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.
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