Friday, June 2, 2017

Some aspects of structural racism in Salem

We often say that racism has a structural aspect to it, and that if you don’t get that racism is part of both the base and superstructure of society then you don’t get racism or you’re not fully prepared to struggle against it. The conversation or movement now taking place among the dominant business interests and city officials in Salem may be a good illustration of what we’re talking about. Salem’s economy is booming, but the economic gains being made are not being shared by everyone.

The following comes from notes I made during a recent presentation by Marin Arreola of Advanced Economic Solutions, Salem mayor Chuck Bennett and others. You get a feel of where Marin Arreola is coming from as you read the following bio piece on a charity website:

Marin Arreola is owner and president of Advanced Economic Solutions Inc., located in Salem, Oregon. The consulting firm focuses on economic, business and workforce development. Marin has designed and implemented business, economic workforce development projects with the Oregon Economic & Community Development, Department, Oregon Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development Department, Governor’s Office of Business & Equity, Oregon Employment Department, City of Salem…Microsoft, Intel, Wells Fargo, State Farm, SAIF Corporation, US Bank, Hoffman Construction, New York Life, Salem Hospital, etc.

He was a business delegate who met with then Vice President Dick Cheney to provide insight on small business and economic development issues. Marin is passionate about community service and involvement and has served on many boards including, Chemeketa Community College Foundation, Chair of Salem Area Chamber of Commerce Latino Network…

The city’s population is about 70 per cent white, 24 per cent Hispanic, 2.1 per cent Asian, 1.7 per cent African American, .6 per cent Native American and 1.4 per cent Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander. I believe that some groups are undercounted, but let’s accept these numbers as more-or-less real for the sake of discussion. In our schools, the student population is about 50 per cent white, 40 per cent Hispanic, and 5 per cent multiracial, 2 per cent Asian, 2 per cent Pacific Islander, 1 per cent African American, and 1 per cent Native American. About 72 languages are spoken by the students. Almost 82 per cent of Salem’s residents speak English at home; only about 14 per cent of Hispanics here report speaking only Spanish at home. Again, I think that there is some undercounting, but it’s clear that the school system is now “majority minority” and that proficiency in English is advancing.

When we look at household income, we see that Asian households here have an income of $60,956, whites have an income of $46,821, Native Americans have a household income of $40,499, African Americans have a household income of $34,129, and Hispanics have an income of $30,935. This is offset a bit by the average age of the Asian community being 35.3 years and the average age of the white population here being 42 years, but the average age of African Americans in Salem is 44.9 years, the average age of Salem Hispanics is 21.2 years, and the average age of Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders here is 30 years. So some people are going into old age quite poor and some people seem to be working quite hard as young people and not getting very far very fast. Latino participation in the workforce has increased by 269 per cent over the last 10 years, so it’s reasonable to ask where the advancement is and to understand that large numbers of people are moving into the working-class.

Housing statistics illustrate stratification: 76.6 per cent of African Americans here are renters, 66.8 per cent of Hispanics are renters, 45.5 per cent of whites rent, and 39.2 per cent of Asians rent. Eighty-six percent of so-called “mixed race” people here are renters. Whites have a household income well below that of Asians, and higher than that of others, but have high home ownership. Hispanics and African Americans are largely shut out of home ownership. There is a clear disconnect between language skills, age, race and home ownership.

Before anyone focuses on Asian wealth and home ownership here in Salem, taking these out of the context of all that is going on here, we need to say that Asian and Pacific Islander poverty in the U.S. is relatively high, that Salem cannot be an exception to national trends over a long period of time, and that people who want to engage on these issues should start with the ChangeLab website  and this essential radio documentary.

The common story is that Latinos are concentrated in agriculture and that this holds back social advancement. The reality is that almost 28 per cent of Latinos work in the service sector, almost 21 per cent work in construction and natural resources, almost 18 per cent work in production and transport, almost 18 per cent work in sales and in offices, and almost 16 per cent work in management, business services and the arts. There are about 4000 Latino-owned firms in the area employing about 16,000 workers and doing almost $400 million in annual sales. At this point in the social conversation taking place the local businesspeople and city officials stop tracking everyone else because their primary interests are in finding compliant Latino workers and selling to the Latino community.

We read the available statistics as saying that the service sector is a low-wage sector which cannot provide long-term economic security. We also believe that manufacturing will stay flat in our area over the next 10 years and that healthcare will likely advance as a primary source of steady employment. Latinos and African Americans are not advancing through the local healthcare industries or institutions in large numbers. Business ownership does not appear as a way forward for most people if we look at the Hispanic experience: Hispanic-owned businesses may lead the region in income, but this is not translating into high home ownership or a high annual household income.

Local businesses and city officials are more interested in accessing Latino consumers than they are in reaching any other ethnic market, at least to hear them tell it. There are many problems with this. Looking at people as consumers and as compliant workers and exploring ways to tap into small business owner’s savings in order to develop a larger financial planning sector in Salem is exploitative. In practice it may well mean white-owned and Asian-owned businesses entering the Latino community without regard to existing businesses already in place. It could mean gentrification along Portland Road and the Lancaster corridor. With gentrification and city-backed loans to “traded sector” businesses (businesses which create products which are sold elsewhere) will come stress on housing, making home-buying even more difficult.

The Career Technical Education Center on Portland road will get more attention, and less attention will be paid to a school experience which emphasizes critical thinking. All of this divides working-class people and communities of color and leads to tensions---and a white-run, capitalist power structure will benefit. If young people do not have a democratic role in creating their education, and if all they have to look forward to are service sector jobs, then dropping-out can be seen as a rational step.

The footnotes that the city will depend on federal funding for low-income housing assistance and that tax abatements for businesses in enterprise zones are linked to what companies pay in wages are unrealistic guarantees. The Trump administration cannot be depended upon to provide assistance, and wages need to be set and then indexed upwards at $15 an hour. The emphasis on Salem’s downtown as a business center is racist in practice so long as people of color are not welcomed downtown and there is no weekend bus service.

In my neighborhood in northeast Salem there are 9 pot stores within easy walking distance but only one small manufacturing center. The pot industry may create some living-wage jobs and capital, but the long-term direction of the industry will be the same as any other capitalist industry: small producers and businesses forced to yield to monopolization, a rise and then a decrease in the overall rate of profit, and cost-cutting and wage-cutting. The pot industry will likely follow the model used by the liquor industry of selective and racially- or economically-based marketing and special exploitation. We already see lots of pot stores in working-class northeast Salem but none in the affluent neighborhoods of south and west Salem. This is one way in which consumers are being created from oppressed groups and an example of how a community's wealth is being redistributed.

The local businesspeople who want to further exploit the Hispanic population talk a great deal about Salem’s diversity. Racism as it has been constructed is a barrier to profits and has to go. Sometimes the community benefits from this, but more often the community doesn’t benefit because profits are at stake. And when we look to the future we should be aware that the very definition of “whiteness” can change, as it did for the Irish and Italians who were once excluded. Joining the club meant the dissolution of their communities. The contradiction today is that if a community targeted for exploitation is disappeared into whiteness then the profits also disappear.

The white, capitalist power structure is relying in part on groups like the Latino Business Alliance. Those organizations will be caught in a vice if push comes to shove and the community fully mobilizes behind a progress and self-determination political agenda. An insecure middle-class is not a trustworthy social force.

City and business officials are not asking themselves why there are so few Black people in Salem and what can be done to change that. Ditto for other racial and ethnic groups. These officials have no plan for protecting the very vulnerable Latino population and nothing is being said about the current loss of wealth now taking place as deportations happen or are threatened. The statistics show particular problems faced by so-called “mixed race” people here, but they and Black, Native American and Hawaiian and Pacific Islander peoples are being excised from the script. It’s a divide-conquer-profit system from start to finish.

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