LIKE MANY PEOPLE in my Oregon hometown of Newberg, I was shocked when in May 2021 a slate of Far-Right candidates received enough votes to take over the local school board. The Newberg schools seemed stable — thriving, even. But then the candidates’ successful campaign turned on the politicized promise to “take politics out of schools.” Once elected, they rewrote the district’s equity and diversity policies and instituted a ban on Black Lives Matter and Pride flags in classrooms.
“Getting back to the basics,” “fighting for liberty,” “restoring God in schools”: In the last two years, I’ve learned how often this language is used to justify discrimination. Shortly after the new school board instated a flag ban, Newberg became a toxic sludge of racism and division. Emboldened Proud Boys showed up to wave flags from our town square. High school students “slave traded” their Black peers on a Snapchat group. An educational assistant turned up at school in blackface, protesting vaccine mandates. It felt as though the school board’s policy decisions opened a door and hate-filled elements tumbled through.
Nearly two centuries ago and only 20 miles from my hometown, a newly established Oregon government crafted laws to exclude Black people from settling in the state. Jacob Vanderpool, a hotelier in Oregon City, was the first and only person formally expelled from my state because of his race. Sarah L. Sanderson’s new book, The Place We Make, narrates Vanderpool’s story, revealing how he was tried and convicted for transgressing Oregon’s Black exclusion laws, the first of which was instituted in 1844, followed by others. Vanderpool was exiled after a fellow hotel owner charged him with being a “mulatto,” and thus illegally in Oregon.