A friend recently asked me as a public official and lifelong Portlander what my thoughts were on the Portland protests and how I envision the path forward. I thought about the question and arrived at seven key lessons from my observations over the last [months]... To me, whether we seize this moment to make meaningful change, boils down to whether we’re “playing to win” or whether we’re just “playing to not lose.
1. Racism is real. To truly understand this statement, one must understand what racism is and how it functions. Racism is racial bigotry aligned with institutional power. We can all be bigots. We can all hate, fear, or harbor prejudices toward someone else because of perceived racial differences. But, unless that bigotry can be weaponized into a system that disadvantages entire groups of people at every conceivable turn— even in the absence of any personal animus— then it's not racism. In Portland (and Oregon state), there is a history of weaponizing our systems with a clear disadvantage to the communities of color— most acutely against Black people— who were explicitly named in discriminatory policy, statute, and law; both in public policy and private practice. This isn’t some vestige from our distant past. Many victims of these explicit racist policies, from redlining to segregated schools, are not only alive today, they are members of this very community. If we are truly “playing to win,” which means to acknowledge, study, and implement rules to counter the system that disadvantages and undo harm done. Playing to “not lose”- indicates it has no effect, the issue is too big, or overlooks the issue as either a symptom or disease and usually looks like avoiding uncomfortable conversations about race.
2. Protests are necessary. They hold us to our highest ambitions, our highest collective values, and to our promises. You don't have to know how racism was implemented, to feel its effects, to know it hurts, just like you don't have to know how a virus attacks the system, replicates, and spreads to feel symptoms of the illness. Protests serve as a reminder of what has been a lingering sickness. Sure, some protests have caused damage, some have been co-opted and subsumed by other causes, and many of the participants may not actually support the cause they show up for. But that shouldn’t distract us. In this context, playing to win means addressing the key concerns, understanding the context, and holding ourselves accountable. Whereas, playing to not lose looks like meaningless statements, decentering the actual cause, and hoping to “wait it out.
3. History matters. Our entire legal system is based on the concept of precedent and the notion that what was decided before is right and just. We celebrate holidays commemorating events that took before any of us were alive (the 4th of July, for example). History also determines in large part where each of us was able to begin in life. Some of us have inherited wealth that was acquired before any of us were alive, built off the backs and labor of others, from a time when the playing field was stacked in favor of some while explicitly denying those same opportunities to others. And just as you can inherit wealth, so too can you inherit poverty. We constantly project the past into the present: through our social construct, through our celebrations, through our financial system, through our infrastructure and built environment (roads, bridges, etc), and through law. Playing to win means understanding the unfair impact of this legacy and adjusting for it. Playing to not lose is thinking that we can work to dismantle the enduring legacy of this unfairness and these injustices using the same tools that created them to begin with. Many of these tools are hammers—everything in their path is a nail—and they were intentionally created to deliver one thing, and intentionally difficult to dismantle.
4. The means and the ends must justify each other. Yes, where we are going matters—and so does how we get there. In a humane and civilized society, both the ends and the means must be justifiable. Throughout Portland’s recent history, hospitals, sports arenas, and highways were built exclusively in neighborhoods where law, social constructs, and policy prevented the residents of those neighborhoods (so many of whom were Black) from fighting back against development that would force them from their homes and communities. We know our structural responses to crime, environmental damage, discipline, and nearly every intersection where something is deemed "criminal" has used the most aggressive, abusive, and inhumane responses as status quo depending on the community historically being served. And, yes, that means that we must change what we do, as well as how we do it. Playing to win means addressing our systemic errors, and continuing to push for changes and expecting changes in the future; meeting the demands of our community. Playing to not lose: ignoring data and hoping minor fixes will make the problem go away.
5. We are who we are, because of who we are. Read that again. Our country, our state, and our city are who we are because of the indigenous peoples whose land we now occupy. Because of the immigrants from the continents of Asia, North/South & Central America, Africa (indentured, enslaved, and free), and Europe. Because of the influence of these various cultures on developing our way of life. All have contributed to our unique tapestry that has yet to be replicated in any other country on earth. All have made us “us.” The motto of the U.S., E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”) reminds us that we are a nation founded on this idea, and this fundamental truth remains at the heart of who we are. Playing to win means embracing this tapestry and creating space for everyone to contribute—both to drive our economy and also to live up to our promise. This includes listening to uncomfortable truths, acknowledging wrongs, accepting that what may not have been our fault, is still our responsibility, reconciling, and deconstructing systemic errors. Playing to not lose is hoping this issue goes away, victim blaming, shrinking to the challenge.
6. Technical mechanisms and deliverables must be adjusted. We can all hear the cries from our communities as they march in the streets for basic human decency. We must examine how the policy tools we have can either be adjusted, or innovated and replaced altogether, in order to better serve everyone. Need examples? An education system that understands the needs of impoverished students—who, through no fault of their own, were born into an inherited disadvantage—and sees the potential in all of them; or a community safety platform that creates a livable shared environment for us all; or an infrastructure development system that protects both the people and the environment. The tools we have must be wielded in a way to protect, grow, and create the space to thrive for us all. Playing to win means examining systems for their intent and answering the hard questions. Playing to not lose is hoping that the questions go away, that the techniques used will yield a different result, or simply acquiescing to the belief that change is too hard.
7. We must continue to innovate for the common good. In my heart, I’m a cynic—and I mean I’m a cynic cynic. I don't believe anyone or anything, in any place, ever. Even with that mindset, however, I recognize that we have only improved when we've pushed to improve. That's both exciting and dangerous. And it's who we are. For a country that has been home to such revolutionary and catalytic innovations as the combustion engine, the automobile, the lightbulb, gridded electrical systems, peanut butter, basketball, and Facebook, it is not beyond us to continue innovating to improve our society for everyone. We've improved our standard of living (and must continue to), and this comes through innovation for all of us. We've done it before, we can do it again. Public school, air traffic control, transportation infrastructure – these are all ways we've used innovation to improve our knowledge base, our connectedness, and our communities. To play to win, we must continue driving innovation in service of public needs and the common good. If we give in to fear-mongering and continue ignoring data, we will just be playing to not lose.
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