Judge Kenneth Walker remembers once embarrassing his wife while the two were out to dinner when he decided to confront a fellow diner who used a derogatory term for African Americans to describe an unsavory part of Portland.
His wife would have preferred that he let it go.
But Walker, one of just two African-American state court judges in Oregon, couldn’t leave the comment unchecked.
“I looked over and I got up and I said ‘Excuse me, sir. That was very offensive,’” Walker said. “I said ‘People like you are the problem… You’re the reason why we haven’t progressed more in this country than we have.’”
The fight for justice demands that one call out injustice, racism and bigotry at every turn, no matter how large or small the offense, Walker told a packed boardroom audience on Wednesday, Feb. 22.
For Judge Walker, that means challenging everyone from people who use racist language, to prosecutors who propose steeper sentences for black defendants and even his fellow judges who sometimes demonstrate biases against people of color from the bench.
“I point it out when I see it. Everywhere,” Walker said. “One of the decisions I made more than 30 years ago was that I would never let any racism happen in my presence. And I don’t.”
Walker was the keynote speaker for “Black History and Beyond,” the annual Black History Month celebration organized by Employees of Color and Managers of Color, two Multnomah County Employee Resource Groups. In addition to Walker, Commissioner Loretta Smith and several county employees also spoke at the event.
Walker urged attendees to write Gov. Kate Brown asking her to appoint a more diverse judiciary and said he supported challenging federal policies designed to erode civil rights protections authorized by law.
“I think people out everyday walking around saying ‘I’m not happy with what’s going on’ is effective,” Walker said. “I think the legal fight has to keep happening. I think the law is on our side and if we keep walking up and down the street and keep it in the courts, we’ll turn the tide.”
This year’s Black History Month event was a celebration of black achievement and also -- given the tension gripping the nation following the presidential election -- a time to reflect on continued challenges facing black people.
The latter theme was prominent in the artistic works performed during the gathering.
Vocalist Saeeda Wright sang both an original piece with the refrain “What happened to love?” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” a song inspired by an incident of police brutality during an anti-war protest in 1969.
In a spoken word piece, the county’s Chief Diversity and Equity Officer Ben Duncan presented DNA as a metaphor for the path toward justice and liberation.
“Our DNA is in Martin’s dream that isn’t realized and Trayvon’s dreams that were cut short. It’s in the insistence that black lives matter,” Duncan said.
The assembly also presented an opportunity to recognize a county employee who demonstrates exemplary service, leadership and commitment to the values of diversity. The Arthur S. Flemming award was presented to the county’s Supplier Diversity Officer Lee Fleming. Fleming works to ensure equity in the county’s contracting practices, including strengthening outreach efforts to and establishing opportunities for minority-owned, women-owned and emerging small businesses.