PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Controversy is swirling around one of the Spokane region’s most prominent civil rights activists, with family members saying the local leader of the NAACP has falsely portrayed herself as black for years.
Rachel Dolezal is president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, chair of the city’s Office of Police Ombudsman Commission, and an adjunct professor at Eastern Washington University.
The Spokesman-Review reported Thursday that questions have arisen about her background and her numerous complaints to police of harassment. The story was first reported by the Coeur d’Alene Press.
Dolezal’s mother, Ruthanne, says the family’s ancestry is Czech, Swedish and German, with a touch of Native American heritage.
Dolezal has identified herself in application materials as white, black and Native American.
That doesn’t bother the President of Portland’s NAACP, Jo Ann Hardesty. She took office around the same time as Dolezal and says she’s been doing remarkable work in Spokane, advocating for social, racial and economic justice of a community.
Hardesty told KOIN 6 news when she first heard the story, she thought ‘what’s the big deal?’.
“I’m not willing to judge her based on who she identifies as. If she tells me she’s a black woman, I believe her.” said Hardesty.
What does concern her is the hate mail Dolezal has received since becoming president of the NAACP and how police have handled it.
“The second piece I found more troubling, which was the police alleging they didn’t see any discrimination, that she wasn’t being targeted with hate mail and that was more troubling to me.” Hardesty said. Police in Spokane have said they found little evidence of racial harassment.
Dolezal is chair of Spokane’s police oversight committee since last September. Hardesty says she’s been doing a remarkable job and could now be feeling push back from that.
“It’s not easy taking on a whole military operation and then demanding that they change, that’s not easy work, so I’m not surprised that there would be a smear campaign, that there would be people trying to de-vote her from the work that she’s doing.” Hardesty told KOIN 6 News.
As for what some people are calling deception on Dolezal’s part, Hardesty said it is a normal distraction that can be part of the job when you work for civil rights.
“Whether she’s labeled…whatever…to me it’s insignificant in the scheme of who she is and the quality of work she’s involved in.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.