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Backlash from DEI programs fueled hate speech at city meeting in Oregon

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Some state lawmakers across the country are trying to restrict diversity, equity and inclusion programs. As Oregon Public Broadcasting's Emily Cureton Cook reports, the backlash can fuel hatred at public meetings.

EMILY CURETON COOK, BYLINE: In Central Oregon, volunteers advise the city of Bend on how to better serve people who've often been left out. In March, this local group started its usual monthly meeting with an open mic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER: We're going to jump right into public comment.

CURETON COOK: One family, a dad there with his two young daughters, showed up to city hall in person for this meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN HEYLIN: Hi, everybody. My name is John Heylin. My kids got out of art camp today. I wanted them to see that there are people in our town fighting for equality.

CURETON COOK: But what he and his 8- and 11-year-old kids heard next shocked Heylin. Half a dozen people had signed up to speak online, all using names that police would later decide were likely fake.

UNIDENTIFIED CALLER #1: My pronouns are fist punch.

UNIDENTIFIED CALLER #2: DEI stands for didn't earn it.

UNIDENTIFIED CALLER #3: White people are sick and tired of being attacked, robbed, raped, and murdered.

CURETON COOK: More voices used antisemitic slurs, Nazi slogans and homophobic insults. One man chanted the N-word 19 times. After that, an attorney for the city, Ian Leitheiser, told the shaken room, there wasn't much the city could do.

IAN LEITHEISER: There's a certain amount of stuff that most reasonable people might believe is objectionable that you're going to have to listen to.

CAROLYN PEACOCK-BIGGS: And here I am, sitting in the room, and there's this multigenerational trauma brewing up in my insides.

CURETON COOK: Commissioner Carolyn Peacock-Biggs volunteered to serve on Bend's Human Rights and Equity Commission two years ago. After the incident, she worried about her safety at city hall.

-PEACOCK-BIGGS: Considering there's no metal detectors, no security, and people know where we are and what we look like.

CURETON COOK: She's Black, and Bend's population is nearly 90% white. Those demographics are rooted in Oregon's history. Black people were banned in the 1800s, and the state constitution had racist language until 2002. City of Bend Director of Equity and Inclusion Andres Portela wasn't surprised by what happened.

ANDRES PORTELA: Yes. This is still occurring, and it's not historic. It is actually contemporary.

CURETON COOK: He says, the political targeting of DEI programs has emboldened hateful acts, often by anonymous culprits. That's happening in spite of majority public opinion, says UMass Amherst political scientist and director of polling Tatishe Nteta.

TATISHE NTETA: Seven in 10 people indicate some level of support for these programs across different professions.

CURETON COOK: His research team surveyed more than 1,000 adults about DEI, race and racism. They found political affiliation is just one smaller factor, and the most hardcore opponents of DEI programs also held the most negative views on race, especially toward African Americans.

NTETA: So we can't divorce the story of anti-DEI policies from the story of race and racism in the United States.

CURETON COOK: In Bend, one city leader said the hate speech incident was not the norm in a town where people are kind and nice. But after she heard the N-word chanted in city hall back in March, Commissioner Peacock-Biggs saw it scrawled in hot pink spray paint on a sidewalk. She filmed with her phone.

-PEACOCK-BIGGS: Just wanted to show you what my brother and I saw when we were walking in my house.

CURETON COOK: By then, the city had taken video of people saying that word in a public meeting offline and out of public view. Peacock-Biggs says that's the wrong move.

-PEACOCK-BIGGS: They should be allowed to hear it. And who knows? Somebody's voice might be heard and be like, you know what? That's John. We go fishing together.

CURETON COOK: Sometimes, she says, it's good to shine a light on the shadows. For NPR News, I'm Emily Cureton Cook in Bend, Ore.

(SOUNDBITE OF NO SPIRIT SONG, "FOREST LAKE WALK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Cureton Cook