Portland Public Schools in Black and White

Portland Public Schools is in the news for the pending strike next Wednesday, and I was surprised to see that the most expensive of Oregon school districts was featured so prominently in an influential 1997 book on race in America that I have been reading, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom’s America in Black and White. I have been steadily reading up on this topic in the wake of the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. This is one of the best such books I’ve read so far.

The Thernstroms, a husband and wife team of historians, cite a revealing passage in a 1987 curriculum guide that Portland Public Schools developed and became a leader in:

The black child “uses language requiring a wide use of many coined interjections (sometimes profanity),” according to the African-American Baseline Essays, teaching material for an “Afrocentric curriculum” published in 1987 by the largely white Portland, Oregon, school system, and subsequently adopted as a teaching guide in Atlanta, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale and other cities.

That is a racist stereotype, but we’re not talking about a relic of white supremacy from an anachronistic age. Since the 1980s, Portland has been a pioneer in developing a progressive approach to teaching minority-majority schools, such as Jefferson High School. Portland Public School District produced the urtext of progressive race pedagogy:

A volume produced by the Portland, Oregon, public school system, African-American Baseline Essays, is the only textbook produced by the Afrocentric movement so far. It is the primary source, for example, of the Afrocentric instruction given from kindergarten through the twelfth grade to 60,000 students in the Atlanta public schools, a system in which 92 percent of the students and 93 percent of the teachers are black. Although the superintendent of the Portland public schools assured the reader that each of the six “baseline essays” were the work of “an individual who was both knowledgeable about the specific discipline and recognized as an expert on African and African-American history,” and that each one was reviewed by a long list of committees and consultants, this was not true. The essay on science, for instance, was written by someone with no college education at all. The only scientific credentials of the author, one Hunter Adams, were a high school diploma and work experience as a lab technician.

Adams’s lack of credentials might have been excusable if his work had been better, but it was scandalously bad. His contribution to the Portland teacher’s guide was a defense of the proposition that “African people are the wellspring of creativity on which the foundation of all science, technology, and engineering rests”—that, for instance, the ancient Egyptians had understood the “pervasive transmaterial” causes beyond “the material cause-and-effect relationships of modern science,” and had anticipated “many of the philosophical aspects of quantum theory” as used in modern physics.

At the heart of Adams’s essay is the claim that “for the ancient Egyptians as well as contemporary Africans worldwide, there is no distinction and thus no separation between science and religion.” Note the curious reference to “contemporary Africans worldwide,” which clearly is intended to include black students in the United States today. Such students are being told that in their culture—which is totally distinct from the culture of the United States, the Portland essays insist—science and religion are regarded as one. It would seem to follow that they would be untrue to their racial heritage if they learned to think about the question from the perspective of modern science, which insists upon precisely that separation.

The Thernstroms reveal how Portland Public Schools has a history of racially stereotyping black children and explicitly telling them they are “other” people, separate from the rest of America. However, unlike many vestiges of America’s racist past, this is something that has festered into an institutional norm that remains in place today.

When questions are raised about Critical Race Theory (CRT) in our schools, this is what those questioners are raising questions about. Often the answer is that CRT is not taught in K-12 schools, that this is an esoteric topic found only in higher education. That’s a misinterpretation of the issue. CRT is the school of thought that produces progressive pedagogy on race like Portland’s African-American Baseline Essays. CRT became a household word last year, but it’s not a new thing. This has been going on for more than three decades in Portland Public Schools.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.