mock poor, and yes, ‘uneducated’, people of any color, without understanding their circumstances. Both ended up retiring as what would be today, a multi-millionaire, one as an auto upholsterer, and the other as a furniture salesman.
I was making a correlation between being uneducated and denying the existence of white privilege. Highlighting a successful rags to riches story of white people supports the idea that white privilege exists. Why do whites get defensive about it and think it means either they or their ancestors didn’t work hard?
It’s pretty common for people to respond to topics on racism by saying it’s an economic issue.
It often is.
And as much as white people in denial try, you can’t separate race from the economics.
In the sense that it is difficult to completely separate two diffuse, all encompassing, overlapping societal issues, you are right. How is that helpful?
How is what helpful?
“…you can’t separate race from the economics.”
So you’re saying it’s both?
As far as I’m concerned, Ms Butler is free to advocate for whatever policies and whichever identity groups she chooses to. What continues to baffle me is why so many people in Portland are loathe to extend the same privilege to everyone.
“To truly tackle equity, Butler said the people who have historically had the least, must be given the most. ”
We could sum up the whole discussion with this quote.
She is mining white guilt for money and power.
Want to make sure everyone saw the update below with links to Tamika’s talk on YouTube and the podcast she recorded while in Portland:
More on Tamika Butler: Recording of this talk is now available on YouTube. She was also a guest (with Keyonda McQuarters) on the Why Isn’t Anyone Talking About This? Podcast last week. This talk was recorded by the hosts at PSU. I’ll post the link when it’s up. Also see TamikaButler.com
Great reporting and thanks to Tamika, sounded like a great talk. The defensive white guys on this board need to educate themselves. I’m reminded of MLK’s quote on the white moderate. If so many white people can’t even acknowledge that we have serious problems with racism in this country, how can we work to fix them?
There are also many white people who recognize there is a real problem, but get defensive when they are told they are responsible for it solely on the basis of their race.
1) The link at the top of the article (“a talk given by [Tamika Butler] on Wednesday”) goes to “www.tamikabutler.com” which doesn’t seem to work – probably a server/DNS configuration issue, but changing it to “tamikabutler.com” fixes it. I’ll email Tamika as well, but thought I’d mention here.
2) Thank you for covering this. I know the parts of the Portland bike community that I’m familiar with can benefit from talks like Tamika’s. I look forward to future BikePortland reporting on racial (and other) privilege in transportation. Thanks for covering the hard stuff.