We Stand with Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef.
We condemn the attempts by Portland’s political establishment to discredit the veracity of Charter Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef’s recent social media statements calling City Manager Jon Jennings a white supremacist. Elected and appointed officials both mischaracterized her statements: as “hate-filled attacks on a person’s character” (Mayor Kate Snyder) “untruthful personal attacks” (Councilor Spencer Thibodeau) and “an attempt to assassinate my character” (City Manager Jon Jennings).
We further denounce their attempt to impugn Sheikh-Yousef’s qualifications for service on the Charter Commission. As a Black woman, Sheikh-Yousef is eminently qualified to identify white supremacy where she sees it. Her lived experience as an immigrant and person of color living in Portland is exactly what qualifies her to serve on this Commission.
White supremacy in 21st century Portland is manifest in the housing, policing, labor, and healthcare policies that Jon Jennings has put forward in his professional capacity as City Manager. These policies are embedded in and uphold a system that exacerbates racial inequalities in Portland, and perpetuates the false assumption that white people do better because they are inherently better. Currently, these white supremacist assumptions are being further reinforced through the local news media and the political rhetoric of some members of our City Council.
Portland’s cultural identity is centered on white people. Our dominant culture primarily portrays our city’s past as a story of progress and prosperity, individualizing problems like poverty, crime, sickness, and urban decay as the result of poor choices, laziness, and moral failings. Even Portland’s multitude of means-tested social programs are founded on the assumption that people can pull themselves up through hard work. This false narrative erases the impact that city policies past and present have had on racial disparities.
From deep in our history up to the present day, when it comes to basic human needs like housing, employment, health, public safety, and education, we live in two different Portlands. In the Urban Renewal period of the early twentieth century, immigrant neighborhoods were bulldozed and working class people displaced to make way for Franklin Street. More recently, the immiseration and eviction of immigrants and General Assistance recipients at Bayside Village cleared the way for market rate housing. In these cases, as well as many others, demonstrate that the development policies of Portland are rooted in, and continue to exacerbate, white wealth and privilege. These policies perpetuate the stereotype that white people are inherently more capable.
The policing of Black Communities and higher arrest rates for Black Portlanders is a reflection of the punitive policing practices in Portland’s low-income neighborhoods made possible through historic redlining and the contemporary segregation of public housing projects and homeless shelters from white wealthy neighborhoods.
A City Council that condemns hatred and bigotry while doing nothing to change the structures that create it is white supremacist. It is not enough to form committees to study racism and fund public art that lifts up Black voices, while at the same time attempting to block the rebuilding of our most diverse elementary schools, opposing Earned Paid Sick Leave for disproportionately Black and Brown workers, undermining a ban on pesticides that poison low-income communities, blocking attempts by the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee to expand oversight of police, and lobbying the State legislature to pass laws criminalizing the documentation of police brutality. People of color, immigrants, low income, and transgender people have been systematically rooted out of our community through decades of city leadership in a system designed 100 years ago by the Chamber of Commerce and the KKK expressly for the enrichment of the ownership class at the expense of workers and people of color. This system continues to fill this role today under City Manager Jon Jennings, with the complicity and support of our City Council that prioritizes development, tourism, and investors over the needs of the people who live here.
We are, all who fail to see it, white supremacists.