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.