Portland: Weird and White

It’s time Portland, Ore., got comfortable in its own skin, no matter what color that skin is.

The city is proud of its reputation as the most liberal, quirky and livable city in America but can’t accept that prosperous black professionals may not be interested.

“In Portland’s heart, diversity dwindles,” was the headline in The Oregonian earlier this month. “The 2010 Census shows the city’s center becoming ever whiter as many African-Americans are pushed to the fringes.”

Who to blame?

In these situations, the news media often look to the usual suspects who can fit the stereotype of the ugly white American. In this case, though, the newspaper linked the Census statistics to policies pushed by Portland’s traditionally liberal politicians.

“Oh my God,” former city commissioner Gretchen Kafoury is quoted as saying when shown the 2010 Census figures. “We thought we were doing a good thing.”

Their good thing was redeveloping North/Northeast Portland, a heavily black area. But as the area became nicer, whites moved in and blacks moved out (some of them selling their homes for a nice profit).

The story bemoans the loss of nearly 10,000 “people of color” and says those who left didn’t move to nicer areas.

“Most settled on the city’s eastern edges, according to the census data, where the sidewalks, grocery stores and parks grow sparse, and access to public transit is limited. As a result, the part of Portland famous for its livability – for charming shops and easy transit, walkable streets and abundant bike paths – increasingly belongs to affluent whites.”

Affluent people – no matter what their color – can live where they want to. Perhaps the problem here is an assumption that Portland is equally desirable to everyone.

The first time I saw Portland and the state of Oregon through the eyes of a black person was when I was a student at the University of Oregon. I became friends with a graduate student from Chicago who was studying education administration on a full scholarship. That scholarship was the only reason he ended up in Eugene. He had no desire to stay in Oregon after getting his master’s degree.

“This woodpile? No, I’m going back to Chicago.”

My friend liked to tease me about “the woodpile,” his nickname for all things Oregon – including Portland, a city he didn’t consider a real city.

You could say that Portland has changed since then. Not really. Consider the city’s frequently cited selling points: bike lanes, nature trails, the bridges, the rivers, the foodie culture, the city of roses. Some people like that. But if you are an in-demand black professional and can choose between Atlanta and Portland or Chicago and Portland or Los Angeles and Portland or San Francisco and Portland – which would offer you more of what you like? How attractive are bike lanes and nature trails to blacks who have a choice in where they can work?

Of course, the assumption by the news media is that what blacks want in their city of choice is more blacks.

Not necessarily.

Middle-class blacks don’t want to live next door to just any blacks anymore than whites do. And black parents who can choose where they live might be alarmed at the low high school graduation rates in Portland. The city’s embrace of a hip-hop high school, set to open in the fall, probably wouldn’t impress them; it might even disturb them. (Update: A few months after this essay was posted, the hip-hop school failed to open. Organizers had spent about $500,000.)

The Oregonian says that the Census 2010 results raise “unsettling questions for a city that prides itself on tolerance, social equity and valuing diversity.” That statement reeks of a provincialism borne of white guilt and an obsession with a racist history that isn’t that different from much of the country. Jim Crow was never confined to just the South. (Americans who like to feel superior to Southerners forget that some of the worst race riots in our history were in L.A. and Detroit.)

For Portlanders who want more racial and ethnic diversity, there is a solution: Move. That’s what I did. For two years, I lived in Oakland (and not the hills, either) where I discovered that the most racist and sexist people were young, black American males. For two years I lived in Los Angeles, and another 14 years in San Bernardino County, a melting pot always on simmer.

If moving out of state is not an option for Portlanders upset about the Census 2010 statistics, how about trading places with one of those black families who were pushed out to the suburbs? They could live in your house, and you could live in theirs surrounded by “people of color.”

Still not an option? Do something that is very Portland: Head to Powell’s, buy a book and read.

Try Shelby Steele’s “White Guilt.”

– Pamela Fitzsimmons

13 Comments

  • gaye harris wrote:

    Go,lady,go. Someday soon I am going to write about an experience with racism that makes the hairline freeze and the hair become electric. Portland has NO IDEA what discrimination even, really, is.

  • Excellent that you’ve referred readers to Shelby Steele. Along with a keen analyzing intelligence he is a clear and vivid essayist.

    And, I agree that the most active and open racism is young, black American males. But, I also contend that a close second are black children often of preschool age who live in neighborhoods such a Columbia Villa.

    In my old neighborhood of Southeast (Clinton/29th) the blacks that lived there in the early 90s have long gone and the only blacks there now are either part of a lesbian couple or college educated hipsters.

    The neighborhood transformed from a lightly mixed (economically and racially)Portland neighborhood. It’s become a self-righteous monoculture of hipster suburbanite fugitives from around the nation that celebrate diversity among their own kind.

    Kafoury’s moment of reality strikes me as bogus. A journalistic counterfeit. Portland elites will rationalize away reality that conflicts with theory. Every time.

  • You knocked it out of the park on this. I moved to Los Angeles from Portland about a year ago. Many of my friends still in Portland give me a confused look when I suggest that Portland is lacking in racial diversity or get defensive and suggest that such a thing doesn’t really matter anyway.

    While I disagree with the statement — and frankly, find it inflammatory and provocative — that “the most racist and sexist people were young, black American males,” the dissection of Portland and race is something many Portlanders need to hear. Few will likely listen.

  • RIGHT- ON! “The Woodpile” – yes!

    I’m an Oregon Native! I remember in the 60′s growing up when Portland wanted to be a big City, then the Baby Boomers took over with Goldschmidt and his crowd, and cut down all our entire Business Community, and turned Portland into “The Woodpile” – a city of little ambition, and an electorate who works hard to limit opportunity and choices available to residents.

  • I moved here from California, and was immediately astounded by the gap between the ‘multicultural rhetoric’ and the fact that Portland is so overwhelmingly white.
    It took me only a little while to realize that young people, who are either not interested in or not capable of pursuing a career, like to move here for one overwhelming reason. It’s because, on the income they generate from a less than serious job, just about anywhere else in the US their immediate neighbors in the places they could afford to live would include a lot of blacks and Hispanics, and not the respectable or decorative kind either. Portland is one of the few places in the country where you can live in a city of over a million people, not make much money and still live in an exclusively white neighborhood.
    This underlying reality makes all the absurd preening and posing about ‘commitment to multiculturalism’ we hear all the time in Portland as amusing as it is completely absurd. The truth is, if enough blacks and Hispanics moved here and started competing for the available stock of cheap housing, many of the city’s ‘hip’ young whites would move away.

  • I’m a Portland native. The only time I hear about whites complaining about blacks living next door is from the white guilt movement. The fact is that white people don’t mind living next to blacks, the evidence of which is in the papers detailing the complaints by blacks that their traditional black neighborhoods are being overrun by whites. Oregon was not a slave state. We never had a large population of blacks because, unlike the east and south, we never owned blacks. Ne didn’t even have much of a population of whites before 100 years ago.

    If you are sick of how white it is in Portland, then by all means leave, as soon as possible. You are a racist. I’m sick of Portland becoming the capital of the white guilt movement.

    On the other hand, perhaps white guilters should stick around, get laws changed, so that we can have black slaves like the rest of the country did and finally purchase a large black community.

  • Nice post. One quibble, though. Guilty White Portlanders don’t want diversity. If they did, they would move to East County and/or Gresham, where there truly is diversity.

    Or stated differently, perhaps they want diversity, but only on their own narrow terms, e.g. a sexy, hip DJ from Helsinki or a black guy with a British accent. To them, the ethnic minorities in the city’s peripheral areas are nothing more than the “white trash” they openly mock.

    Of course, they’ll never admit this, but the revealing graphic in that Oregonian story tells you all you need to know.

  • [...] mob violence is on the rise in famously White (and, not coincidentally, famously nice) Portland, Oregon: 76% White, 6% [...]

  • Screw Portland!

    In a nutshell: They live off stolen idea’s from California, then hate California.

    End of story.

    Hippy Snobs will never rule the world. Enjoy dreaming of the unattainable in the world and drinking your crap micro-brews while I hang out with pretty people. (who you hate cause you’re just ugly)

    FYI–California is more accepting and cultural diverse than portland will ever be.

    Native pdx–turned california realist—you can have the grey sky…enjoy hipsters!

  • Oaklander wrote:

    This is such an interesting topic! I am afraid I’m going to be stereotyping a bit in my comment. I know that there are exceptions to what I am writing! It seems to me that the young, white, hip, politically and environmentally progressive Portlanders feel generally superior to everyone else. They love this sense of superority. It makes them feel good about themselves and it makes them feel special. However, because they are politically progressive, they cannot ignore that their sanctuary / utopia that is Portland is super-duper white (and that this lack of diversity implies elitism and intolerance). This is their achilles heel and the rest of us are ALL OVER IT. As someone who works in Oakland and lives one block from from the “East Oakland” border, I have often felt smug, criticizing Portlanders for their whitey whiteness. But, the honest truth is, if I were in a position to, I would move there in a heartbeat. It seems awesome. Guess what type I am? A white yuppie liberal, of course! I think what is annoying about Portlanders is their smugness and cooler-than-thou attitude. That is what makes me want to point out the honkiness of their city. If they would be more humble and stop pretending that they and their city is perfect, then I would not want to criticize them. No place is perfect. Oakland certainy is not, even though there are many good things about it.

  • Thanks for the feedback. If more Oaklanders (whatever their color) moved to Portland, it might help reduce the city’s guilt level and give the city a much-needed dose of reality.

    We’ve been having a recent controversy here in Portland over gentrification (it started when a Trader Joe’s was proposed for an historically black neighborhood). One point raised was that gentrification happens everywhere, and even Oakland is becoming gentrified. One commenter at Oregon Public Broadcasting compared Oakland to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.

    I don’t know if that’s true. If it is, I can’t imagine Oaklanders wringing their hands about it. They’re a tougher breed.

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