Portland, Oregon’s public school system yanked an advertisement encouraging high school dropouts to come back, after critics claimed it was racist for not featuring white people.
The ads promoted the Reconnect Campaign, which urges students who dropped out to return to school and finish their diplomas.
“Have you left high school before graduating?” the ad asks. “Portland Public Schools wants you back!”
It may seem innocent enough, but critics are outraged because the ad features a photo of four people, all of whom are black or Hispanic. The district itself is only 35 percent black, Hispanic, or multiracial, which caused people to complain the ad was based on a racist stereotype of non-whites being unable to finish high school.
“I looked at that and said, ‘Whoa this is a problem we need to fix,” Julie Esparza Brown, a member of the Portland school board, told The Oregonian. “The message is we only expect our kids of color to be dropping out. What kind of message is that sending to our kids?”
Nationwide, 73 percent of blacks finish high school on time, compared to 76 percent of Hispanics and 87 percent of whites.
The people in the ad weren’t simply taken from a stock photo, though. Instead, all four of them were either actual students who graduated after previously dropping out, or the educators who assisted them. Regardless, the district is scrambling to apologize.
“Portland Public Schools regrets the use of the specific photo that was used at bus stops and on the side of buses for the Reconnect Campaign,” district spokeswoman Courtney Westling told The Oregonian. “This particular ad … does not represent the students of all races and ethnicities that have been successful through the efforts of our reconnection work, nor does it represent all the races and ethnicities of students that need to be reengaged.”
The controversy was hardly desirable, especially since the district is recovering from accusations of racism after it tried to ban bus drivers from playing rap music. Brown said these combined errors were directly hurting Portland schoolchildren.
“These two instances highlighted that sometimes there is a need to go down and make sure we are looking at our messages from all angles,” Brown said. “It’s not an excuse. We really need to be transparent in that these kinds of messages we are sending are not acceptable. We can’t make these kind of errors; it’s harmful to our students.”
The blunders also come even though Portland has spent millions of dollars attempting to promote racial sensitivity in staff. The expensive campaign has even produced a backlash, with some teachers complaining that the lessons are sometimes outright anti-white in nature.