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Opinion: Tough love on a tough subject

Posted by on May 3rd, 2019 at 11:18 am

Charles Brown speaking at the Oregon Active Transportation Summit held at the Oregon Zoo last week.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

“How can you call yourself a bike-friendly town if you have people of color who are afraid to leave their house? How do you even accept these awards? It’s a moral question.”

Those comments are why Charles Brown (@CTBrown1911) is a name that won’t soon be forgotten by the hundreds of people in attendance at his keynote speech during the Oregon Active Transportation Conference last week.

Brown, a researcher and transportation justice activist, delivered some very real talk to the policymakers, advocates, and agency staffers in the room — several of whom audibly gasped when he questioned our bike-friendly status viewed through a lens of racial justice.

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Slide from Brown’s presentation.

Brown’s presentation — which was equal parts funny, endearing, and searing — touched on many facets of how racial discrimination and mobility are linked. His comments had even more resonance in a place with as many white people as Portland where race-related missteps are still too common.

The comments came during a Q & A session when someone asked about a slide in Brown’s presentation that read, “Transportation has been weaponized as a tool of oppression.” A woman in the crowd (who was white) asked if the “weaponization” was assumed to come with malintent.

Many people at the summit were moved by Brown’s speech, especially this group of high school students who mobbed him afterward.

“Yes,” Brown answered without hesitation. “Because history shows it was intentional.” 

It’s a history that is all too present for some. Brown’s provocative comments about our “bike-friendly” reputation were inspired by an experience he had during a focus group session in Portland. He said he met a black muslim woman who said the only way she’d ride a bike in Portland is if, “Someone put a gun to my head.”

Brown said he was taken aback. “I have no training on how respond to something like that,” he said.

Brown’s keynote was just one of many threads throughout the summit that wove between transportation and racial justice. It’s a credit to event organizers at The Street Trust that many of the breakout sessions featured topics and conversations that put equity, inclusion, and race front-and-center.

We talk about these things a lot in Portland. I think it takes someone like Charles Brown for us to actually hear it.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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David Hampsten
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Is there a transcript anywhere of his talk at the summit?

Glenn F
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Glenn F

Where can someone find all the videos for the Oregon Active Transportation Conference last week?

soren
Guest
soren

Some examples of cycling infrastructure that has received *enormous* attention from cycling advocates:

* NE Williams/Couch and Rodney Neighborhood Greenway
* NE Multnomah Protected Bike Lanes
* Better Naito
* NE 7th Neighborhood Greenway
* Green Loop

Some examples of cycling infrastructure that has been largely ignored by cycling advocates:

* 100s Neighborhood Greenway#
* 130s Neighborhood Greenway#
* 150s Neighborhood Greenway#
* 4M Neighborhood Greenway

A map illustrating displacement of people of color from NE/N Portland to outlying areas, including outer SE Portland:

http://media.oregonlive.com/pacific-northwest-news/photo/censusgraphicscountiesjpg-fe2d62be7f32f0f0.jpg

*All fully funded for many years.

9watts
Subscriber

Thanks for this, Jonathan.

Here in the comments some of these discrepancies, the cluelessness, the impatience related to transportation & racism are unfortunately ever present

Dj
Guest
Dj

None of my neighbors of color seem to be scared of leaving their homes in their cars.

Dj
Guest
Dj

And 7th ave bikeway. Hundred and hundreds of homeowners, and businesses all okay with with the route. One housing non profit, and one owner of a driveway get to call the shots. The reason this neighborhood is the worst in the city.

Jim Labbe
Subscriber
Jim Labbe

Can we expect different outcomes until we fundamentally change how we make the decisions allocating transportation and other public funding and who gets to decide?

The City of Seattle’s “Your Voice Your Choice” program now allocates $3 million to parks and streets through a participatory budgeting process. The process is open to everyone but takes a targeted universalist approach centered communities of color and weighting funds to communities that are the least served and the least represented:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QkVAU0ufbSM&list=PLdDnNaA70-ugq4WbNj2TNjp8QGLQ2U_st

JIm Lee
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JIm Lee

“People should not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

gilly
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gilly

Jonathan, hope you are able to provide more detail in future posts or guest posts on this topic. It would also be good to see examples of how other communities are doing this right. Thanks.

Jim Lee
Guest
Jim Lee

joan
White people like to tell this to people of color a lot. If this were what was happening, I’m sure folks of color would be glad to go along.Recommended 6

I am puzzled why “colored people” is considered a slur and “people of color” an encomium. Does a grammatical flim flam change meanings or attitudes?

Joan’s post is a not so subtle racist insult directed at me. I am asking you to take it down, Jonathan.

JBone
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JBone

I generally keep to myself on these subjects of race, privilege, hate, group identity etc. as there usually isn’t a forum with people of diverse opinions to share with. But being that Bikeportland seems to have a nice mix of ideologies, I’ll throw it out there.

I’m a white dude with a fair amount of native blood in me, so much so that as a kid growing up lower middle-class in urban Dallas, TX, I’d often be darker than my latino and black friends during the summer (I was made fun of for such, but wouldn’t’ fathom crying ‘victim’). Though, I’ve been told my blood has Cherokee and it is quite obvious from facial features of my relatives, I’ve never had the urge to explore my ancestry as a way to seek identity; I’m me and personally don’t see the importance about that sort of thing. Neither did much of the mixed ‘race’ crew that I hung with, and to this day, all the pop cultural notions of identity, hate, etc. are lost on the friends from childhood I keep up with.

I know childhood can be a rocky time, especially if born into a low socio-economic situation and/or dysfunctional family. I had both and I’ve spent a fair amount of my adult life figuring myself out and consequently working with kids in theses categories as a mentor, special education teacher (at Donald Long juvenile detention center, among other places). When you become an adult, the game starts over (if you want it to). You might be behind, but from my experience as a receiver and giver, there are many resources out there if you are interested in making something of your life. The hearts of many “allies” are definitely in the right place (I;m by nature a bleeding heart), but I’m afraid they are naïve about the human condition, both positively and negatively: we are much more capable than we often think we are (thanks Pooh) and more depraved and selfish than we’d care to acknowledge (my hand is raised high:) So many progressive ideas come from a very good place, but the unintended and natural consequences are seemingly rarely taken into account. Unfortunately, we can’t always engineer our way out of these realities.

So, when I hear things like ‘voices of color need to be heard”, I wonder if that means all voices or just those that fit the prevailing pop narrative. Does it include me and the diverse crew I grew up with? Disregarded black thinkers like Thomas Sowell, Larry Eldridge, Jim Brown, Candace Owens, etc? If we are truly want to hear diverse opinions, maybe set down Vox, The Atlantic, Slate, NYT, etc . and consider outlets such as Quilette.com, Areomagazine.com or heterodoxacademy.org if nothing more than to broaden your perspective. Pieces specific to Portland: https://quillette.com/?s=Portland&submit=Search I don’t wholly agree with everything I read on these sites, but they offer a perhaps more honest anecdotal (yet somewhat disturbing) take on the issues of the day.

So I didn’t hear this presentation, but am interested in the transcript or recording if available. Lot more to say, but too little time…

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

A transcript would be very interesting for those of us wondering what the rationale is for the provocative claims called out in this post. I’m a big fan of asking “why?” in an attempt to get to root causes, and identify points of attack for finding solutions. Blaming “racism” may be accurate, but it is not precise. Fixing racism is super hard, but we do have the ability to change our behavior (individually and as a society) and do smaller things differently to alleviate some of the burden that has been placed on certain segments of our population due to nebulous racism. How has transportation been “weaponized”? By intentionally underserving (via lack of public transportation service or pedestrian infrastructure) poor or minority communities? By an increasing prevalence of “pretext stops” of minority drivers (or bicyclists)? By failure to investigate traffic deaths of minority victims? By building freeways through historically black (or other minority) neighborhoods? No doubt all of the above; are any of those things individually addressable?

Given these historical realities, how do they influence the perception of new projects? What are the true fears that arise around infrastructure “improvement” projects in certain neighborhoods? Gentrification (I’ll be forced to move because my rent will skyrocket)? Changing demographics? Higher traffic levels and speeds (my kids/grandma will get run over for sure)? Loss of parking (my business will suffer because my customers can’t park anywhere)? Feeling railroaded into accepting yet another neighborhood disruption (they’ve already put in a freeway and widened the streets, gentrification has already started, and now yet another “project” that benefits everybody but me)? Are any of those fears individually addressable?

Beyond new projects, what are the fears around using the transpo infrastructure we already have? I would be extremely interested in why the lady about whom he related the “gun to my head” anecdote feels that way. Because riding a bike is undignified? Because her neighborhood feels so dangerous that she fears being attacked if not in a car or on a bus? Because motor traffic is too scary? Can any of those individual concerns be mitigated?

I don’t know whether I completely “get” JBone’s very interesting comment above, but something tells me we have a propensity to get hung up on hashtags and “pop sociology” rather than hearing and attempting to understand the feelings and experiences of actual people as individuals. I’m as ignorant as the next guy, but I would love to move beyond bumper-sticker philosophy and parsing the semantics and nuances of labels.

Itgoesbothways
Guest
Itgoesbothways

I’ve been pointing this out for years on this site and constantly got shutdown. I’m glad to see Maus might actually start listening along with his followers. If you want to see diversity, ride the bus. If you want to be with a bunch of white people, ride your bike.