Rethinking Racism in America

This month The Atlantic published an article titled “The Racist History of Portland, the Whitest City in America”. I react badly to race-baiting, and the title of this article sounded like race baiting to me. However, I went to college in Portland in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and still have ties to the city. So I was curious. and read the article.


Portland when I was in college and now is a “blue” city, a hotbed of progressive politics. Oregon has no history of slavery. I was unaware that Portland also has a history of severe racism. The details shocked me, and I have seen racism. I was born outside of Dallas in the early 1960s and grew up in Texas. Worst of all, the evidence of Portland’s continuing racism was visible when I was there attending college, and I never noticed.

This article got me to thinking about many things, some of them outside of the subject of the article. I want to summarize the story that this well-written and informative piece tells before I go into my own thoughts.

The author, Alana Semuels, begins the article with the early settlement of the Pacific Northwest and the founding of the State of Oregon as a “free” state where slavery was banned. Unbeknownst to me, the original Oregon State constitution also banned black people from moving to Oregon, working in Oregon, or owning property in the state.

Additional details follow in quick succession. This early history did not go away with the end of the Civil War. It continued through and beyond the Civil Rights era, into the 1990s and 2000s. In the 1920s and 1930s, the mayor and other elected officials were photographed standing with members of the local Ku Klux Klan, showing their support for the organization. Except for a brief period during WWII, few jobs were available to blacks. During the war jobs opened in the shipbuilding industry, but those were lost when shipbuilders replaced black employees with returning soldiers after the war.

Throughout, the local government protected white citizens, not all citizens. Schools and government services in the Albina neighborhood, the small historically black neighborhood in North Portland, were noticeably worse than the in other areas of the city. The tools of exclusion changed over the years, as court decisions banned explicitly racist laws. The earlier ordinances that forbade landlords to sell or rent homes or commercial properly in white neighborhoods to blacks were replaced with bank redlining. The Albina neighborhood, starved of cash, fell into decay and was beset by predatory lenders.

When I remember the Portland I knew in the 1980s, I realize that I saw quite a bit of this. I just didn’t realize what I was seeing. Reed College, which had (and still has) a student body of around 1,000, in the early 1970s had a number of black students and an active civil rights movement. When I was there ten years later, Reed had one black student. The church I attended had a few black families, all of whom lived in Albina or outside the city limits, mostly in poor rural areas.

I rarely visited North Portland while I was in college. A few years later two college friends, however — being poor graduate students, new parents, and leftist activists — lived there. I noticed that the area looked “bad”, with lots of boarded-up shops along Williams Ave. and houses along side streets. The usual stigmata of prostitution and the drug trade were present. I tend to be unafraid to walk alone in any neighborhood during the day. I walked through Harlem alone when I was in New York. I would not have walked the streets of Albina alone.

In the past 25 years, urban renewal finally came to Albina. Mostly white, affluent Portlanders started buying up houses and fixing them up. The black community moved north, away from the gentrified areas. When gentrification followed them, many were unable to afford the increased property taxes and rents and moved away. Today North Portland is full of lovely shopping areas and high-end restaurants.

The African American community in Portland remains the smallest of any major US city. After reading this article, I’m shocked that it’s as large as it is. I *like* Portland. I think it’s a beautiful city, and moved away mostly because of severe allergies. But if I’d been black and grown up there, I’d have left sooner and for very different reasons.

My thoughts didn’t stop there, though. My mental image of racism as something associated with slavery and mostly past did not account for *any* of what I read in this article. I’d also always seen racism as the product of generations of excuses that white people made so they could live with themselves and their communities while they were stealing the hopes, freedom, and lives of fellow human beings whose appearance and ethnic background were different.

This article forced me to reassess. Racism in Oregon was only peripherally affected by slavery. The original settlers in Oregon appear to have wanted to build a utopian society. Their racism caused them to see black people and likely other people with darker skins and non-European cultural backgrounds as an obstacle to that goal. This led those who set the rules and wrote the constitution for Oregon to exclude people who did not (could not) fit in because of their appearance and heritage.

In other words, it looks to me less like the racism I grew up around in Texas, and more like the antisemitism that led up to WWII in Europe. And European antisemitism led to the holocaust. :/

I don’t want to think that American racism could lead to anything of that sort. However, German Jews of the late 1800s and early 1900s were largely assimilated, German-speaking, and fully embedded in German society and culture. German Jews in 1920 mostly believed that antisemitism was dying away and no longer a threat. Despite this, antisemitism combined with the economic and social problems in post-WW1 Germany to put these assimilated, *German* Jews in the role of the perfect scapegoats.

When I look at America and Europe in 2016, and see the rise of nationalism, nativism, and demagogues like Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Nigel Farage, Marie Le Pen, a score of “lesser lights” in Europe, and… Donald Trump…, I am genuinely frightened of the direction we’re going. Demagogues like these don’t crawl out from under their rocks unless conditions are favorable to their fear-mongering and lies. When demagogues grow popular in democracies, it means many people have quit believing that establishment political figures are willing or capable of meeting their needs.

Europe and America are facing a number of difficult economic and social problems, but two are key. First, governments chasing the riches of globalism have ignored the interests and needs of their own working class people, who have largely not benefited from it although more educated people have benefited considerably. Second, short-sighted democratic governments have allied with and supported corrupt and brutal dictators in many parts of the world, propping up leaders who would otherwise have been brought down by their people. This, in turn, has led to the current refugee crisis when these people fled repression and starvation.

So far, “the establishment” in Europe and America has not shown the willingness to do what is necessary to fix these problems. Mostly, they mouth platitudes and wring their hands. I give Angela Merkel in Germany high marks for refusing to let desperate people starve on her doorstep. She stands largely alone in her determination to do the right thing despite the cost, though, even among her own people. Many other political leaders in Europe and America are simply giving in to the unreasonable and unrealistic demands of their fearful citizens instead of leveling with them about the scale of the problem and the urgent need to find and pay for solutions that won’t make things worse.

Meanwhile, the demagogues are coming out from under their rocks. And the people who would normally ignore their fear-mongering and hate-mongering are listening to them. I will not be one of those people. I hope enough of my fellow Americans feel the same way to allow us to move onto a better path.

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