Salem's Human Rights Commission conducted a survey in January that found 72% of respondents have experienced discrimination.

Salem has work to do around discrimination, a new city-sponsored survey has found.

A sampling of Salem residents gave the city a “C” grade for discrimination, according to the results of a survey conducted by the Human Rights Commission released this week.

 “I think that it’s a disappointingly low score,” said Mike Watters, a member of the commission. “Do I think that Salem is unique in that? No.”

Salem’s Human Rights Commission wanted to measure discrimination in the city and increase awareness of the group, which handles discrimination complaints. They partnered with Western Oregon University students to complete the survey, which began in January.

DOCUMENT LINK: HRC Survey

About 72% of survey takers said they had experienced discrimination, half of which said occurred less than six months ago. Gender, age and weight were the most common reasons given for discrimination. Most respondents were women and 72% were white. 

A higher portion of those surveyed – 85% – said they witnessed or heard of discrimination, the primary reasons being race and housing status.

Salem’s unsheltered population gave the city the lowest grade for discrimination, with 36% giving the city an “F” grade and another 31% giving it a “D.” Almost all, 92%, of the people experiencing homelessness who filled out survey reported facing discrimination.

In 2017, the group used a different methodology, distributing surveys at the farmer’s market and to different interest groups like the NAACP. Survey respondents also gave Salem a “C” grade for discrimination then.

Angelo Arredondo, chair of the commission, said most of the commission members weren’t there for the 2017 study and wanted to see if there was a change in that three-year span.

“Our goal is to compare both of them because that’s how we’re going to grow as a commission,” Arredondo said.

The commission advises Salem City Council on human rights issues and listens to and tries to resolve residents’ discrimination complaints.

Watters said they didn’t send the survey out to community groups this time around, so survey respondents would be more direct and offer a more accurate sample.

Instead, they promoted the survey on the city of Salem’s social media pages and 218 people filled it out online. They also handed out 36 paper ballots to people experiencing homelessness.

Marianne Bradshaw, a professor of marketing at Western Oregon University and Willamette University who helped run the survey, said it’s not an ideal sample because it’s narrowed to people who follow Salem’s Facebook page. But she said it’s still beneficial for the commission to understand what’s happening in Salem.

She said she’s run surveys for other organizations and not everyone wants to hear they’re not getting an A+, but the commission wants to confront the bad.

“The message to me is that the Human Rights Commission says we care about every voice, we care about every person,” she said.

Bradshaw said getting a list of Salem residents and randomly selecting them would create a more ideal sample, “but with a student group that wouldn’t be feasible for us.”

She said a community member volunteered to hand out the paper surveys to people experiencing homelessness and was pleasantly surprised by how many responses they got back.

Even with the differing methodology, Watters said there wasn’t a good percentage of Hispanic respondents represented. According to the most recent Census data, about 23% of Salem is Hispanic or Latino. In the survey, only 7.7% of respondents identified as Hispanic.

Watters said they didn’t offer the survey in Spanish but plan to in the future. At the next Human Rights Commission meeting, Watters said he’ll propose an idea to make the survey an annual event.

He said the local human rights commission has been around for 40 years aiming to make Salem a place where human rights are honored and respected, but survey results show it isn’t well known.

More than half of the survey respondents said they were aware of the commission, up from 32% in 2017.

“A lot of people may not know you can contact the Human Rights Commission if you have a discrimination complaint, even if a law isn’t broken,” Watters said.

Arredondo said the survey results showed that the city isn’t doing enough to address discrimination and the commission plans to use the results to decide what kinds of outreach and education it should do.

He learned survey takers didn’t like the reporting process for complaints and had problems with the commission working with police to resolve issues.

The survey also found that 36% of respondents were somewhat or very uncomfortable reporting a bias crime to police, mostly out of mistrust of law enforcement.

 “The reason I would be uncomfortable reporting a bias crime to the police is because they are the ones that have harassed myself and others just because of our housing status,” one respondent wrote.       

Arredondo said the commission is looking into improving its reporting process and communicating with other organizations to see how they handle discrimination complaints as a result of the feedback.

With conversations over racial justice sparked across the country since the murder of George Floyd, Watters said people’s attitudes about discrimination may have shifted making them more willing to talk about their experiences.

He hopes that the survey increases awareness of the challenges people face in the community.

“We like to think of Salem as a very welcoming and positive place and the scores don’t necessarily always bear that out,” he said.

Anyone who is experiencing discrimination can contact 503-540-2371 or [email protected]

SUPPORT ESSENTIAL REPORTING FOR SALEM - A subscription starts at $5 a month for around-the-clock access to stories and email alerts sent directly to you. Your support matters. Go HERE.

Have a story tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.