The Racist History Behind Why Portland Is So White

Ryan Fan

A completely naked man riding a bike across the bridge.
Whole streets of tents for homeless people.
A very sprawled out city where it could take hours to get from end to end.
For a major metropolitan area, Portland was very white compared to every other city I’ve been in.

It has been a very fun trip, but alas, it is over. I was visiting my best friend after a year and a half long hiatus on traveling and going places, so I may have overdone it a bit with my traveling this summer. He’s always said he’s from Portland, but his family lives a bit outside the city in Washington County, in Beaverton. And when I say it sometimes took forever to get into Portland, it really did sometimes take forever to get into the city.

I very much enjoyed my time in Portland and the surrounding area, and the west coast differently has a slower feel to it than the regular hustle I feel on the east. Portland has a reputation as a very progressive, liberal city, a city where Defund the Police is in the mainstream, where protests erupted like no other last summer. It was a city where a mayor got pepper-sprayed in the middle of a protest, where a Trump supporter was shot and killed in a spat of very dramatic events.

In effect, Portland was very much the epicenter of last summer’s racial justice protests.

All of this became ironic given the fact that compared to every other city I’ve been in, Portland has an incredibly striking lack of Black people. It’s not like I go into every room and think about race, but coming from living in New York, Atlanta, and Baltimore, Portland was very strikingly white, which made it contrast with its very progressive politics. According to a 2019 WalletHub report, Portland is the fifth least diverse city in America. It is the whitest city in America.

I don’t think I would have noticed Portland’s lack of diversity or pointed it out as much without pointing out the hypocrisy of its progressive politics. I’ve also seen more Teslas in Portland in one day than I did in two years living in the D.C., Maryland, Virginia (DMV) area. I could also point out how striking entire streets lined with tents of homeless people looked on the same blocks there were four Teslas parked on the street, but that’s a topic for another time.

My friend, who is Mexican-American, told me Portland and its surrounding area might have a relatively high proportion of Hispanic people (his words), but the city and state as a whole had a very long-lasting legacy of discriminating against Black people. I chopped it up with an Uber driver who also told me Oregon was such a racist state in the past that they didn’t want slaves because they wanted to preserve a white utopia.

Well, all of this was very interesting to me living in a very different kind of city, so I decided to do research: why was Portland, and Oregon as a whole, so white? And I understand the criticism that I may be stoking the flames of racial tension, but the reason I talk about Portland, in particular, is the incompatibility of the city’s incredibly progressive politics with its demographics.

How can a super white city have the most violent protests on issues of racial justice? I sat in restaurants where I was, as an Asian man, the only non-white person in the room, with people talking about why Friends was canceled because it was “so damn problematic.”

I cannot be crazy for seeing these inherent hypocrisies and contradictions behind Portland’s progressive politics, which, to me, undermines those politics. I’m not saying white people can’t be progressive. But when progressivism has increasingly been tied to race and racial justice, then yeah, a predominantly white city being at the center of a movement for racial equality is not a good look.

This is the story behind why Portland and Oregon as a whole are so white:

The “white utopia” Oregon's founders wanted

According to Douglas Perry at The Oregonian, Portland became a state in 1859 while the U.S. was moving towards civil war. Oregon, to its credit, banned slavery. But it did not do so with good intent: the state just did not want Black people to live there at all.

The original constitution of Oregon did not allow Black people to live in the state. As a territory, the Provisional Government established a black exclusion law in 1844. In the previous year, the state prohibited slavery, but in the 1844 law, the government said Black people who tried to settle in Oregon would be whipped with 39 lashes until they left Oregon. Later that year, they changed the law, and not for the better: Black people would have to go into forced labor if they did not leave Oregon.

In 1849, the Oregon Territorial Legislature enacted an exclusion law that said no “negro or mulatto to enter into, or reside within the limits of this Territory.” The next year, Congress passed the Donation Land Act, which would give free land to white settlers in Oregon. To Oregon’s credit, there is only one case of these exclusion laws being enforced — in the case of Jacob Vanderpool in 1849.

But none of this stopped the tide of anti-Blackness in Oregon. It wasn’t just that Oregon was racist and a product of the racial climate of the times, but Oregon was so racist it didn’t even want Black people in the state. The 1857 Oregon constitution banned all Black residents from Oregon, making it illegal for Black people to own real estate, vote, or make contracts.

Oregon was the only state to forbid Black people.

So Oregon was anti-slavery, but it was not anti-slavery for a very good reason. Despite the laws barely being enforced, they did have an effect on why the state is so white, even today. According to Walidah Imarisha, a Black studies educator writer in Oregon, said:

“[These] laws point to the fact that Oregon was founded as a racist white utopia…The idea was that white folks would come here and build the perfect white society.”

Imarisha says that even today, she gets death threats and sexually explicit comments whenever she teaches Black history across the state.

While the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments came at the end of the Civil War, Oregon did not ratify the Fourteenth Amendment until 1973, according to Alana Semuels at The Atlantic. The Fifteenth Amendment was not ratified until 1959, which gave Black people the right to vote.

Black people could come to Oregon after 1868, but if you were Black, what made Oregon a prime destination? The laws sent a message that Black people were not welcome in the state.

It doesn’t necessarily help that Portland had the highest per-capita membership in the Ku Klux Klan in the country.

The city of Vanport

After World War II, Semuels notes more Black people moved into Oregon, mainly to work in jobs in shipyards. Mostly, new Black residents would move into Vanport, between Portland and Vancouver, Washington. 20,000 people moved into the city by the end of World War II.

But after the war was over, the mayor of Portland made disparaging comments towards Black people, and the jobs disappeared when many white soldiers returned from the war. The Housing Authority of Portland thought about dismantling Vanport, but it obviously it couldn’t make 20,000 people suddenly leave.

Natasha Geiling at Smithsonian Magazine said that before World War II, many Black residents of the city had to live in an area known as Albina. Many Black residents came to the city to work as railroad porters, which was one of the only jobs they were legally able to work. Albina quickly became one of the only places where Black people were legally allowed to live as redlining denied opportunities for minorities to get loans for properties in white neighborhoods.

In 1948, Vanport suffered a devastating flood, after the United States Army Corps of Engineers said the dikes would hold. The dikes didn’t hold, and all the residents of Vanport, which was Oregon’s second largest city at the time, were displaced. 15 people in the city died, but people in the city had to find new places to stay.


Again, I had a great time in Portland. Everyone I interacted with was incredibly pleasant and kind. But individual kindness can co-exist with institutional structures. Shaming Portland and Oregon for being so white is probably not the answer or solution to some of the structural challenges the country is facing, but Portland, to me, was a microcosm of America’s problems on steroids.

There were vastly more homeless people than anywhere I’ve been on the east coast. There’s more of a racist history. There’s more de facto segregation. It was hard for me not to leave Portland noting how it seemed like your average east coast city, with just more of everything, including gentrification.

Today, Albina is rapidly gentrifying and has been for decades now. The construction of a Trader Joe’s was blocked in 2014 after activists said the development would price out Black residents.

The irony of Portland’s progressivism is on full display in light of the state and city’s historically racist policies, even by America’s standards. What does it look like for Portland to reckon with its racist history? What does it look like for a city so gung-ho on progressivism to not only talk the talk but walk the walk?

Frankly, I don’t know. And it’s probably better that Portland, as a whole, is gung-ho on its progressivism than not to address that racist history. One Black chemist in Portland joked there are more Black Lives Matter signs in Portland than Black people, but overall, the very white city became the center of Black Lives Matter protests across the country, even as white protestors seemed to dominate many of last summer’s Portland protests. Rev. E.D. Mondainé, the president of Portland’s NAACP, called the protests a “white spectacle,” but many voices pushed back against him.

Despite the “bad look” and hypocrisy of the whiteness of the city, these conversations and reckoning are likely key for Oregon and Portland to become more welcoming and diverse places. Is Portland moving in the right direction now? I hope so, for the sake of Portland and for the sake of the country as a whole.

Photo by peter bucks on Unsplash

Originally published on July 11, 2021 on Medium

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