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I highly recommend this feature in the Atlantic – The Racist History of Portland, the Whitest City in America. We can learn a lot about racism by looking at those places that are the whitest.


Portland - Whitest American City—Scot Nakagawa

In Portland, the belief that we are “post-racial” is largely unopposed, and those who point out problems of racial injustice are often treated as if they are just seeing things, as delusional or “divisive.”

In Portland, the city I’ve often referred to as Whitelandia over the 30 years since I first moved here in 1986, there is very little to contradict these ideas and, in fact, less and less all the time as the very whiteness of the city makes it a magnet for white flight, causing it to grow whiter, and driving gentrification. Portland has among the worse Black displacement rates as a result of gentrification in the country. Black and Native American family incomes are no longer enough to afford the rent in any of Portland’s core neighborhoods.

With each displacement, white cultural hegemony more powerfully shapes the racial landscape.

From the Atlantic article:

2014 report by Portland State University and the Coalition of Communities of Color, a Portland non-profit, shows black families lag far behind whites in the Portland region in employment, health outcomes, and high-school graduation rates. They also lag behind black families nationally. While annual incomes for whites nationally and in Multnomah County, where Portland is located, were around $70,000 in 2009, blacks in Multnomah County made just $34,000, compared to $41,000 for blacks nationally. Almost two-thirds of black single mothers in Multnomah County with kids under five lived in poverty in 2010, compared to half of black single mothers with kids under five nationally. And just 32 percent of African Americans in Multnomah County owned homes in 2010, compared to 60 percent of whites in the county and 45 percent of blacks nationally.

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I can attest to there being racism everywhere, but my travels have led me to the conclusion that Portland is the most smugly racist major city in the country among the ones I’ve visited, and I’ve been to most.

I’ve traveled to every state in the country as a social justice activist. I’ve spent no small amount of time in Appalachia and the Deep South. I can attest to there being racism everywhere, but my travels have led me to the conclusion that Portland is the most smugly racist major city in the country among the ones I’ve visited, and I’ve been to most.

Here, we suffer from a history of racial exclusion and discrimination that has made Portland both an unfriendly place for people of color, and a magnet for white flight from other cities as they grow browner. The overwhelming whiteness of Portland allows post-racialists to plug their ears and “la,la,la” away the grievances of people of color. The racism that made Los Angeles or Oakland feel “unsafe” compared to overwhelming white Portland gets buried under a veneer of liberalism in a context in which there is relatively little racial tension because there are relatively few people of color. But in 2015, homelessness among Blacks increased by 48 percent in Portland. And Blacks, who are less than 7 percent of the population of Portland, are 25 percent of those who are homeless.

Portland is Bernie Sanders country, home to one of the largest pro-Sanders rallies in the country. Here bond measures for light rail and other public investments pass with relative ease. We even passed a tax hike not too long ago. Portland invests in bio-swales and bike lanes, parks, riverside promenades, even a bike bridge. We call them “improvements” even as more and more Black and Native American families are pushed out, forced to move away from these investments in “us.”

I often wonder if Portlanders would be so intent on keeping Portland “weird” if the racial demography of the city were to change in favor of people of color. Or would there be resistance, and upticks in racist politicking as we’ve seen in once ethnically homogenous social democracies in Europe as they grow browner as a result of immigration?

I wonder how many among the thousands who turned out to rally for his election in Portland would have stayed home if Bernie Sanders had more aggressively addressed structural racism, and called for major public investments to address the concentrated poverty poor people of color suffer from. Free college tuition and better health care is terrific, but if there are no good primary schools or hospitals and clinics within or near communities of color, who really benefits from these improvements most? If inheritance, your parents’ level of education, and zip code are the biggest determinants of financial success, those ladders out of poverty may be just out of reach if your inheritance is a history of exclusion and super-exploitation, your zip code one in which there are no good health care facilities or schools.

As a racial justice advocate living in the whitest city in the U.S.; one that also suffers from some of the worst effects of racism of all Northern cities, I often find myself wondering if Portland-style progressive politics isn’t at least in part the product of #snowblindness. If so, white progressives concerned about racism may have much to learn from Portland.

scott nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa