The Many Communities of Color in Portland

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I used to work as a reporter for a newspaper, and space constraints were a very real thing. At the Los Angeles Times, we measured stories in inches, and if a story was too long, we’d have to cut out some inches. Now, writing for the website of The Atlantic, there are no space constraints (!). I can write as much as I want for the interwebs without having to worry about how much room I have on a newspaper page.

Still, journalistic pieces can’t go on forever. I don’t think readers want all the information on a topic; they want me, as the journalist, to pick a representative and digestible amount of information, and pull it together into a story. As a journalist, every time I write a story, I have to figure out where to draw the line, what to put in and leave out.

On a recent trip to Portland, I wrote a story about Oregon’s racist past and did not include information about Latinos, Asian-Americans, or American Indians. The responses of some readers to this oversight are below. I agree with them that there are other racist parts to Portland’s racist history that I did not include. But in my defense, I have to draw some limits, or else the stories will be even longer than they already are. And they are pretty long, by The Atlantic’s standards. Blame a former print reporter finally set free of space constraints, who is learning the limits of longform.

This first reader, Andrew, is a longtime resident of Portland:

While your article has a fairly thorough history of anti-black racism in Portland, I am disappointed that it completely ignores the racism faced by Latinx, Asian American, Native American, and immigrant communities in Portland over the years. I don’t say this to diminish the racism faced by African Americans, but if this is “The Racist History of Portland,” you really left out some incredibly terrible things other people of color have faced in Portland past and present. A lot of your article was pulled from local scholarship and reporting others have already done, so it seems incredibly lazy to ignore the five other chapters of the Coalition of Communities of Color report you cited on racial disparities in Portland, or the notorious incidents of internment, displacement, and murder that have occurred for other communities.

More portions of that massive CCC report are featured below. Speaking of internment, another Portland resident, Lawrence, recommends a piece from The Huffington Post:

Here’s an important aspect of history regarding Portland’s hyper-support of the Japanese-American internments. It’s a story the current daily newspaper whitewashes to this very day.

From an Asian American reader and former resident of the city’s Northwest District:

Asian and Pacific Islanders are the largest minority in Portland [according to the 2010 census, “Hispanic/Latino” is actually the largest non-white group, at 9.4 percent—compared 7.1 percent for “Asian”], surpassing Native Americans [1 percent]. To exclude us from a supposed examination of the racial history of the region is inexcusable. Given the consistent exclusion of Asians from certain racial narratives at The Atlantic, it suggests racial bias, even if subconscious.  

Portland, regardless of its racist past, was a lovely city to live in and an egalitarian paradise of race relations compared to growing up in Los Angeles. Other than annoying guys hitting on me solely for being Asian—not a phenomenon solely limited to white men, by the way—I can’t report any racial incidents. Even before social media, there was a cynical meme that judged Portland’s supposed racial “aptitude” based solely on the number of black residents. Still, Portland nicely encapsulates the hypocrisy of much of the white “progressive” class in this country; they vocally declare their racial consciousness while moving to areas defined and dominated by white culture.

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Regarding the full report from the Coalition of Communities of Color, you can download all seven parts here, which is accompanied by this video introduction:

Here are some key passages from three sections representing groups invoked by our readers. First, from the executive summary of the 225-page section on Asian and Pacific Islanders (API):

The key finding of this report is that the profile of the API community [in Multnomah County] much more closely parallels other communities of color than Whites and the success of the API community at the national level is not experienced here. In almost every institution examined by this report, the API community fares worse than Whites. This is true of incomes, poverty rates, educational attainment (at both the low end and high end of measures), most educational achievement gaps, occupations, health care, some health outcomes such as low birth weight births, housing, political representation, hiring in the civil service, youth being held in detention and short term stays in child welfare.

From the executive summary of the 106-page section on the Latino community:

Today we number 80,138 people, and officially comprise 10.9% of the population of Multnomah county. The largest of our communities of color, we are an impressive, dynamic presence in the urban landscape that has evolved into a multi-ethnic, multi-generational community, yet we continue to face institutional barriers that prevent proportional representation in government, private sector and educational advancement. [...] Among our findings are the following:

  • Our individual poverty levels are 77% higher than Whites and our family poverty levels are 152% higher.
  • Our per capita income of $14,627 is $18,000/year less than that of Whites, and our seniors try to survive on just $8,676/year.
  • The incomes of full-time, year-round workers for Latinos shows we are only able to earn $25,306 annually while Whites are paid $44,701.
  • While those earning below average incomes have stagnated among Whites (at 45%), numbers have risen dramatically for Latino households, from 56% in 1989 to 65% today.

From the executive summary of the 119-page section on the Native American community:

The findings of this report detail an array of disparities, including the following:

  • Poverty rates in our community are triple those in White communities. Our average poverty rate is 34.0%, while that of Whites is 12.3%. With children and single parents, rates climb steadily. Our child poverty rate is 45.2%, which is almost four times higher than the White child poverty rate of 14.0%.
  • Family poverty is particularly intense – with rates more than four times higher than Whites, deepening when single parents lead the family, and also deepening when there are responsibilities for younger children – with a poverty rate of 79.1% for single mothers raising children under 5.
  • Our poverty rates are deteriorating rapidly, while those of Whites remain largely stagnant at much lower levels. For example, the poverty rate among our Elders has jumped from 9% to 21% between 2000 and 2009 while the rate of Whites has moved from 6% to 10%.
  • Our incomes are typically half that of Whites regardless of our living arrangements. For example, married couples raising children try to get by on $50,540/year while White families live with (on average) $80,420/year.
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One more local reader writes:

My name is Grace Wong and I am a high school PoC from the Portland area. I really appreciated your piece on the white-ness of my home and how it’s an under-the-rug problem. I have long been a fan of The Atlantic and it’s great when you can cover something so close to home.

As a Portland native, I have heard this narrative before. The residents of Portland are working on educating themselves on how to work towards better solutions. I have known about the relocations, my mother worked at Legacy Emanuel Hospital for a long time, and from a young age in classrooms I have heard the narrative of Vanport [a neighboring town destroyed by a flood in May 1948 that caused an exodus of black residents to Albina]. Albina-area projects like the CENTER—which allowed students like me to design a space to honor the people of the neighborhood before us—and organizations like ILoveThisPlace are doing good work.

The youth community of Portland is not blind to these issues and we want to fix it through both discussions and actions. While we still have a long way to go in terms of racial equity, we are learning about it, we are talking about it, and the youth community is ready to make a change.