K-12 DIGEST: Oregon's Newberg School District has a race problem that can't be fixed

In less than a month, individuals and groups associated with the Newberg School District in Oregon have shown that their community is struggling with race and racism in a powerful way.

School board officials are working to ban symbols associated with racial and sexual identity activism from schools. Students in a high school have been disciplined for participating in an online mock ‘slave trade’ of Black classmates, and a teacher has been suspended for showing up to work in blackface to protest vaccine mandates.

Newberg is a predominantly white, affluent suburb of Portland, which has a long history of racial animus and recent expressions of people growing tired of inequality forced by past and present systems contaminated by racism.

Largely conservative, it is the kind of place that gets lost in the industrial and political conversations about a changing America, and the struggles for social norms to reverse course in turbulent times.

The district has attracted national attention for the teacher’s blackface incident, and it has only pulled back the layers on the stories which underscore the problems with race and identity in a town with just 23,000 residents.

The race problem is not centered around the actions or beliefs of the population, but that there just simply aren’t enough minorities to make a case for better treatment or policy of minority constituents. Of those 23,000 residents, more than 80% of residents classify themselves as White with 10% of that number self-reporting as White with Hispanic ethnicity.

There simply is no reason for 8 out of 10 residents in a community to concede to a moral authority championed by a racial minority. Even with appeals to the board for a kinder, gentler approach to race relations in the school system from state lawmakers and local elected officials, its members have no incentive to go away from a conservative socio-political agenda for a more progressive approach, if the game can be easily and publicly defined as making public education more ‘race-neutral.’

Population change is not on pace with the politics of the region. Short of some budgetary penalty from the state, the math and the moment just don’t add up for Newberg to take a different approach to social reconciliation.

If the school board membership is this willing to use its powers as an expression of political resentment and social stubbornness, then God help the students and teachers who will use this moment to justify other moments where they think tensions can only be resolved with more drastic action.