Seattle and Portland are at or near the top of the 50 largest U.S. cities for the percentages of their residents who are white. Portland was No. 1, Seattle No. 5.
An African-American blues performer, Anita White often finds herself the only minority at her performances around Seattle.
“You get used to it,” she said with a laugh.
A lot of people have had to.
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Compared with other large U.S. cities, Seattle is pretty white.
Along with Portland, Seattle is among large U.S. cities in which the highest proportions of residents describe themselves as non-Hispanic white, based on 2010 census data.
In Seattle, 66 percent of all residents fit that category — the fifth-highest rate among the nation’s 50 largest cities — higher even than Wichita, Kan., and Minneapolis.
Seattle rose two notches in the ranking from a decade ago, in part because other cities experienced higher growth in their Latino populations.
Portland’s 72 percent white population was the highest in the country, a position unchanged from 10 years ago.
None of this comes as a surprise to people who move to the Pacific Northwest from other cities or who have lived elsewhere and come back home.
While Seattle has one of the highest concentrations of Asians in the U.S., the proportion of blacks and Latinos is among the lowest.
The absence is visible on the city’s streets, in restaurants and at many cultural events.
“It’s always been this way,” said White, 52, who works for the city of Seattle and lives in Renton. She spent eight years in Florida in the 1980s and ’90s before coming back to this region.
“People think because we are a large city that somehow we should be more diverse,” she said.
In a separate measure, which calculates the probability that two people chosen at random in the city would each be of a different race or ethnicity, Seattle also shows up as less diverse than other places.
It had the eighth-lowest diversity index among the 50 cities.
In fact, among Washington cities with at least 10,000 people, Seattle was ranked 19th, after cities such as Bellevue, Redmond, Lynnwood and Mount Vernon.
In the ranking of big U.S. cities, Portland remained unchanged at No. 3.
Detroit, with its overwhelmingly black population, was the least diverse.
Outcome of geography
Historically, Seattle’s demographic portrait has never varied much, despite the occasional boasting by community and city leaders of the city’s diversity.
Part of the explanation is geography.
Too far from population centers on the East Coast and in the South, Seattle and Portland are destinations — not way stations to anyplace else in the country.
“It’s not that Seattle is vastly more prejudiced than any other city,” said local demographer and geographer Richard Morrill, “it’s just a long way from Alabama and Texas,” states from which blacks originally migrated.
More important than diversity numbers is the way people live together and interact with one another, said Duduzile Dhlamini, who also works for the city of Seattle.
Born in the Kingdom of Swaziland, which borders South Africa, and the daughter of a career diplomat, Dhlamini said she was “shocked by the intolerance” she found when she lived in some Texas cities that are more diverse than Seattle.
It’s different here, she said. “And I think we are enriched by the diversity that we do have.”
The economic restructuring of the last 20 to 25 years affected Washington differently than it did Oregon, points out Quintard Taylor, professor of American history at the University of Washington.
Employers like Starbucks, Amazon.com, Microsoft and other technology companies have helped draw a more diverse population to Seattle.
“I always considered Seattle fairly diverse,” Taylor said, adding quickly, “Maybe that was only in comparison to Portland.”
Part of the explanation for Portland’s racial makeup may lie deep in Oregon’s past.
For more than six decades after outlawing slavery, Oregonians voted to ban blacks from the state, according to various historical sources. It was the only free state admitted to the union with an exclusion clause in its constitution.
Taylor believes the ban isn’t the chief reason modern-day Portland remains largely white.
The city, he said, never had the kinds of industries that drew black people from the South during war years, the way Boeing did for Seattle.
Many blacks who came to work in Portland’s wartime shipyards left after those jobs dried up.
Portland’s Asian community makes up only about 7 percent of the city’s population, about half that of Seattle’s. The city of Portland does have a higher percentage of Latinos than Seattle and nearly the same percentage of blacks.
“Sometimes it’s not that cities like Portland are doing anything wrong” when it comes to minorities, Taylor said. “It’s just that other places are more alluring.”
So what of it?
Blacks, who tend to feel more disconnected here because their overall population numbers are smaller and more scattered, say it leaves them unable to enjoy certain art and cultural experiences, such as theater and music, that are available elsewhere.
Additionally, services geared specifically to serve them — things as simple as hair-care products — may not be as widely available in a city like Seattle.
And some black residents say many of their friends simply don’t stick around.
White, the blues performer, said, “I’ve known (black) people who have left because it’s not diverse enough here.”
Dhlamini said when she’s feeling especially homesick, she heads to Washington, D.C., where there are not only more blacks but other Africans, including many from southern Africa.
“I can get my fix there,” she said, “right down to the food.”
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org