The horrific, racist incident in Portland, Oregon has brought renewed attention to Rose City’s foundational identity as a white supremacist stronghold. While the city has a certain aura of progressive hipsterism and a green, tree-hugger progressivism, Portland’s racism has been embedded in its DNA for nearly two centuries and continues to thrive.
In a popular 2015 essay by Matt Novak, the author detailed how the state of Oregon was conceived as a “white utopia,” where prior to statehood in 1844, legislators passed a law detailing how free Black people found in the state would be flogged if they didn’t leave within two years. While the flogging part was removed from the law a year later, Oregon still made it entirely illegal for Black people to move there until 1926, after which other forms of racial exclusion were adopted. Even into the 1950s, Portland restaurants had signs displaying the type of sentiment most people might think was restricted to the South: “White Trade Only – Please.”
Oregon’s population remains only 2 percent Black due to the continued marginalization of non-white communities, which takes place both through structural and informal mechanisms. And in Portland, one of the Pacific Northwest’s largest cities, the latest census data shows that 72.2 percent of the population is white while only 6.3 percent of the population is Black.
“I think that Portland has, in many ways, perfected neoliberal racism,” Black educator and activist Walidah Imarisha told the Atlantic magazine, explaining that political liberalism notwithstanding, the city jealously safeguards and facilitates subtle white supremacy in business, culture and housing.
In 1970, plans were approved to expand Legacy Emanuel Hospital in North Portland before local residents were even able to submit their comments to the city council. The hospital’s expansion led to the destruction of nearly 300 businesses and homes, decimating what was then considered the heart of the local Black community and displacing hundreds of families.
Inequalities continue to abound. In a 2011 housing audit, the city found that landlords and leasing agents discriminated in nearly two-thirds of 50 tests held, by adding additional fees, charging higher rents and demanding larger deposits. Meanwhile, gentrification continues to push Black people to the city’s fringes while Black youth face suspension and expulsion at four to five times the rate of their white peers, fueling the school-to-prison pipeline.
“I’ve lived in New York and Miami and I can say unequivocally that Portland is the most racist place I’ve lived,” said Adrienne Cabouet, a Black Lives Matter organizer in an interview last year with the Oregonian. It is subtle, but it is constant. It is people moving when you sit by them on the bus. It is not being called back when you see an apartment — showing up to see an apartment and you’re told, ‘Oh, there’s nothing available.’ It is white people touching your hair. It’s pervasive. It’s constant.”
In the same interview, Pastor Leroy Barber agreed, noting his shock at “how much Portland celebrates whiteness,” explaining, “Whiteness is celebrated here. It is the center of culture. It is what everything else is measured up against.”
The not-so-subtle underbelly of the state’s widespread neo-Nazi subculture has also been exposed by Friday’s incident where a white man yelling anti-Muslim insults at two passengers, stabbed and killed two white men and injured another who tried to intervene.
Jeremy Christian, the 35-year-old arrested in the brutal slayings, was a known extremist and white racist who was seen giving Nazi salutes while draped in an American flag at a so-called “March for Free Speech” on April 29.
The killing is just the latest in a spate of incidents involving white racists. This year alone, the city has seen demonstrations like April’s involving so-called “alt-right” fascists and members of the Ku Klux Klan; swastika vandalism during Jewish holidays and bomb threats to Jewish community centers; as well as open attempts by neo-Nazis to recruit students at Portland State University.
While many have tried to explain the upsurge in white racist incidents as a byproduct of Donald Trump’s ascendance to the presidency, the problem is also in large measure intrinsic to Portland’s history itself.
“People are like, ‘Why do you bring up this history? It’s gone, it’s in the past, it’s dead.” Imarisha told the Atlantic. “While the mechanisms may have changed, if the outcome is the same, then actually has anything changed? Obviously, that ideology of a racist white utopia is still very much in effect.”