Oregon State University

A History of Difference, Power, and discrimination at Oregon State University (1 of 4)

Authors:  Joan Gross and Janet Nishihara

Reprinted with permission from the authors of this chapter and the publisher.


The title of this chapter is purposefully ambiguous. Are we talking about the Difference, Power, and Discrimination (DPD) Program, the focus of this book, or the presence of difference, power, and discrimination at Oregon State University? We chose this ambiguous title to highlight the connection and the difference, between the cause of inequality and the desire to combat it. Our first task, then, is to show how the Difference, Power, and Discrimination Program at Oregon State University developed in a climate permeated with issues concerning difference, power, and discrimination. For most of its history as Oregon’s land grant institution, the university did not consider issues such as these to be valid topics of inquiry. The assumption of the founders of Oregon Agricultural College in 1868 was that their privilege was rightfully earned.

Many Oregonians take pride in their state’s historical stance as an antislavery state. While it is true that slavery was outlawed in the Oregon Territory in 1844, this action looks far less humanitarian when matched with the fact that, five years later, a law was passed to exclude “negroes and mulattoes” from residing in the territory. It seems highly possible, then, that Oregonians were not against slavery because it was a dehumanizing institution, but, rather, because they did not want Black people living in their state.

One reason for setting up barriers to Black people migrating into Oregon country was stated as “self-preservation.” White people did not want to lose their privileged colonial position vis-à-vis Native Americans in the territory. Black people had shown themselves to be more politically savvy than tribal leaders in other parts of the country and White Oregonians were afraid that free Blacks would incite Native Americans to rise up against Whites.

The Negroes associate with the Indians and intermarry, and if their free ingress is encouraged or allowed, there would be a relationship spring up between them and the different tribes, and a mixed race would ensue inimical to the whites; and the Indians being led on by the negro who is better acquainted with the customs, language, and manners of the whites, than the Indian, these savages would become much more formidable than they otherwise would, and long and bloody wars would be the fruits of the co-mingling of the races. It is the principle of self-preservation that justifies the action of the Oregon legislation. (Oregon representative, Samuel Thurston as quoted in McLagan 1980:30–31)

One gets the picture here that, at some level, Whites understood that their privilege was built on the suppression of people of color. The colonial strategy of divide and rule that worked so well might be severely compromised if Blacks and Indians came together in the Northwest as they had in other parts of the country.

A stellar example of White privilege in the Northwest is the Oregon Land Donation Act of 1850. This act made sure that White people controlled the wealth of the land even before Oregon became a state. Three hundred and twenty acres were offered to “White men” over twenty-one and their wives. That this land had provided the sustenance for multiple tribal groups who had been forced off the land and onto reservations not of their choosing was not something that the new owners of the land worried much about.

When Oregon became a state in 1859, an exclusionary clause was written into the state constitution.

No free Negro or mulatto, not residing in this state at the time of the adoption of this constitution, shall come, reside, or be within this state, or hold any real estate, or make any contracts, or maintain any suit therein; and the legislative assembly shall provide by penal laws for the removal by public officers of all negros and mulattos, and for their effectual exclusion from the state, and for the punishment of persons who shall bring them into the state, or employ or harbor them. (Oregon Bill of Rights Section 35)

In addition, the constitution stated that, “no Negro, Chinaman, or Mulatto shall have the right of suffrage.”

Eight years after obtaining statehood, Oregon passed a statute deeming it unlawful for any White person to marry any “Negro, Chinese, or any person having one-quarter or more Negro, Chinese or kanaka [native Hawaiian] blood, or any person having more than one-half Indian blood.” The earliest White settlers were Euro Canadians, many of whom married Indian wives. The higher allowable blood quantum for Indians reflects this earlier history, while at the same time attempting to make a clean break with what produced it. This antimiscegenation law stayed on the books until 1951.

Apparently, however, there were limits to the level of hate that Oregon legislators would allow coded into law. In 1864, the state legislature declined to pass an amendment proposed by a representative from Yamhill that stated that:

A Negro, Chinaman, or Indian has no rights which a white man is bound to respect, and that a white man may murder, robe, rape, shoot, stab and cut any of those worthless, vagabond races, without being called to account thereof: Provided, he shall do said acts of bravery and chivalry when no white man is troubled by seeing the same. (Oregon Statesman, Oct. 3, 1964 as quoted in McLagan 1980:65)

While never passed, this proposal by an elected member of the people shows the level of racism that affected Oregonians at the time. This passage is particularly unsettling given that disturbing the tranquility of another White man was considered to be of far more importance than the listed violent acts perpetrated against people of color.

Oregon’s legal discrimination towards people of color butted up against the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that states that:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. (Amendment 14, Section 1)

Oregon ratified this Amendment in 1866 and it was ratified nationally in 1868. Oregon repealed its ratification one month after national ratification, but this move was superseded by the federal law that also abrogated the Oregon exclusion clause. The state itself did not get around to removing this exclusion clause from its constitution until sixty years later in 1926.

The state was also caught in the waves of anti-Asian sentiment working their way up and down the west coast. The various crests of these waves resulted in the exclusion of Chinese laborers in 1882 and workers from Japan in 1924. Coinciding with the growth of the anti-Asian sentiment was the growth of the Ku Klux Klan’s influence, which experienced a surge up through the 1920s. Thousands of Klansmen (including municipal, county and state officials) all over the state worked to preserve Oregon for White Protestants, carrying out open campaigns against Jews, Catholics, Asians and Blacks. The prevalence of their beliefs can be seen in the election of Klan advocate Walter Pierce as governor in 1922. He supported the passage of the Oregon Alien Land Law in 1923 that prevented Japanese and Chinese immigrants from buying or leasing land. The law went so far as to prohibit any “alien ineligible for citizenship” (a euphemism for any immigrant from Asia) from even operating farm equipment while in the employ of an eligible citizen.

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