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Entries in equity (1)


Henry Liu and the Awful Familiarity of it All

University officials said that security officers said

that a student said that her Asian classmate said

that he wanted to shoot this Portland professor.



"Always, always first ask yourself," our pop used to say, poking my sternum. "What do I know? Really know. And what am I assuming." 

That last part of his lesson was not a question. It was an admonition. "Hati-hati, Joh (Beware my boy)" he’d say. Then he blinked firm twice, turned my skinny shoulders clear around and sent me off.

Our father schooled his sons during anxious political and economic times. We grew up in a complex place -- Indonesia spoke in 900 languages; neighbors were black and brown, yellow and white.

In those tense times and in that vigorous place, it was all parents' quiet duty to teach acceptance and conciliation to wild kids like our pop's boys. We were a densely peopled island so we either shared well or lived in hell. We either asked ourselves what we know, or we assumed divisive biases. Up to us.

Maybe it’s all a lot like now, like Portland. Probably I best poke my sternum daily, and we all ask ourselves: What do we know?


A familiar chill

A few weeks ago, a professor who's 30 years of good work I know well, caught my eye. And iced my porous bones. The chill started where our pop used to rap me. It followed my ribs out and around, then leached into my heart.

His web page named two federal agencies by their iconic acronyms – one with jurisdiction over alcohol, tobacco and firearms; one tasked with taking out terrorists, kidnappers, interstate and international criminals. Both, he blogged “played important roles . . . . in this serious campus security issue.” He thanked everyone for their care.

That's an avalanche of facts. Bad ones. On first impression. But here's what's known about what’s been said: University officials said that campus security said that a student said that her Asian classmate said that he wanted to shoot this Portland professor. And we know the student owns guns.

That's probably too many hearsay links to know what's true, but I can say with certainty that it brought me straight back to our last two campus killers. Mentally ill kids with guns. Both Asian.

Another thing I can surely report is my dread over this Asian student's face stapled to every campus lamp post, his face dropped into every kid's, every teacher's and staffer's e-inbox. It's a familiar chill. One ethnic minority Oregon knows well.

My problem is that I also know Henry, the young Portlander this professor said triggered all those muscular feds. And I know I am conflicted. I know how conscientiously this grad student leads interracial neighborhood conciliation and how consistently he contributes to local community-building. I know folks' affection and respect for him. For sure.

More problems: I know his physician father. I know his Asian ma like I know ours. And getting to the core of this column: these two ladies are exactly like another mom I know real well -- the one who 8 years ago looked straight into a KGW camera's red eye and told Oregon that her boy did not kidnap or rape or murder that lovely young Corvallis coed. We know the cops and their prosecutors did not believe Dawn Kim, or her son.

Three years later, Joel Courtney confessed to the unimaginable sea of sorrow he caused Brooke Wilberger's family. But no one's taken responsibility for the terrible harm done Mrs. Kim's family. For our assumptions. For our biases.


Our familiar ruts

About Henry’s situation, I haven’t done the science, but I'll bet half my paycheck that a flash-poll 1000 Portlanders would net a racialized divide over what respondents assume happened between the accused, the accuser, and all those downstream officials triggered by her accusations. Mainstreamers on one side, ethnic streamers on the other. Like with OJ and Kobe. Like with Sung Kim.

As a matter of American historical fact, we know that race matters. We know that power differences between races matters even more. Overwhelming institutions on one side, dread on the other. The awful familiarity of it -- every next time it all comes around.

What those of us favorably biased for this outspoken student and soft-spoken community problem solver know is that Oregon Health Science U’s examining psychiatrist cleared him after campus security cops locked him up. We know that the Portland Police Bureau’s examining detective, did not charge him. With any crime.

We know Henry’s humiliated Asian family drove him straight home. We know they took their phone off the hook. For their shame.  For the shame of it all.

We know those law schools that admitted him for fall semester, took their offers and their scholarships off the table. We know we’ve damaged Henry’s future, his family’s fine name, his community’s stubborn belief in American democracy.

"Always, always first ask yourself," our pop used to poke my sternum. "What do I know? Really know. And what am I assuming." His was an admonition for kids schooled during unstable times. Times when ordinarily generous societies lose their discernment. Times when dutiful adults should constantly ask ourselves what we really know, and what not.


Times like these. Places like ours. Our Portland.