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Poll: Oregonians Think Society Talks About Race Too Much

<p>Protesters, holding signs reading "The New Civil Rights Movement" and "I can't breathe," stopped traffic on Third Avenue in downtown Portland in December.&nbsp;</p>

Amelia Templeton


Protesters, holding signs reading "The New Civil Rights Movement" and "I can't breathe," stopped traffic on Third Avenue in downtown Portland in December. 

While a wide majority of registered voters in Oregon said racism is still a problem in the state, they also believe race doesn’t need to be talked about so often.

Those are just some of the findings from a recent OPB poll on race relations conducted by Portland firm DHM Research. The poll interviewed 400 registered voters in Oregon and 400 in Washington in mid-April. It had a margin of error of 4.9 percent.

When asked if racism is no longer a problem in Oregon, 76 percent of survey respondents said it’s still an issue. But at the same time, 55 percent of Oregonians polled said they agreed with the idea “we talk too much about race and race relations.”

"It would be nice to see more than just tolerance but true unity," said social worker Joanna Van. She took the poll, and said she felt race relations in the Northwest have room for improvement.

Van is of mixed race and grew up predominantly in a Hispanic community in California. She said she experienced culture shock when she moved to Eugene 16 years ago.

"I love the environmental culture here," Van said. "I wish our good state of Oregon embraced the same enthusiasm for racial diversity and equality."

DHM Pollster John Horvick said there appears to be a tension between how Oregon acknowledges and addresses race.

“I think that (tension) sets a frame for some of the challenges we have politically about dealing with these issues,” he said.

DHM received nearly identical responses from Washington state voters.

Poll results suggest one possible explanation for the conflicting views could be that Northwesterners tend to see race as a national issue, rather than a local one.

A nearly even split of people in Oregon and Washington said they see race relations on the national scale as either generally good or generally bad. But when pollsters asked the same people how race relations were in their own communities, eight in 10 people said they were generally good.

"It seems to be that they're telling us this is a problem somewhere else and not here,” Horvick said.

How police interact with racial minorities has been central to the national discussion of race, but about three in four voters in Oregon and Washington say they feel at least somewhat confident police treat everyone the same, regardless of race.

DHM designed the survey to reflect the complexion of Northwest voters, with more than 80 percent of respondents identifying as white.

Though the survey takers were mostly white, Horvick said a nearly equal number of white and nonwhite respondents said they had experienced racial discrimination at some point in their lives.

Ashland resident and survey taker Kurt Kessler said he's experienced police profiling firsthand. He's white, but has a dark complexion from his Mediterranean ancestry. 

"I get pulled over for all kinds of crap," Kessler said, describing an incident in Klamath Falls. "The first thing the cop asked me was, 'Are you on probation? Do you have a warrant out for your arrest?' I just happened to be driving a beat up car in a nice neighborhood."

Kessler said that, growing up in California's Central Valley and later living in New York City, he saw racial tensions that came out of diverse communities living close together. In Oregon, he doesn't see the collision of cultures as the problem.

"Oregon has got its history," he said, referencing the state's exclusion laws, which aimed to keep African Americans out until the 20th Century. "You don't have white supremacists marching down the street anymore, but I don't think people realize they have ideas that are racist."

Copyright 2015 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Ryan Haas has been with Oregon Public Broadcasting since 2013. His work has won numerous awards, including two National Magazine Award nominations for the podcast "Bundyville." Prior to working at OPB, Haas worked at newspapers in Illinois, Florida, Oregon and the Caribbean.