The Unbearable Whiteness of Portland
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Portland, Oregon is, of course, near the top of any list of Stuff White People Like. It has it all: environmental restrictions on suburban development, trams, liberal social attitudes, bicycle trails, awareness, an upscale population, microbreweries, sterility, and so much more. Not surprisingly, white people like Portland. In fact, it was the only city in the country where reporter Jonathan Tilove found, while researching his book The View from Martin Luther King Drive, that white gentrifiers were driving blacks away from the local MLK Drive. Similarly, it's one of the few cities in the country with a growing population of Reform/Conservative Jews.

Nonwhites, eh ... not so much.

Of all the major urban area's, Portland's "core city" is the whitest.

For last week's Obasm, the Portland Oregonian ran a lengthy article by Betsy Hammond lamenting, "In a Changing World, Portland Remains Overwhelmingly White." On the printed version, the subheadline read, "The metro area is less diverse than most — even Salt Lake City." As we all know these days, Mormons are the source of all evil.

(In reality, Mormons invite in to Utah Latin and Pacific Islander converts.)

As the nation's first African American president prepares to take office this week, metro Portland — with its overwhelmingly white population and leadership — is demographically out of step with 2009 America.

Among the nation's 40 largest metro areas, only four — none of them in the West — are whiter than Portland, new census figures show.


But what's really distinctive about Portland is not that it has white suburbs, but that the core city is so white — 74%, compared to runner-up Seattle's 68%. In contrast, Detroit is last at 8% (presumably, mostly grizzled Clint Eastwoods yelling at the damn punks to get off his lawn).

Los Angeles, which everyone in Portland despises, has the least white suburbs: only 34% white, making it the least white metropolitan area in the country.

... But since 2000, growth rates among Portland's small minority populations have slowed from the 1990s. In the same period, more than 100,000 additional non-Hispanic whites have flocked to the Portland area. The whitest suburb — Clark County outside Vancouver — alone added 53,000 white residents.

The upshot is that the Portland metro area is startlingly white viewed against the national landscape — even whiter than Salt Lake City, according to the latest Census Bureau estimates. Metro Portland includes Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas and Clark counties.

The implications are far-reaching.

In today's America, people of color make up more than 40 percent of a typical metro area's population, an analysis by The Oregonian shows.

But in metro Portland, public policy still is controlled from a white point of view. Among the hundreds of mayors, city council members and state lawmakers representing metro Portland, there are just four Latino city councilors, one African-born council member and a lone African American state senator.

Portland's lack of diversity means it is less cosmopolitan, less dynamic and at risk of being less competitive than other metro areas, worries David Bragdon, president of the Metro regional government.

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It's a plus that Portland is a magnet for young, college-educated Americans who can choose to live anywhere, says William Frey, demographer for the Brookings Institution and a specialist in urban and suburban trends.

But college-educated Americans are overwhelmingly white, and those who migrate to Portland are disproportionately so — the "beer, bikes and Birkenstock" crowd, in the words of Portland economist Joe Cortright.

Portland-area employers competing for top talent have a hard time retaining African American hires, who often can't bear the social and cultural isolation of a metro area that is less than 3 percent black.

"A lot of my friends and other minorities come here to Portland thinking of it as a stopover," says Angel Anderson, an African American software engineer from suburban Chicago who was recruited by Intel. "They leave the state in a year or two."

Anderson has stayed four years, bought a house in Tanasbourne, loves her job and calls Portland "the friendliest place I have ever lived." But she chafes at often being the only black face in the room, longing for "somebody I could talk to who might have similar experiences to me."

The Portland area's nearly half-million people of color often get the message that their concerns are an afterthought, says Irma Valdez, a real estate agent who serves on the Portland Planning Commission. "Some of the stuff I hear on the planning commission would make you want to pass out," she says.

Sustainability, downtown condos and bike lanes drown out priorities of minority residents, she says.

A MAX line to serve Latino families living near Southeast 122nd Avenue and Powell Boulevard. Naming a Portland street for Cesar Chavez. Creating affordable family housing. Calls for immigration reform.

"Those are off the table," Valdez says. "Not because Portland is racist, but because there is always some other agenda item that is more pressing."

Minority residents can feel left out, unable to easily find a hairdresser, a radio station that resonates, a church that feels like home, says Vicki Nakamura, who helps employers recruit and retain minority professionals.

Nakamura has taken the lead on hosting quarterly corporate-sponsored gatherings, dubbed "Say Hey," to welcome minority professionals. Several hundred people gather to sip wine, nibble hors d'oeuvres and welcome African Americans, Asians and Latinos to town.

"You go to Say Hey, and you see two-thirds of the people are people of color and you're pretty thrilled. Sometimes the newcomers are almost in tears," she says.

Sam Adams, Portland's new mayor, says white leaders must make sure they respond to challenges faced by people of color. Re-establishing the city's human rights commission, supporting minority contractor requirements and battling what he calls "shamefully" high dropout rates among minority youths are among his priorities.

"That we are so overwhelmingly white ... is neither good nor bad, but it's a fact. So we have to work that much harder to make sure that nonwhite Portlanders have unfettered access to social and economic opportunities," says Adams, who presides over an all-white City Council.

An all-white City Council!

Portland is predominantly white today primarily because it started out virtually all white and stayed largely that way for more than 100 years, by design.

Oregon was settled by pioneers who pushed West from 1840 to 1880, a generation much concerned with race, says Darrell Millner, professor of black studies at Portland State University. At the time, whites in the South thought the solution to racial strife was to enslave blacks, but he says whites who came to Oregon didn't want to possess blacks, they wanted to escape them.

"Conventional wisdom at the time was clear, says Millner: "If you don't have more than one race, then you don't have any racial problems."

First as a territory, then as a state, Oregon passed laws banning African Americans from Oregon. In the late 1800s, Chinese laborers were admitted to mine and build railroads, but they could not bring women or children or own property — and were often victimized, such as during the 1887 massacre of 37 Chinese miners camped along the Snake River in Wallowa County.

During the African American migration out of the South in the 1920s, Oregon didn't draw blacks mainly because it was "off the map, too remote, too far from black population centers," Millner says. Seattle, settled later than Portland, had less overtly racist views and offered more maritime jobs. California was closer, offered railroad jobs and had better weather.

Until the 1990s, the biggest minority population surge in metro Portland came in the early 1940s, when the African American population grew tenfold as blacks were recruited for wartime work. "The traditional source of labor, young white males, was not available, and somebody had to build the ships," Millner says.

After the war, half the black population left Oregon because "black people couldn't find any employment, they couldn't buy homes in most of the state and the police were extremely hostile," he says.

Those who remained were restricted to live in North and Northeast Portland. Asian immigrants could not own homes, period. Japanese Americans were interned far from Portland during World War II and, once released, were initially barred from living within 150 miles of the coast.

"Oregon was virulently racist for much of its history," says Bragdon, the Metro leader. "And if you don't have a large minority population, that becomes self-reinforcing over time."

Since 2000, the metro areas of Seattle and Salt Lake City — places nearly as white as Portland — have grown larger and more diverse, primarily by adding Latinos and Asians to their suburbs.

Salt Lake, which was as white as Portland in 2000, drew 53,000 additional Latino residents and 11,000 more Asians. Key to the growth was outreach by the county mayor, who made diversity a top goal and regularly attends minority cultural events, says Rebecca Sanchez, the county's diversity affairs coordinator.

By contrast, in that same period, metro Portland added more white people than all minorities combined....

Longtime residents of both Clackamas and Clark counties say a reputation for redneck attitudes, along with the historic absence of minority residents, has turned away some potential residents of color.

... Latinos, the fastest-growing group, now represent nearly one of every five Oregon students. Metrowide, white students have fallen to two-thirds of the enrollment.

Among 10 year-olds born in Oregon, one in seven had parents of different races or one parent who was Latino and one who was not.

... Unlike most metro areas, Portland's urban core isn't a hub for minorities. Instead, Portland is the whitest big city in the nation, at 74 percent white. Seattle, at 68 percent, is No. 2.Expensive, close-in housing continues to draw more whites than minorities, census figures show. Since 2000, Portland added 10,000 white residents, reversing a trend from the 1990s.

Portland will grow less white and more diverse — just more slowly than the rest of the country, experts say. Latinos in particular will play a much bigger role in the metro area's future.

"We've got Hispanics moving to Indiana and Iowa, so they are going to come to Portland," says Frey of the Brookings Institution. But their foothold on political power is likely to lag their numbers, he says, and white politicians will continue to call the shots for a growing Latino population for years.

Dina DiNucci, expertly forming a crepe behind the counter of her neighborhood coffee shop in Gresham, is ahead of the curve, living and working in one of the most ethnically diverse parts of metro Portland. Her customers include Latinos and Russian immigrants along with longtime white residents of the area.

"We are not just a white America anymore," she says. "It is changing all around us."

— Betsy Hammond; [email protected]


I have this vague impression that Russians are white. Also, aren't people name "Dina DiNucci" normally Italians rather than Hispanics?

A commenter in Portland responds:

Yes but, how else would Portlandites know how to advise urbanites on the Value of Diversity if they didn't have protective growth boundaries that drive home prices to levels to where the poor folk (Black/Brown) can only work or visit?

De facto segregation is user-friendly and so much easier to ignore.

Similarly, I wrote about this conundrum in a 2004 article entitled "The Limits of Libertarianism," comparing environmentalist Northern California to traditionally more free enterprise South California:

Subtle but important social differences emerged between Southern and Northern California. Which was the better mode was arguable–until recently.

Now, however, it has become clear that Northern California's traditional elitism has helped it withstand the onslaught of illegal immigration better than Southern California's traditional populist libertarianism. ...

Northern California forestalled much of the dreariness of Southern California's Hispanic areas by being a high-cost economy. Ferociously powerful unions kept wages high. Stringent aesthetic restrictions and large amounts of land devoted to parks kept housing costs high. Northern Californians spearheaded the environmentalist movement–which had the unspoken but not-unintended consequence of driving up property values even further.

Southern California, in contrast, was not heavily unionized or environmentalized. It encouraged developers to put up huge tracts of homes.

The longterm downside of SWPLism, of course, is dying out. A 2005 New York Times article focusing on Portland was aptly entitled: "Vibrant Cities Find One Thing Missing: Children."

PORTLAND, Ore. - The Pearl District in the heart of this perpetually self-improving city seems to have everything in new urban design and comfort, from the Whole Foods store where fresh-buffed bell peppers are displayed like runway models to the converted lofts that face sidewalk gardens.Everything except children.

Crime is down. New homes and businesses are sprouting everywhere. But in what may be Portland's trendiest and fastest-growing neighborhood, the number of school-age children grew by only three between the census counts in 1990 and 2000, according to demographers at Portland State University.

"The neighborhood would love to have more kids, that's probably the top of our wish list," said Joan Pendergast of the Pearl Neighborhood Association. "We don't want to be a one-dimensional place."

It is a problem unlike the urban woes of cities like Detroit and Baltimore, where families have fled decaying neighborhoods, business areas and schools. Portland is one of the nation's top draws for the kind of educated, self-starting urbanites that midsize cities are competing to attract. But as these cities are remodeled to match the tastes of people living well in neighborhoods that were nearly abandoned a generation ago, they are struggling to hold on to enough children to keep schools running and parks alive with young voices.

San Francisco, where the median house price is now about $700,000, had the lowest percentage of people under 18 of any large city in the nation, 14.5 percent, compared with 25.7 percent nationwide, the 2000 census reported. Seattle, where there are more dogs than children, was a close second. Boston, Honolulu, Portland, Miami, Denver, Minneapolis, Austin and Atlanta, all considered, healthy, vibrant urban areas, were not far behind. The problem is not just that American women are having fewer children, reflected in the lowest birth rate ever recorded in the country.

Officials say that the very things that attract people who revitalize a city - dense vertical housing, fashionable restaurants and shops and mass transit that makes a car unnecessary - are driving out children by making the neighborhoods too expensive for young families.

Has any place found a solution?

On a lighter note, last year, Stuff White People Like summarized a similar NY Times article about Portland's lack of minorities in its continuing "White People in the News" section:


Portland struggles to figure out how to create diversity without affecting property values. It is not easy. Fortunately, things are being solved through awareness.

Best Passage

”I’ve been really upset by what I perceive to be Portland’s blind spot in its progressivism,” said Khaela Maricich, a local artist and musician. ”They think they live in the best city in the country, but it’s all about saving the environment and things like that. It’s not really about social issues. It’s upper-middle-class progressivism, really.”

Ms. Maricich, 33, who is white, spoke after attending this month’s meeting of Portland’s Restorative Listening Project.

Stuff Mentioned


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