Portland, Oregon is the whitest city of its size in the United States. I want to deny living there. It feels shameful even though I did not choose it because of its whiteness. I am third generation Oregonian. My friends and family are here. I love the giant firs, the rivers that bisect the city, the easy access to the ocean and mountains, Powell’s Books. I hate its lack of diversity and the racism that lies at its root: Oregon’s original sin.
When Oregon was on the verge of statehood, granted in 1859, it was divided between those who wanted to allow slavery and those who did not. The compromise was to prohibit slavery (and thus competition from people using free labor), but also to prohibit African Americans from residing in the state. While this was not enforced, it sent a powerful message: “If you are African American, you are not wanted here.”
“Delegates to Oregon's constitutional convention submitted an exclusion clause to voters on November 7, 1857, along with a proposal to legalize slavery. Voters disapproved of slavery by a wide margin, ensuring that Oregon would be a free state, and approved the exclusion clause by a wide margin. Incorporated into the Bill of Rights, the clause prohibited blacks from being in the state, owning property, and making contracts. Oregon thus became the only free state admitted to the Union with an exclusion clause in its constitution.” [emphasis added] Gregory Nokes.
The constitutional exclusion remained until 1926. Other racist language in the constitution was not removed until 2002. Oregon originally ratified the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but within a few years rescinded its ratification and did not correct it until 1973. The state resisted ratifying the 15th Amendment (Voting Rights) until 1959.
The reverse side of racial exclusion is that white people were drawn to Oregon because of its whiteness. I don’t know, but I pray that my ancestors weren’t part of this diaspora. It’s quite possible they were. This is our shameful legacy. It is why white supremacists feel more at home here than African Americans. It is why black people make up only 2% of Oregon’s population and 9.3% of its prison population.
“In 1850, the U.S. Congress passed the Oregon Donation Land Act, a piece of legislation designed to promote White settlement in the Oregon Territory by expropriating Native American land and giving it to Whites for free, causing a population boom of White settlers of 300 percent. The move to Oregon for many White settlers was motivated by a desire to create an all-White society free from the racial tensions brewing before the start of the American Civil War. The first steps taken to create this all-White society involved bloody battles against Native American peoples and their eventual compulsory removal from their land.” [citations omitted]
Oregon in the 1920’s had the highest population of Ku Klux Klan members in the U.S. They can be seen posing for photographs with Portland’s officials. Another photo shows the KKK with members of the Royal Riders of the Red Robe, a Klan auxiliary of foreign born Protestants. The Klan’s philosophy is evident in its motto: “’100 percent Americanism,’ an ideology that developed during World War I as a reaction to the perceived threat to national unity posed by the influx of non-Protestant, non-English-speaking immigrants.” Sound familiar?
In 1988, three men associated with White Aryan Resistance (WAR) beat Mulegeta Seraw, an Ethiopian student, to death on a Portland street. The Southern Poverty Law Center sued Tom Metzger, head of WAR, his son, and WAR for incitement of murder. An Oregon jury returned a $12.5 million verdict in favor of the estate of Mr. Seraw, despite Metzger’s defense that he was merely exercising his First Amendment Rights. The verdict bankrupted WAR.
In more recent years (with the election of a black president, followed by the hate-filled rhetoric of a bigoted president), we’ve seen the rise of white militias (such as the Oath Keepers, active in Oregon), white supremacist, and white separatist groups. The number of anti-Muslim organizations in the U.S. grew from 34 in 2015 to 101 in 2016, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. A report by the Council for American-Islamic Relations found that hate crimes targeting Muslims surged 584 percent from 2014 to 2016.
Once on the fringe, these hate groups now march in Portland streets and propagandize and proselytize on the internet. Prisons, too, are a breeding ground for white supremacist gangs, and Oregon, like the rest of the country, has grotesquely expanded the number of people we lock up. Jeremy Christian spent eight years in Oregon prisons. According to one person who knew him before he was sent up, it was there he connected with white hate groups and became radicalized. We gave up on prison as rehabilitative long ago.
On May 27, 2017, Jeremy Christian verbally assaulted two young women, one black, the other Muslim on a MAX train. Christian is a self-proclaimed white separatist. He reportedly yelled at the women “Get off the bus and get out of the country.” When three men intervened, he killed two (Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche and Ricky John Best) and seriously injured the third (Micah David-Cole Fletcher). The three men were white Portlanders, one was Jewish. Will this send a message to white supremacists seeking to move here? They are planning to rally in downtown Portland on June 4. While they are free to speak, we do not welcome those who promote hate.
We honor Taliesin, Rick, and Micah and embrace the two young women who were vilified. This kind of courage is also Oregon’s legacy. We can’t change Oregon’s history or increase Portland’s diversity overnight. But we can make it welcoming to all those who seek a community striving for inclusion and the enrichment it brings. As civil rights attorney Arjun Singh Sethi wrote in The Washington Post: “Attacks like Portland’s will keep happening unless we all fight racism, simply being sorry isn’t enough.”
Portland is also enriched by numerous groups promoting diversity and fighting against hate (links to a few are given below). One of them, the Asian and Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), provides suggestions for how we can grow a better community:
“We continue to affirm our support for those who have been terrorized and traumatized, and seek community-driven solutions to address the root causes of oppression. We uplift local efforts including; 1) ending racial profiling and establishing strong community centered police accountability; 2) ensuring all students have access to quality ethnic studies education; 3) creating safe cultural spaces for communities to gather, and; 4) educating to counter hate ideologies and indoctrinations especially amongst our youth.”
We can also support those who are working against racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny, and xenophobia – with our time and/or money. And we can look to them for guidance and information to help us move forward. I will end with another thought from APANO:
"These times of fear and violence require us to reflect deeply on root causes, and is not an excuse to over-police our communities. May more Oregonians take action to interrupt hate and stand for love. In these terrible moments, we are reminded of our fragile humanity and the need to build institutions that function as systems of care and are focused on the inherent worth and dignity of all people.”
Links (not exhaustive by any means): Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crimes: https://oregoncahc.org/
Unite Oregon: www.uniteoregon.org
Change Lab, Race File: www.racefiles.com
Coalition of Communities of Color: www.coalitioncommunitiescolor.org
Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO): https://irco.org
NAACP Portland Chapter: www.portlandnaacp1120.org
Urban League of Portland: https://ulpdx.org
Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA): https://nayapdx.org
Western States Center: www.westernstatescenter.org
Rural Organizing Project: www.rop.org
Partnership for Safety and Justice: www.safetyandjustice.org
Black Lives Matter Portland: https://blackpdx.com
Basic Rights Oregon: www.basicrights.org
Southern Poverty Law Center: www.splcenter.org
Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR): www.cair.org