birdie sanders

I highly recommend this feature in the Atlantic – The Racist History of Portland, the Whitest City in America. We can learn a lot about racism by looking at those places that are the whitest.

In Portland, the belief that we are “post-racial” is largely unopposed, and those who point out problems of racial injustice are often treated as if they are just seeing things, as delusional or “divisive.”

In Portland, the city I’ve often referred to as Whitelandia over the 30 years since I first moved here in 1986, there is very little to contradict these ideas and, in fact, less and less all the time as the very whiteness of the city makes it a magnet for white flight, causing it to grow whiter, and driving gentrification. Portland has among the worse Black displacement rates as a result of gentrification in the country. Black and Native American family incomes are no longer enough to afford the rent in any of Portland’s core neighborhoods.

With each displacement, white cultural hegemony more powerfully shapes the racial landscape.

From the article:

2014 report by Portland State University and the Coalition of Communities of Color, a Portland non-profit, shows black families lag far behind whites in the Portland region in employment, health outcomes, and high-school graduation rates. They also lag behind black families nationally. While annual incomes for whites nationally and in Multnomah County, where Portland is located, were around $70,000 in 2009, blacks in Multnomah County made just $34,000, compared to $41,000 for blacks nationally. Almost two-thirds of black single mothers in Multnomah County with kids under five lived in poverty in 2010, compared to half of black single mothers with kids under five nationally. And just 32 percent of African Americans in Multnomah County owned homes in 2010, compared to 60 percent of whites in the county and 45 percent of blacks nationally.

I’ve traveled to every state in the country as a social justice activist. I’ve spent no small amount of time in Appalachia and the Deep South. I can attest to there being racism everywhere, but my travels have led me to the conclusion that Portland is the most smugly racist major city in the country among the ones I’ve visited, and I’ve been to most.

Here, we suffer from a history of racial exclusion and discrimination that has made Portland both an unfriendly place for people of color, and a magnet for white flight from other cities as they grow browner. The overwhelming whiteness of Portland allows post-racialists to plug their ears and “la,la,la” away the grievances of people of color. The racism that made Los Angeles or Oakland feel “unsafe” compared to overwhelming white Portland gets buried under a veneer of liberalism in a context in which there is relatively little racial tension because there are relatively few people of color. But in 2015, homelessness among Blacks increased by 48 percent in Portland. And Blacks, who are less than 7 percent of the population of Portland, are 25 percent of those who are homeless.

Portland is Bernie Sanders country, home to one of the largest pro-Sanders rallies in the country. Here bond measures for light rail and other public investments pass with relative ease. We even passed a tax hike not too long ago. Portland invests in bio-swales and bike lanes, parks, riverside promenades, even a bike bridge. We call them “improvements” even as more and more Black and Native American families are pushed out, forced to move away from these investments in “us.”

I often wonder if Portlanders would be so intent on keeping Portland “weird” if the racial demography of the city were to change in favor of people of color. Or would there be resistance, and upticks in racist politicking as we’ve seen in once ethnically homogenous social democracies in Europe as they grow browner as a result of immigration?

I wonder how many among the thousands who turned out to rally for his election in Portland would have stayed home if Bernie Sanders had more aggressively addressed structural racism, and called for major public investments to address the concentrated poverty poor people of color suffer from. Free college tuition and better health care is terrific, but if there are no good primary schools or hospitals and clinics within or near communities of color, who really benefits from these improvements most? If inheritance, your parents’ level of education, and zip code are the biggest determinants of financial success, those ladders out of poverty may be just out of reach if your inheritance is a history of exclusion and super-exploitation, your zip code one in which there are no good health care facilities or schools.

As a racial justice advocate living in the whitest city in the U.S.; one that also suffers from some of the worst effects of racism of all Northern cities, I often find myself wondering if Portland-style progressive politics isn’t at least in part the product of #snowblindness. If so, white progressives concerned about racism may have much to learn from Portland.


Avatar photo

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

6 replies on “#snowblindness”

Very interesting and disappointing. Portland was on our list of possible places to move to, but I’m removing it now. Thanks for the insight.

I thought it was Seattle, similar demographics… Class probably has more to do with it than race and being well-connected. I have to ask if poor whites fare better in Portland? If they can live there, then race is certainly a factor, but if not, the issue is wealth. Remember the Wall Street Movement? Crystallized the age-old problem – access to resources.
Sadly, only a small number of blacks made it to the Middle Class relative to White America after the Civil Rights movement and various quota systems.
Asians did far better, different story. Today they assimilate better and receive honorary white status as they do exceedingly well academically (where it counts) and learned to bite their tongues in the face of blatant bigotry. Dubbed “model minorities,” they finally upstaged blacks via excellence and persistence. You know the rest.

Of course class is in play as well. Race is a form of class, and class is racialized, both as an identity and as a financial reality. The thing is, the situation of people, in terms of class, has always been distorted by the persistence of race. For instance, NE Portland’s Albina neighborhood is historically black, now predominantly white. NE Portland has the worst air quality of any neighborhood in the inner-city as a legacy of racism, which justified placement of certain industries and a major freeway through that quadrant. Now, white Portlanders of the gentrifier class are struggling to figure out what to do about this problem. At it’s origin, it’s a race problem. Just as welfare was unchallenged for the most part when welfare was known as “Mothers’ Aid,” established to serve white “damsels in distress” and then challenged and reformed once blacks won equitable access to welfare, to the detriment of poor single parent families generally among whom a majority are white, NE Portland’s air quality problem is one in which the dehumanization of black people caused Portlanders in general to forget that we all ultimately breath the same air.

On the model minority issue, let’s be clear, Asians aren’t better at integrating and assimilating. The overwhelming majority of Asians in the U.S. came here after immigration reform in 1965, and an overwhelming majority are still foreign-born. The only Asian ethnic group in the U.S. who are mostly American-born are Japanese Americans. Japanese Americans make up only 0.2 percent of the American public. The immigration system creams professional class Asians into the U.S., making Asian immigrants by far the most likely among all immigrants grouped by race to enter the U.S. with an employer sponsor and a college degree. This immigration filtering has gentrified Asian America. This is not a bootstraps story any more than it is for any other group of immigrants. It is a story about how U.S. labor needs have drawn huge numbers of high tech workers, doctors and medical technicians, business investors, and engineers into the U.S. to address domestic labor shortages. It’s a history that goes all the way back to the establishment of Medicare and the Vietnam War, the combination of which created a shortage of doctors in the U.S., requiring us to provide a huge number of special visas to Asian medical professionals, especially from India.

I do agree that Asians have learned to bite our tongues. There’s a widespread belief that the way to get ahead is by avoiding being the squeaky wheel, and idea founded in anti-black racism. But, here’s the rub. Asians are more likely to be employed, but the least likely of all groups by race to be promoted into executive positions once hired, and for exactly the reasons you cite that, together, lead employers to view us as followers, not leaders, and, honestly, as perfectly exploitable workers, stoic in the face of over-work and alienation.

Scot, your article and then the reply above addressing our misconceptions of Asians as a model minority are really, really helpful and lucid explanations. Thanks for that and for your clear way of explaining the complex relationships that exist between race and class. It helps me understand why, in the small Ohio community I grew up in and then in other small towns where we have lived, I kept finding our doctors were immigrants from India who had lived here for decades but still retained an Indian English accent.

Comments are closed.