Portland’s Struggle with Diversity

By Don MacGillivray

Portland is known for its lack of racial diversity and its lack of African Americans. With the Black population at six percent and Latinos at 10 percent of the population, it may be surprising that this summer sustained its ongoing minority civil rights demonstrations.

These demonstrations succeeded in part because many young white participants believed in the ideas for positive change.

Many things about Portland are changing rapidly. The city’s population increased by 86,000 or 13 percent over the last 10 years. Today there are 660,000 residents. 

In 1940, the racial makeup in Portland was 98 percent Caucasian, but today the figure has dropped to 77 percent. In the public schools, 56 percent of the students are white and the remaining 44 percent are of another race or of mixed ethnicity.

The median annual household income here is now $73,000, the average home sells for $410,000, and $1,250 is the median rent for a typical apartment. The poverty rates for Portlanders are 11 percent for whites, 29 percent for Blacks and 21 percent for Hispanics. This indicates a difficult economic life for ethnic minorities as well as having to contend with racial discrimination.

Portland is also known as a progressive city with a racist past. While minority lifestyles have improved over time, people of color often won’t achieve the lifestyle of the average resident. 

They endure higher rates of unemployment, school dropouts, homicides, incarceration and poverty. In recent years gentrification has moved many them from their historic inner NE neighborhoods to outer East Portland. 

The discontent of the recent demonstrations and riots are in part because of this historic discrimination, but it is also over the perceived unfair treatment by the police and authorities. Local government and business leaders are working to address these concerns.

The working group titled Community Connect began a study in 2006 to strengthen the level of community involvement in Portland. Many interests believed that the neighborhood association system needed to be changed so that other unrepresented groups in Portland were able to have greater access and involvement concerning the local government decisions that affected their lives. After much research, work and discussion, its report was finalized and widely distributed in 2009. 

The report focused on connecting people, including more voices in civic affairs and making government leaders more responsive and accountable. There was a desire for structural reforms in city government that could only be made by revisions to the city charter. Unfortunately, the Charter Review Commission overlooked many of these suggestions in 2010. 

Now, there will be a new Charter Review Commission this year with another opportunity to consider recommendations from the Community Connect committee. One of its significant suggestions is for city government to create legislative districts to improve and decentralize community involvement.

The City of Portland was actively involved in improving race relations during the Civil Rights and Great Society activities in the 1960s. In the 1990s the name of the Office of Neighborhood Association was changed to the Office of Neighborhood Involvement in part due to the desire to expand the voice and involvement of underrepresented groups. 

Still, it remained difficult for minorities and people of color to use the neighborhood system because their issues frequently diverged from the issues of place-based citizens.

Finally in 2012, the Office of Equity and Human Rights was created to provide educational and technical support to city staff and elected officials involving issues of race and disability. Their work involves removing traditional barriers to the fair and just distribution of resources and opportunities to work with staff, employees and the many others involved with the work of the city of Portland.

The Diversity and Civic Leadership Organizing Project, located within the Office of Civic and Community Leadership (previously the Office of Neighborhood Involvement), is a capacity building program for community-based organizations. They work to strengthen the leadership skills and the management of participating organizations related to civic affairs in local government. 

Their work includes broadening the diversity of participation here, improving leadership, organization, development and communication, and improving community identity and livability with a focus on communities of color and immigrants.

Several of the current grantees are the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), the Latino Network, and the Native American Youth Association, among others.

Last summer’s protests, with thousands of Black and white activists in Portland mobilizing massive crowds, show that there is still more work to be done. 

Protestors are demanding that city and state leaders provide greater racial justice. Many of the demonstrations here began on the steps of Revolution Hall in the inner SE neighborhood of Buckman. 

These sustained protests have led to cuts in police funding, increased interest in alternatives to policing, a voter-approved overhaul of officer oversight and newly attentive segments of Portland’s white majority, mostly through the recent actions of city and state governments. 

In order to change appropriately, the city will need to expand its cultural views of ethnic communities in ways that support diversity and help everyone honor the differences among all people.

Portland’s Struggle with Diversity

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