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Oregon DEI: Dead or Alive?

Written by Promise King on Jun. 25th, 2024
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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives in Oregon are dying a slow death.

Whether you support DEI or not, it is hard to ignore, the reticent tirades from the right and the knee-jerk reactions from the left. Many wonder about the future of DEI while reflecting on the complex interplay between historical exclusion and contemporary efforts toward racial inclusion. It is impossible to stitch together government DEI accomplishments to make a compelling case for fairness or continuity. Don’t get me wrong, the alternative of doing nothing is worse. 

Oregon’s past significant exclusionary practices have prompted some leaders in recent legislative panacea, to revive social movements aimed at creating an inclusive and equitable state. The influx of legislators of color mostly advocate DEI in the Oregon House of Assembly and is both a testament to progress and a reminder of persistent challenges to the status quo.

Here’s a little history.

Oregon’s history is riddled with government-sanction exclusion laws that specifically targeted African Americans, influencing the state’s demographic and social landscape. In 1844, the Provisional Government of Oregon passed the first exclusion law, which banned African Americans from settling in the territory and stipulated harsh punishments for those who attempted to stay. This was followed by additional exclusionary measures in 1849 and an explicit clause in the state constitution in 1857, which prohibited African Americans from owning property, entering contracts, and accessing the courts.​ The intent behind these laws was to maintain a homogenous white population and discourage the settlement of African Americans. For instance, Oregon’s 1857 constitution included a “black exclusion clause,” reflecting the racial prejudices of the time and significantly shaping the state’s demographic development for decades​.

In contrast, the state has made strides in promoting DEI through various legislative and social initiatives. Its $200 million covid-time investments to enhance workforce training and resources, for historically underserved remains the only serious attempt at real reforms. 

While tipping toeing on reforms, efforts to broaden minority-owned businesses DEI through the Oregon Minority Business Development Agency failed woefully. Minority and small businesses report inadequate outreach and the absence of compliance mechanisms. They highlighted the need for more effective implementation and oversight functions. 

The strategic Initiatives and accountability that were developed by the Oregon Department of Administrative Services (DAS) to integrate DEI into its strategic initiatives come with weak compliance on performance feedback, and specific DEI guidelines. It suffers strenuously from bureaucratic setbacks and bottlenecks, according to state observers. 

Ensuring the long-term sustainability of DEI programs requires ongoing commitment and resources. Truth be told, defining and measuring the success of DEI initiatives is complex. Clear metrics and a regular evaluation process are essential.  Agencies need robust frameworks to track improvements and identify areas needing further attention, but the current plans are convoluted. 

DEI is great when done well, but egregious when it’s done wrong. The state and most municipalities have been wrong on systems integration and capacity-building.

DEI initiatives must be tailored to address specific community issues, requiring a deep understanding and ongoing dialogue with those communities.

Oregon’s legislative DEI landscape is a mixed bag of successes and setbacks. For instance, SB 1542, which aimed to raise the Corporate Activity Tax exemption, and SB 1573, addressing contractor wage claim liabilities, failed to advance during the recent legislative session. These bills could have significantly provided tax rebates for minority-owned enterprises.

However, the overall effectiveness of DEI efforts hinges on continuous legislative support and removing bureaucratic hurdles that impede progress.

Despite the historical and ongoing challenges, state leaders are increasingly aware of the deep-seated disparities that must be addressed to foster a more inclusive environment. However, the success of these efforts depends on sustained commitment, transparency, and the willingness to adapt and improve upon existing frameworks.

The state must continue to reckon with its exclusionary past, address current bureaucratic challenges, and ensure that all communities, especially the most marginalized, are given equitable opportunities to thrive. Only a healthy DEI buoyed by a bipartisan coalition can deliver on this goal.

Poignantly, State officials need to take cues from the private sector. Private companies like Safeway and institutions like Pacific University have an exceptional DEI template that’s worthy of emulation. Check it out.

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