Are Black Portlanders More Likely to Commit Crime?

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

A white reader in Portland pushes back on part of my initial look at the gentrification of the historically African American part of the city known as Albina. She’s an Oregon native and has lived in Northeast Portland for nearly a decade and bought a home there:

I read your piece on gentrification in Portland. It’s such a great, refreshing commentary on what’s going on—probably the least “hype-y,” most balanced piece I’ve read about the situation, especially calling out the class element. The piece has been blowing up in my Facebook feed, which is fun to see, and of course I’m super interested in the topic since I purchased a house in NE Portland in 2013; I’m one of the gentrifiers!

But I have one question (do not feel obligated to respond to this!):

I’m a little unclear on how the data you present about crime being dispersed throughout Portland addresses the validity, or lack thereof, of the “sad fact” claimed by your reader (“sad fact: More white people = less crime of all varieties, from littering to murder” [CB: I called that “dubious”]). It seems like the reader is claiming two things: 1) that crime used to be pretty bad in his neighborhood [in the Albina area] and it has gone down over time since he’s lived there and 2) that more white people = less crime. I don’t think he was arguing that crime in his neighborhood was worse than in other parts of the city (at least not in the quote included in the article), so I’m not sure how crime dispersal relates to his statement. But maybe I’m missing the connection? Maybe if that’s true for me, other readers are missing it? I don’t know.

Indeed, I only scratched the surface of crime rates in Portland, how they have changed since the ‘80s, and how they have tracked differently among different racial groups. Below is a fuller picture of that recent history, and please send me a note if you have more to add. Update from the reader above:

I still remember when I moved to Portland in 2004, my parents told me in no uncertain terms: “You are NOT to move to N or NE Portland. Too dangerous.” (Of course I didn’t listen to them.) My dad was actually a loan collector for a short time in Portland when he got out of the military and I remember him saying he was scared stiff of knocking on doors in NE Portland.

***

First, I dug up a report from the State of Oregon’s Criminal Justice Commission  (PDF) showing arrest rates broken down by racial categories from 1986 to 2008—roughly the period of rapid development of the historically-black area of Albina. The report highlights four areas of crime and has corresponding charts for each. The first examines “person crimes”:

The OUCR (Oregon Uniform Crime Reports) program defines person crimes as willful murder, negligent homicide, forcible rape, other sex crime, kidnapping, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault. By far, simple assault is the most common crime in the person crimes category. As seen in the graph [above], the arrest rate for Blacks or African Americans is substantially higher than the other groups. In 1986 the arrest rate for this group was 6.3 times higher than the statewide rate; in 2008 it was 4.5 times higher.

The group with the lowest arrest rate historically is Asians and in 2008 the rate for this group was nearly one-third the statewide rate. In the late 90’s there was a steady decrease in the overall arrest rate. From 1994 to 1999 the largest percentage decrease of these groups was Blacks or African Americans with a 35 percent drop in person crime arrests.

The report goes on to detail three more charts—for robbery, for property crimes, and for DUII, or driving under the influence of intoxicants. On robbery: “In 1986 the arrest rate for [African Americans] was 17 times higher than the statewide rate; in 2008 it was 8 times higher.” On property crimes: “The arrest rate for Blacks or African Americans is the highest of the groups at 5.1 times higher than the statewide rate in 1986 and 3.6 times higher in 2008.” On DUII: “[H]istorically the group with the highest arrest rate is Hispanics.” Among all three crime categories (in addition to person crimes), Asian residents had the lowest rate of arrests. (If you’re interested in digging into the finer details of such crimes and more, this longer PDF report is helpful.)

As far as the subsequent stage for many arrestees—incarceration—the rate for African Americans is roughly aligned with arrests: African Americans comprise just 2% of Oregon’s population, but 9% of the state’s adult inmate population,” according to the Oregon Department of Corrections Inmate Population Profile for 2013 (PDF). (The majority of black Oregonians live in Portland.) That state-wide statistic is roughly aligned with city/county data reported in February:

Black people are overrepresented in each stage of Multnomah County’s adult criminal justice system [Portlanders are the vast majority of Multnomah residents]  -- from initial contact and arrest through prosecution, sentencing and parole or probation violations, a new report concludes. While they make up only 5 percent of the county’s general population, blacks represent 27 percent of its jail population, the Racial and Ethnic Disparities Report shows.

So: Are African Americans in Portland more likely to commit crimes, or are they just more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for crimes because of racial bias?

It’s a complex question, of course, but the answer is probably both, to varying degrees. David Rogers, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, reacted to that February report and a more recent one from the Sentencing Project (PDF) by referring to “institutional racism in the criminal justice system,” while Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, was more circumspect:

There’s no clear reason why Oregon has such a high rate, Singh said. Socioeconomic issues, and implicit and explicit racial bias likely all contribute.

As far as the other side of the crime ledger—the victims—here’s a key stat from the Urban League of Portland (PDF): “African Americans are also disproportionately affected by crime; they comprise 7% of Portland’s population but 45% of the city’s homicide victims.”

If you have any considered views about these thorny questions, espec.ally as a Portland resident, please send a note and we’ll air the strongest points from all sides. Update from a very long-time resident of Portland, Jean, who replies to our first installment of the thread but who can testify to the crime in Northeast Portland:

I am glad that a subject that has been gotten so wrong by so many newcomers is finally seeing the light of day. I was born and grew up in Piedmont [a neighborhood in the Albina area] and became a homeowner myself in 1974. My father was born in North Portland and owned our home for many years before personal crime forced he and my mother (who was crippled by a stroke) to move to Vancouver, Washington, where my husband, my children and I eventually moved.

One notable error that seems to continue is saying that our neighborhood was “Black and white working class.” My father was a professional and there were white doctors and lawyers and business people all throughout the neighborhood. It has always galled me that this erroneous attitude started and now continues.

The crimes which were of a personal nature—molestation, robbery, burglary, all with guns—continued to worsen as I purchased my home with my husband. As a child, being chased home by girl gangs, and other personal incidents, finally made the neighborhood intolerable for even those as tolerant  and liberal as my parents.

At one point, everyone’s parents—including the nuns and priests from the convent and rectory at Holy Redeemer Parish and School on what was once Portland Boulevard but is now Rosa Parks Way—had been robbed at gunpoint. I could list lesser crimes such as my father’s car constantly being broken into, even though it was always parked on our property.

We had wonderful Black friends who hated the conditions in our neighborhood as much as we did. Our neighborhood could be described as mixed race starting in the late 1960s through the 1970s and into the 1980s. When someone bought a house and fixed it up, nobody cared what color they were. If they were nice and cared about the neighborhood, everyone was happy.

However, when crime discouraged good people from living in the neighborhood, flight of both Blacks and Whites became common.  Who can live someplace knowing—as the police said to my parents after they were once again robbed at gunpoint on the sidewalk leading to their home—“we can tell you one thing for sure: they’ll be back.”?

Piedmont was a happy and safe place for many years in my childhood, for everyone. Crimes that my parents had endured in Piedmont with no attention or care given made front-page headlines in The Oregonian when it happened in the West Hills to prominent people such as the mother of the owner of Columbia Sportswear, Gert Boyle. [According to Wikipedia, “In 2010, she was tied up at gunpoint by an armed robber in her home in West Linn, Oregon.”] I felt terrible but had to pause and sadly remember that the same exact thing had happened twice to my parents and nobody cared at all.

I am glad that the truth about my very loved childhood home is coming to light. There is nothing worse that the years of articles in The Oregonian in which a reporter who is new to the city writes an article so full of error about a place that he/she obviously knows nothing about and does not care to check for mistakes. Piedmont is such a beautiful neighborhood with amazing impressive homes. I am considered elderly now, and driving through and seeing someone actually care for and love these stately homes like the one in which I grew up makes me so happy.

Of course, it is never good to be forced out of one’s home. I have a family member right now who was renting a house that is now being sold and is being forced out of the home and neighborhood she loved here in Vancouver, Washington. Finding an affordable home seems to be a fleeting dream now for so many.

We have a crisis, for sure, but to call what is going on in Portland “Gentrification” is flat-out wrong in my opinion. It’s Revitalization, and those of us who grew up there are, to a person, happy that the beautiful neighborhoods of our childhoods can once again be places of peace, harmony and beauty.

After I posted Jean’s story, she shared a pretty wonderful coincidence:

Funny thing: My first phone number as a kid in Piedmont was “AT 2-8472” which was short for “Atlantic”—so it stands that a publication like The Atlantic would take an interest. 😀