Racism still an issue — even here
Headlines screaming about racially charged shootings have shot up dramatically in the past few years, signaling widespread conversation about the relationship between race, the country’s police force and the mistreatment of black people. But while these topics have just recently surfaced on the 24-hour news cycle, longtime Roseburg resident Howard Johnson said the problem never went away.
“It’s been going on since 1609 and the perception that this is a racial problem is probably pushing white folks to the limit because they don’t see that we have a race problem anymore,” he said, noting the beginning of black slavery in this country. “But the race problem has gotten uglier in my opinion — it’s gotten worse.”
That race problem is something Johnson, one of the 331 black or African American residents in Douglas County, according to the 2014 U.S. census, is all too familiar with. As a corporate controller for D.R. Johnson Lumber in Riddle, a Roseburg School Board member and the founder and pastor of Bethany Bible Fellowship in Roseburg, Johnson has experienced racism within the last year.
When he moved to Roseburg in 1989, he received multiple death threats, including one from a local pastor who told Johnson, “if you take my one token black member, I’m coming for you,” Johnson said. Since then, Johnson has continued to receive threats, which is why his church’s phone routes to his own phone to deter late-night callers who want to leave a threatening message.
“When they call at 2 in the morning and I pick up and say, ‘Good morning,’ suddenly their threat isn’t so important,” he said.
Which makes killings like the one in Dallas, Texas, Thursday night so difficult to swallow. Not only because of the tragic slayings, but because it will likely become the most recent missed opportunity to have a constructive conversation about the racial stigma that plagues America.
“When we draw a line in the sand for how black people look at these problems, and how white people look at it, you’re going to get two polar opposite views which will restrain good conversation when these incidents should be used as a focal point,” he said. “If we get into a room and talk, we could solve a lot of problems.”
And that conversation needs to happen everywhere — including Douglas County.
“When I moved to Roseburg in 1989 there was a half dozen people who were willing to admit they were black,” he said. “Did you catch that? Willing to admit they were black. ... Now there’s a lot more and people think that since I’m black I’m supposed to know every black person in town, but I don’t.”
People don’t have to agree with Johnson’s ideas, he said, but he said the country needs to sit in a room, check their egos at the door and have a conversation.
“Right now, if you use the word ‘race’ in the presence of a white person, they stop listening and they get defensive and say, ‘I’m not a racist,’” he said.
But if you’re in the presence of a racist incident, and you don’t do anything, you, according to Johnson, are part of the problem, too.
“In police jargon they say you are an accessory to the fact,” he said. “If you’re an accessory to the fact, you’re just as guilty as the fact, so if you know your neighbor is doing something racist and you don’t do anything, you’re an accessory to that neighbor.”
On Friday, Roseburg Police department spokesman Jeff Eichenbusch told The News-Review about his frustrations when a police officer does something wrong.
“When a police officer somewhere does something wrong, all of a sudden, ‘all police are that way,’” he said in an email. “When a doctor, teacher, firefighter, etc., commit crimes, we don’t condemn their professions, so why is that the case with law enforcement?
“Trust me, when we hear about officers who commit crimes or do things inappropriately, we want them dealt with because we don’t want people like that in our profession,” Eichenbusch said.
But that isn’t enough, Johnson said.
“If they don’t root out the bad apples, they’re just as bad,” Johnson said. “If a police chief knows he has two or three officers in his department that are bad and does nothing, the chief is just as bad.
“We can’t just say ‘bad apples’ because they won’t say black kids in Dallas who did the shooting are a few bad apples, they’ll say all black folks are bad,” he said.
Johnson openly admits his distrust in police. When he was young and growing up in Oklahoma, his mother talked to him specifically about how to act around officers.
“My mother told me that if I were ever lost, don’t ask a police officer — hide, “ he said. “Because they might shoot you. Find your own way home.”
Johnson gave that same talk to his children. Since moving to Roseburg, Johnson said he’s gone on multiple ride alongs with both the Roseburg Police Department and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, but still says in all of his life, he can count the number of favorable encounters with police on one hand.
“I’ve got black friends in the Portland area who tell me they won’t stop in this county for gas,” he said.
Which pushes him back to his main point: We need to talk.
“If people or officers are willing to strip their ego and their uniforms and come talk to me and see what it’s like through my eyes, I would be happy to do so,” he said. But until then, his trust in police won’t heal with time.
“Police need to be equal in their being ‘on guard,’ and right now they aren’t equal,” he said. “And when they want to know whether they’re doing better, they ask another white person when they really need to be asking a black person.
“There was a gentleman named George Patton who I love to quote who said, ‘If everyone is thinking alike, then someone isn’t thinking,’” he said.
Reporter Ian Campbell can be reached at 541-957-4209 or
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