Portland, Oregon, has long been known as a politically liberal city – and a place that is open to progressive ideas and lifestyles. A common expression about the northwestern American city is “Keep Portland Weird.” But recent events, including violent crimes and protests, are bringing attention to the city’s history with racism.
A liberal city with a racist past
Today, the city is a city of 600,000 people. About 72 percent of its residents are non-Hispanic whites, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. By comparison, about 64 percent of the U.S. population is non-Hispanic white.
In the 1800s, the city adopted laws aimed at discouraging African Americans from moving there. In the early 1920s, Portland was home to some 9,000 members of the white supremacist group Ku Klux Klan. And in the 1980s and 1990s, neo-Nazi hate groups formed in the city.
In recent years, Portland has seen few acts of racial violence.
But in May, a suspected white nationalist stabbed and killed two men on a train, after they tried to defend two teenage girls he was harassing. One of the girls was wearing a hijab. Both of the men were white.
The attack shocked much of the city -- and the nation.
Walidah Imarisha is an expert of black history in Oregon. She told VOA that communities of color were likely less shocked by the train attack.
“Being able to be surprised is an incredibly huge privilege that people of color in Portland have never had the luxury of,” Imarisha told VOA.
She said that many of Portland’s institutions, including its housing, education, and criminal justice system, have long favored white Americans.
Djimet Dogo is a Portland resident. He came to the United States from Chad 18 years ago. He arrived as a guest of the U.S. Department of State to speak on African democracy, and was later given asylum. He is now the Africa House Director at Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO).
Not long after Donald Trump was sworn-in as president, Dogo says, he and his three young children were eating at a restaurant in Springfield, Oregon. During the meal, an older white man walked up to Dogo and his family.
“[He] said, ‘You know what I like about black people? When they smile, you see a white thing in their face,’ and just walked away.”
A worker at the restaurant came over to his table in a hurry. ‘“That’s not fair. Sir, are you okay?’” Dogo says she asked him.
“I said, ‘Oh, I’m fine. I’m used to those kinds of things.’"
Today, about 10 percent of Oregon residents were born outside of the United States. Dogo says his and other immigrants’ sense of “home” is complex.
“We, either as refugees or immigrants, come here because you are scared from certain kinds of hate, and then you come here and see a different kind of hate,” he said. “You don’t know what to do.”
Opening old wounds
After the train stabbings in May, Dogo says fear among immigrant families in the area has risen.
“I was talking to a family days ago, and they said, ‘Well, if they can kill two white people, imagine what they are going to do to us.’”
Randy Blazak is a criminologist – an expert in the study of crimes and criminals.
He told VOA that Oregon has seen a rise in hate incidents. He says he believes Portland has experienced a pushback as a result of the city slowly becoming less white.
In 1980, about 85 percent of Portland residents were non-Hispanic white, compared to 72 percent by 2010.
“There is a wound that has been there for a very long time and it heals a little bit, and then an incident like this comes along and sort of rips it off, and we are reminded of all this anger and pain that has always been there,” Blazak said.
The anger was in full view during last month’s “Trump Free Speech” rally and anti-hate counter-rallies in Portland.
The “Trump Free Speech” supporters protested their right to freedom of speech – no matter who it upsets or offends. Many of them were white men. Some wore army fatigues, and put an American flag over them. They gathered on a federally controlled site.
The “anti-hate” protest groups gathered across the street. One of the groups was named “No Nazis On Our Streets.” They were protesting against the language and actions they saw as hateful toward minorities.
The two crowds of mostly peaceful protesters were separated by a thin line of armed police forces. They shouted opposing remarks, like: “Black Lives Matter,” or “All Lives Matter.”
Portland local David Willis was in the streets protesting as a “free speecher.” He denounced the train attack, but said he believed the mostly pro-Trump supporters still had a right to express their opinions.
“This is something I never felt was safe to do in Portland before, and now that there are others like me, I feel like I can come out and actually do this,” Willis said.
Taking their own steps
Some Portland residents are taking their own steps to address racism. They are attending a weekly group called The Bridge Project PDX. The group meets to discuss social issues centered on racism.
Teresa Floyd helped start the project after the Women’s March in January. She moved to Portland from New Jersey six years ago. She says she found a growing interest among white liberal women in the city to learn how to become better racial justice allies.
The Bridge Project PDX quickly grew to more than 580 women.
Floyd says changing people’s attitudes about racism involves communication. That includes, she says, communicating with family members or others in your life who you may not agree with.
“The change starts with us. It starts with families,” she said.
I’m Phil Dierking. And I'm Olivia Liu.
Ramon Taylor reported this story for VOANews.com. Phil Dierking adapted her report for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
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Words in This Story
allies - n. a person or group that gives help to another person or group
criminologist - n. someone who studies crime, criminals, and the punishment of criminals
fatigue - n. the uniform that soldiers wear when they are doing physical work
hijab - n. the traditional covering for the hair and neck that is worn by Muslim women
institution - n. an established organization
non-Hispanic - adj. someone who does not come originally from an area where Spanish is spoken or from Latin America
luxury - n. a condition or situation of great comfort, ease, and wealth
offend - v. to cause (a person or group) to feel hurt, angry, or upset by something said or done
privilege - n. a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others
progressive - adj. gfd
pushback - n. a negative or unfavorable response.
weird - adj. unusual or strange
wound - n. an injury that is caused when a knife, bullet, etc., cuts or breaks the skin