As the United States became more ethnically and racially diverse in the last decade, Portland did too — all while remaining the whitest big city in America.

In 2020, 66.4% of city residents identified as non-Hispanic white, according to census data, down from 72.2% a decade earlier and 75.5% two decades before that.

The latest numbers still leave Portland with the highest share of white residents among the nation’s most populous cities. That’s in part because Portland’s demographic changes have not yet outpaced those in other areas. But some demographers think growing Latino and Asian populations mean Portland by 2030 will no longer be the nation’s whitest big city.

Portland’s current demographics are a remnant of Oregon’s racist and exclusionary past, experts say, which discouraged people of color from moving to the state.

Oregon’s geography, historical racist policies and structural racism still seen today suggest that Portland’s current racial demographics are no accident — even as Portland is known as a liberal stronghold and the city’s image is often associated with hipsters, craft coffee and progressive politics.

One area where some say such structural inequities exist is Portland’s form of government, which does not allow for district representation and until recently resulted typically in white men winning seats on the Portland City Council. Voters on the November ballot will consider changing the city’s structure of government.

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Melanie Billings-Yun, chair of the charter commission recommending the overhaul, said Portland started out virtually all white and has stayed largely that way ever since, by design.

“Oregon was built on a racist policy … and it was a very unfriendly city toward minority populations,” Billings-Yun said. “As the city grew, more people started moving in, many of those racist laws are gone, but the legacy of those old laws can still be seen. And part of that legacy is this form of government that we have.”

Candace Avalos, who chairs the city’s Citizen Review Committee for police accountability and is also on the charter commission, said that those who hold leadership roles continue “to look very white.”

More broadly, the city’s growing diversity can help better connect residents with people, ideas and issues beyond their own life experiences.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t have the day-to-day experience of interacting with someone that doesn’t look like them,” said Avalos, a contract columnist for The Oregonian/OregonLive’s opinion section. “Because of that, a lot of people here are just really out of touch with what communities need.”

Exclusion laws and hostile climate

Historically, Portland’s demographic portrait has never varied much, despite the occasional boasting by community and city leaders of the city’s diversity.

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Part of the explanation is geography.

Carl Abbott, professor of urban planning at Portland State University, says Portland was farther away and harder to get to from population centers on the East Coast and in the South during periods of migration in the country’s early history.

“I think one of the important reasons that Portland has historically had a very small African American population is that it’s a long way from the South,” Abbott said.

While geography may be one factor, Seattle is even farther from those areas than Portland, and it has a higher share of residents of color, underscoring the importance of other factors.

The fact that Portland and the rest of the state have remained overwhelmingly white is no accident, said Darrell Millner, professor emeritus of Black studies at Portland State University.

In 1844, before Oregon became a state, the provisional government passed the first of a series of Black exclusion laws. It prohibited African Americans from entering the territory and required all former slaves who had settled in Oregon to leave. Those who failed to follow the order would be publicly whipped.

When Oregon entered the Union in 1859, it did so as a “whites-only” state, Millner said. The original state constitution banned slavery but also excluded nonwhite people from living there. Oregon was the only free state admitted to the union that had laws specifically prohibiting certain races from legally living, working or owning property within its borders.

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The state’s exclusion laws had a deterrent effect on potential Black immigrants, as the laws made it clear that Oregon had a hostile climate for Black people contemplating a move west, said Millner.

Oregon was anti-slavery largely to protect white settlers in Oregon — granted free land under the federal Donation Land Act of 1850 — who “didn’t want to have to compete with the institution of slavery,” Millner said.

“The wagon train era also happened during the time of the Civil War, so race was the most important issue at the time,” he said. “As controversies over slavery intensified during this time, many of those who settled West sought to exclude Blacks to avoid racial conflicts.”

By excluding people of color from the ability to own land, the vision of a white homeland in Oregon was embedded in public policy, Millner said.

He said the hostile racial climate continued to dissuade Black people from moving to Oregon between the Civil War and the turn of the 20th century.

“When you look at the state’s constitution in 1857, you will see that it goes beyond Black exclusion,” Millner said. “It says that Blacks cannot legally own real estate in Oregon and that they’re excluded from the court system, which means Blacks cannot participate in the judicial system or engage in business activities in Oregon.”

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It wasn’t until the 1940s, when World War II turned the Portland area into a major shipbuilding hub, that tens of thousands of African Americans migrated to Portland to work in defense industries.

Millner said discrimination in housing and employment persisted through World War II for African Americans and other people of color. Outside of defense work, they faced limited career opportunities and restricted housing options in Portland, Millner said.

After World War II ended, Portland did not retain as many defense-related jobs as did Seattle, and many Black people who came to work in the shipyards left after those jobs dried up, Abbott said.

“Some of those workers and their families stayed in Portland, and some of them went back to the South, or to California, wherever they saw opportunities,” Abbott said.

Some went north to Seattle, which had less overtly racist views and offered more maritime jobs. Others moved to California, which offered railroad jobs and had better weather.

Black residents who decided to stay were restricted to live in North and Northeast Portland because of discriminatory housing.

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OB Hill, a writer and community historian based in Portland, said his family was among those who moved from Alabama to Oregon, where his father found work in Portland’s booming shipbuilding industry during World War II.

Hill lived with his family in Vanport, a housing development built in just three months for the shipyard workers who flocked to the area during the war. At its peak, some 40,000 people lived in Vanport, including much of the city’s Black population.

But a catastrophic flood wiped out the development along the Columbia River in May 1948.

Hill points to the Vanport flood and the aftermath as a representation of how hard it was for Black families to put down roots in Portland during the 20th century. He said the flood caused many Vanport citizens to relocate.

“In Portland, the African American population is being moved around all the time. And stability is not something that goes from one generation to the next,” Hill said. “And I’ve witnessed this because I’ve experienced this.”

Disinvestment from the city and discriminatory development policies over several decades transformed the city’s historically Black neighborhoods in north and northeast Portland.

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While Portland’s Black population has remained relatively unchanged from 2010 to 2020, many close-in neighborhoods continued to see more Black residents leaving. The Black population in north and northeast Portland declined by 13.5%, numbers from the 2020 census show.

North and northeast Portland still have the highest concentration of Black residents of any part of the city, with nearly 11% of residents there identifying as Black or Black in combination with other races. But the share of Black residents on the eastern edge of the city and in pockets of Washington County has increased.

Moving to the suburbs

Portland residents identifying as Latino or Hispanic, or as two or more races, accounted for most of the city’s growth in the past decade.

Portland added about 70,000 residents during that span. Among those, about 17,500 identified as Latino or Hispanic, and about 23,600 identified as two or more races.

As a result, by the 2020 census about 11% of Portland residents identified as Hispanic/Latino and nearly 7% as multiracial, which was much higher than in 2010 and previous years, said William Frey, a demographics expert with the Brookings Institution.

Frey said that is partly the result of changes in the 2020 census question about race and ethnicity, “which can explain why there are many more people who say they’re multiracial than before, and maybe it’s part of why the white population has gone down since 2010.”

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The 2020 census used two separate questions to calculate race and ethnicity. One focused on Hispanic or Latino origin. The other focused specifically on race. The questionnaire included write-in boxes for Black or African American respondents for the first time, allowing them to list whether they are Haitian or Jamaican or Somali, for example. The surveys included similar boxes for white residents, allowing them to write in Lebanese or Egyptian or Italian.

Another part of Portland’s shifting demographics, Frey said, is because of the city’s proximity to Seattle and California, where Asians and Latino or Hispanic residents are highly represented. He said over the past two decades, Hispanic and Asian populations have been moving to more affordable areas adjacent to higher-priced coastal metro areas.

As a result of those changes, the city of Portland may no longer be labeled America’s whitest by 2030, Frey said.

He said he believes continued population growth among Latinos and Asians on the West Coast will likely drop Portland from its current designation, and “Omaha [Nebraska] is likely to displace Portland as the whitest city.”

While Portland is currently the nation’s whitest big city, that isn’t and hasn’t been true of the metro area as a whole — which includes all or part of Clackamas, Columbia, Multnomah, Washington and Yamhill counties in Oregon and Clark and Skamania counties in Washington.

Among the nation’s 50 most populous metros, the Portland area has the ninth-highest share of white non-Hispanic residents, at 69%, 2020 census figures show. It is more diverse compared with metro areas in the Rust Belt, such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Buffalo, New York, which remained mostly racially segregated with people of color living in the central city and white people in the suburbs. None of the eight whiter metro areas are in the West.

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Frey said that’s because Rust Belt areas have suffered population declines for decades, especially among younger groups, and don’t attract as many Latinos and Asians as West Coast metro areas such as Portland. Frey said many of the less diverse Midwestern and Northeastern areas often don’t have the jobs to attract people, either.

“Even though Portland is pretty white, it’s still on the West Coast,” he said. “Places in the Midwest or in the middle part of the Northeast, like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Grand Rapids, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Providence, Louisville, St. Louis, Columbus, are seeing white suburbs. And I think that that’s part because they’re not getting as much of the kind of the new migrants, or new minorities coming into their places.”

Washington County, long recognized as Oregon’s most diverse county, became less white as the Hispanic/Latino and Asian populations grew. From 2010 to 2020, non-Hispanic whites dropped from 69.7% to 60.8% of the population, while Hispanics grew from 15.7% to 17.9%, and Asians from 8.6% to 11.4%, census data show.

Greg Contreras, director of the College Assistance Migrant Program at Portland Community College Rock Creek in Hillsboro, said Washington County has a strong and rich Hispanic and Latino community, which has roots in the region from when the U.S. government brought Mexican workers to Oregon during World War II.

“Since then, many families built a community in Washington County. And in doing so, they established a strong network of community support systems that helped new people moving here find work in all kinds of industries, get settled and retain cultural identity,” he said.

“One of the things that makes Hillsboro an attractive place to live for Hispanics is the community feel, the neighborly vibe and how it’s cost effective,” he added.

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Contreras himself is continuing the work of community building through his role as a board member of Mente, a nonprofit dedicated to connecting Latino teens in Oregon with higher education and future career opportunities. The nonprofit holds an annual conference featuring workshops taught by Latino professionals representing different fields such as public safety, education, health care and community organizing.

For Pamela Slaughter, the legacies of Oregon’s racist history are reflected in what she sees in the lack of diversity and inclusion in outdoor spaces around Portland today.

Slaughter, founder of People of Color Outdoors, an organization that hosts outdoor recreational and educational events open only to Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color, said that lack of racial diversity in Portland can make it challenging for people of color to spend time in the outdoors.

“Portland’s people of color don’t really have a physical community to call home,” she said. “Unlike most Oregonians, I don’t always feel welcome or even safe outdoors in nature. Black people and other people of color sometimes experience verbal abuse, threatening behavior, and even physical attacks while enjoying the outdoors.”

Slaughter’s mother and grandparents were among those who moved to Portland in response to the urgent need for workers in the shipping industry during World War II, and they remained after Vanport was destroyed and they lost everything.

Despite what Mother Nature had done to the family’s home, her family developed a love for the outdoors that went on to span generations. But several negative incidents while out on the trails with her family began to take a toll on Slaughter and she eventually stopped going out for years.

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“After having just some really negative racist experiences, I just went online one day and Googled ‘Black people hiking together’ … so I would have someone to go out with and feel safer,” she said.

That led her to start a Portland chapter of Outdoor Afro in 2015, and then, eventually, People of Color Outdoors in 2017. Today, Slaughter’s organization has more than 3,000 members.

“I wanted to introduce people of color to the beauty Oregon had to offer,” she said, “despite its ugly past.”