Reporter's Notebook

Race Relations in Portland
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Readers and staffers, primarily from Portland, Oregon, discuss and debate the various issues surrounding race, ethnicity, and class in the city. (The ongoing conversation was spurred by Alana Semuels’s article “The Racist History of Portland, the Whitest City in America.”) If you have something to add, especially as a Portland native, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

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Are Black Portlanders More Likely to Commit Crime?

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?

I can’t imagine a better reader to contribute to our ongoing debate over gentrification and urban renewal in Portland, Oregon, than Fred Stewart. Fred writes:

I am a black man who has sold real estate in Portland for most of the past 30 years, and I’ve sold more real estate in Inner North and Northeast Portland than anyone alive today. I just recently closed on my 760th address, and I have well over 1,000 transactions just in Inner North and Northeast Portland (the area you call Albina). I have personally walked into more homes in that area than probably anyone else.

As of this week, I have lived in Albina for 40 years. I was President of King Neighborhood for nearly a decade. I come from a family that can trace its Portland roots back to 1935, so I know a lot of about the city’s black history. I am currently a board member of the Oregon Black Pioneers, which is a group that looks to collate and share Oregon Black History with the people of Oregon.

That’s Fred in the video seen above and the one below—two amazing artifacts from the recent history of the Albina area. “These two commercials, which I produced in 1990,” he writes, “might give you an idea just how hard it was to sell homes that were often given away to ANYONE who would take them.”

In one of the best emails we’ve gotten in a while, Fred has a lot of incredibly valuable things to say about his city, its race relations, and how class comes into play:

I read your series on gentrification in Portland. I think the story is a lot more complicated and multi-faceted than you and your readers have outlined so far.

When I started selling real estate in 1988, most brokers would not sell homes in Inner North and Northeast Portland. It was my hope to sell homes anywhere but that area. We had over 500 vacant homes, gang shootings daily, and a lot of social issues. We had no services, few stores, and no restaurants and bars anyone would hang out in—at least people who were not members of the criminal community. It was not a fun place to live once you left your house.

I started selling homes in Inner North and Northeast on my birthday (December 11). I had to not just sell the homes; I had to sell the community. So as a broker I had to sell the neighborhood’s present, its past, and, most importantly, its future.  

When I started my career, I could not give away homes that in some cases are worth over a million dollars today. Many times I did give away those homes. No one wanted them, and that includes the black people in the community.

In fact, the people in that neighborhood most interested in selling and least interested in buying were black people. That is understandable when you consider two facts about Portland history: 1) Black people were forced to live in Inner North and Northeast Portland (that fact dates back to at least the 1920s), and 2) The area was not a good place to raise kids, and the schools were all bad.

Black people back then were just like our white citizens; they wanted the best they could afford for their children and family. And that meant moving elsewhere—in the Portland market and often out of state. When the property and housing values of Inner Northeast Portland started going up, many black families cashed out and left.

So far in our reader discussion on race relations in Portland, Oregon, we’ve heard from many residents, including: working-class whites who lived in the Albina area during the pre-gentrified ’80s, a long-time black resident of Albina who sold real estate in that NE area of the city for decades, a middle-class white woman who bought a house there recently, and a half-Filipina woman who grew up in the racially-diverse, blue-collar neighborhood of St. Johns. This next email comes from a black woman who lived in the wealthier area of SW Portland during the ’80s:

Wikimedia

My family came from California. Alana Semuel’s article made sense of all the racial hostility my family and I experienced during our 10 year residence. The schools, the rise of the Skinheads ... I still remember Mulugeta Seraw [seen right] being murdered by Skinheads outside a local nightclub. Thanks for the history of a city I haven’t returned to since graduating from high school (Lincoln). In fact, no one in my family has returned.

She adds, “I am happy to add further comments in you have questions.” So I asked her why her family moved to Portland in the ’80s and if she would be willing to share the worst examples of racism she experienced back then. She kindly replied:

We encountered the most racism in the school system. Two memories that remain: being called “monkey” and “gorilla” and “primate” in school—two girls in particular were really hostile. They even showed me books of monkeys and asked me if I was related to them. My mother had to intervene because the teacher was ineffective at stopping the bullying.

More subtlety, when at my Catholic middle school, I was never invited over for birthday parties, sleepovers, etc. It was a pretty small school, so the kids were all close. While my classmates were kind to me during the school day, all of the relationship building I was not privy to. I was definitely an outsider.

We had moved to Portland from California because my father worked for Portland Community College as Vice President. We lived in SW Portland, where we were just one of a few black families, that I can recall. (If my memory serves me correct, N.E. was where the majority of blacks lived; Portland was divided racially by class as well.)

Mulugeta Seraw, the murder victim she mentions, was actually attending her father’s school, PCC, at the time of his death. Seraw was an Ethiopian immigrant who had arrived in Portland from Addis Ababa in 1981, and on the night of November 12, 1988,

Mieske (via Southern Poverty Law Center)

three skinheads [members of the White Aryan Resistance and a Portland gang called East Side White Pride] encountered Seraw and two of his friends as their two cars drove in opposite directions on SE 31st at around 1:30 am. A verbal altercation over the right of way quickly became racially confrontational and within minutes, [Ken] Mieske had pulled a baseball bat from his trunk and beaten Seraw in the head at least twice with it, according to news reports from the time. Seraw died in hospital eight hours later.

Two of the Skinheads were convicted of manslaughter and assault, while the bat-wielding one got a life sentence and died in prison in 2011. From The Oregonian’s retrospective on the murder:

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: