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How Hidden Racism Plagues Small Town America

How Hidden Racism Plagues Small Town America

A story about the severe treatment of blackness in Monmouth and the people attempting to rectify it.

There’s an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. It’s Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020 —an unusually sunny day for the Pacific Northwest during this time of year.  It’s 4:30 p.m. and there are 15 people spread across the four corners of Main Street and Highway 99W, the busiest intersection in Monmouth, Oregon.  

They’re participating in what has become the city’s daily Black Lives Matter protest, wearing masks, holding homemade signs and waving at drivers. Some cars slow down honking in support, adding the occasional smile and wave back to the demonstrators. Other vehicles slow down for different reasons. Opposers of this demonstration lean out of their windows while raising fists and middle fingers, to shout phrases like, “Trump 2020!,” “All lives matter!,” and “Fuck you!”

As I stood there documenting the scene, I felt hyper-aware of my Blackness. I was the only Black person there and sadly, this was something other demonstrators expressed as being commonplace. No other moment in my life has revealed to me more clearly than this one that my skin makes people both enraged and uncomfortable. Only 3.2% of the people who live in Monmouth, a city which is only an hour south of Portland, are Black. And this city is plagued by an issue that towns and cities across the nation face: the erasure of Black experiences and discriminatory treatment of Black people. 

During the hour occupied between the corners of the busiest intersection in Monmouth, I realized how, even as a guest in this city, my experience reflects how Black people feel here every single day: out of place and brutally uncomfortable. But, Monmouth doesn’t have a monopoly on making Black Americans uncomfortable.  

In the past four years, the mistreatment of Black Americans in all aspects, socially, judicially and medically, have been made more and more public. However, in recent years, the struggles and injustices of the Black community have been positively amplified by the Black Lives Matter movement. Through protests, demonstrations, lie-ins and rallies, supporters of the message and goals of Black Lives Matter have been able to make effective changes for the Black community. Yet, despite frequent cultural representations that the United States is one of the most progressive countries in regards to civil and human rights, the U.S. has vilified, criminalized and discriminated  against Black Americans since the country’s founding on the enslavement of Africans. BLM supports the rationale that positive changes can occur by finally hearing the voices of those oppressed and brutalized by a criminal justice system that is rooted in racism and subjugation. 

Much like the rest of the country, anti-Blackness is at the root of Oregon’s history. Fifteen years before Oregon became a state in 1859, the territory’s governing body began passing a series of Black exclusion laws that attempted to prevent Black people from settling in Oregon. Those laws weren’t officially repealed until 1926. 

And even though the state was anti-slavery, these laws utilized the violent acts associated with slavery by subjecting Black people to whippings every six months, “no more than 39 times” for staying in Oregon territory longer than three years. In 1921, roughly 77 years after the passing of the first exclusion law, the presence of the Ku Klux Klan began to surge, reaching membership totals upward of 40,000, according to Ben Bruce who published an article on “The Rise and Fall of The Ku Klux Klan in Oregon During the 1920s” at Chapman University. In the neighboring states of California and Washington, the combined Klan totals for both states never exceeded 40,000. These numbers are staggering considering that, at the time Oregon’s membership totals had almost doubled, despite the population of California being five times that of Oregon’s.  

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The Klan was widely successful in Oregon and even succeeded in electing many of its members into local and state governments which allowed them to pass legislation that furthered their agenda. The Oregon Klan was the largest KKK organization in the West and despite fading in the 1930s, small chapters are rumored to still exist across the state. 

Located in Polk County, Monmouth has a population of approximately 10,500 people. Roughly 80% of that population is white. 

According to the U.S. Census, 61% of the country lives in small cities and towns with populations under 50,000. The Housing Assistance Council tabulated the 2010 census publication to showcase that the racial makeup of rural and small towns is less diverse than the rest of the country with 78% White and only 8.2% African American. Although the Black population in Monmouth is roughly 5%, the city’s demographics are comparable to other small towns across the country.

In a city with so few Black Americans relative to the rest of the local population, the choice to stand at these four corners in Monmouth and hold signs is arguably more intimidating and courageous than standing on any corner in Portland. Here, their faces are remembered, their message is clear and their impact is causing waves across the city. ︎︎︎