By Tyler Leard, Staff Writer
Speaking before a large audience in the College Union Building, Jonathon Ostar painted a stark picture about race and class issues in America in the 8th Annual Derrick K. Gondwe Memorial Lecture on Social and Economic Justice.
“Too many people are complimenting themselves and are willing to say that… we are in a post racial era when nothing is further from the case.”
Ostar is a specialist in environmental justice. The localized movement that is environmental justice seeks to eradicate the disparities between the upper and lower classes in urban areas as healthcare, housing quality, and availability of mass transit. He is currently the executive director of OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, a community service and social justice organization based in Portland, and is a law professor at Lewis and Clark College.
Ostar mentioned examples of ongoing racial struggles including the high incarceration rates for black males. Most notably, he expressed alarm on the “systematic dismantling of Civil Rights laws.” He cited the Supreme Court’s decision to repeal Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, which regulated electoral changes in states with history of racism, as an example of this. The repeal happened this past summer.
Ostar explained that a North Carolina law passed shortly afterward which heavily regulates early voting and requires identification for voters as an example of efforts to disenfranchise minority voters and the persistence of legislative racism. This was not an isolated incident. Many states with histories of racial discrimination also began to pass laws that may prohibit certain demographics from participating in upcoming elections.
“The ‘problem’ this law attempts to solve is the electoral strength of people of color,” said Ostar.
Ostar argued that racial aggression and prejudice still pervades many American institutions. He mentioned the theory of Critical Race, in which racism in both active and passive forms is widely prevalent in both people and institutions and is felt daily by people of color.
In addition, Ostar argued that many American institutions are not designed to help the victims of racism or give them justice. Instead, they superficially punish the perpetrators in order to maintain the socioeconomic status quo. He mentions the Civil Rights laws of the 1960’s as an example of this type of superficial solution to a deeply seeded cultural problem.
However, Ostar held hope for the future. Strides towards equality can be observed noticeably in the younger generation- – that of current Gettysburg College students.
He also cited the work of OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon in Portland as an example of the forward thinking attitude of this generation. The organization’s main activities include acting as a sort of union for bus riders, a promoter and enabler of economic mobility and opportunity, and a political advocate for the dispossessed.
Ostar, a native of Long Island, first became involved in environmental justice as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. He continued his studies in this field at Lewis and Clark law school, and practiced as a civil rights lawyer before founding OPAL.
The Gondwe Memorial Lecture is held once a year in honor of Derrick K. Gondwe, a longtime professor of Economics at Gettysburg College and the first African-American to receive tenure at the college. He was also the founder of the African-Americans Studies Program, and a mentor and advocate to many younger professors and students of color. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Teaching Award by the College in 2005.