Members of the Oregon House of Representatives on this week discussed the state’s racist history and continuing discrimination as they approved a bill that would promote inclusiveness.
The measure, which passed by a 45-15 vote and now goes to the Senate, aims to have universities and community colleges achieve “cultural competency,” which it defines as responding respectfully and effectively to people from all walks of life. They would need to provide oversight for cultural competency standards, provide training for staff, establish goals and report on progress.
Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon, a Democrat from Woodburn and one of the bill’s sponsors and the first immigrant Latina in the Oregon House, hugged Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas and the only African-American in the House, after the vote.
During often emotional arguments by lawmakers for and against the bill, Bynum referred to Oregon’s original constitution that prohibited black people from residing in the territory. She said she was reminded of that by the huge mural of white settlers that hangs at the front of the chamber, saying “my people are not up there.”
Rep. Diego Hernandez, a Democrat from Portland, recalled how, when he was playing ultimate Frisbee in college, a school staffer used a racial slur to suggest that since he was a minority he wear light-colored clothing so he could be more easily seen by his teammates. Hernandez said he didn’t believe that person meant harm by the comment, but that such cultural insensitivity could leave lasting scars.
The bill requires state universities and community colleges to train their employees to treat “people from all cultures, economic statuses, language backgrounds, races, ethnic backgrounds, disabilities, religions, genders, gender identifications, sexual orientations, veteran statuses and other characteristics in a manner that recognizes, affirms and values the worth, and preserves the dignity, of individuals, families and communities.”
There was concern, though, that the law could get out of hand.
“Who decides … what’s appropriate and inappropriate,” asked Rep. Duane Stark, R-Grants Pass.
Another lawmaker described growing up in a small white community in Washington state, and said he was unprepared for the diversity he encountered in later years. Rep. Jeff Reardon, D-Happy Valley, urged his colleagues to not “overblow” the bill.
“It’s meant to bring understanding … of how we interact with people in this global society we live in,” Reardon said.
Jose Padin, president of the Oregon State Conference of the American Association of University Professors and a professor at Portland State University, wrote in support of the bill, saying it “strikes a good balance that furthers inclusion while preserving academic freedom.”